Daily Telegraph editor Paul Whittaker’s place in News Limited’s power structure has received a major boost this morning following the departure of Sunday Telegraph editor Neil Breen after six years editing the country’s top-selling paper.

Breen’s departure has been widely anticipated since Kim Williams announced in March that News Ltd’s metro papers will shift to a seven-day roster, with staff to work across weekday and Sunday publications. This represented a particularly dramatic change in Sydney, where The Sunday Telegraph and Daily Telegraph have traditionally maintained strong separate identities. In the absence of an over-arching editor-in-chief, the editors of both titles have had equal standing in the company and exercised autonomy over their own publications.

With Williams’ roster announcement, however, it was clear that either Breen or Whittaker would assume control. A more integrated future, with Whittaker at the helm, now beckons — though the crucial position of NSW editorial director is yet to be filled.

Kim Williams and national editorial director Campbell Reid were keen to find another role for Breen at the company and it’s no wonder. With a circulation of 610,253 and readership of 1.3 million, The Sunday Telegraph has been the country’s highest-selling paper under his watch. It comprehensively trounces its Fairfax rival The Sun-Herald every weekend.

Breen is the latest in a long line of editorial heavyweights to leave the newspaper industry this year. Others include Sydney Morning Herald editor-in-chief Peter Fray, SMH editor Amanda Wilson, The Age editor-in-chief Paul Ramadge and Herald Sun editor Simon Pristel.

Australian Women’s Weekly editor Helen McCabe, who worked as The Sunday Tele‘s deputy editor under Breen, this morning said News Ltd had lost one of its “big personalities” and most talented editors.

“It’s been one of the best papers in the country under his leadership,” McCabe told Crikey. “He has an incredibly innate sense of what matters to people’s everyday lives. He’s an intuitive editor who spends his nights listening to talkback radio under his pillow. He’s a force of personality; he tells a great yarn in the office.

“He is a passionate, loud, opinionated, dynamic editor.”

In a statement this morning, Breen said:

“This decision has taken me six months to reach and I make it with both a heavy heart and excitement about a future career outside of newspapers. I know my decision will be interpreted by some that I have either been sacked or had a falling out with management over the changes taking place in our business. I want to stress nothing could be further from the truth. This is purely a personal decision I have made and I found it very, very difficult to tell both Kim Williams and group editorial director Campbell Reid. Kim, Campbell and the News management team are doing a fantastic job in transforming the business.  Their drive to ensure we use every resource at our disposal to do a better job by our customers is the right course. I will be cheering what I am sure will be their ongoing successes from outside the company.”

Breen has worked for News Ltd for 20 years after beginning his career as a cadet at the defunct Brisbane afternoon newspaper The Daily Sun. Following his stint at the Sun, he spent a decade at The Courier-Mail where he worked as police reporter, chief-of-staff and sports editor. He won a Walkley in 2002 for exposing an Australian Rugby Union cover-up of positive drug tests by star Wallaby Ben Tune. Before taking over at The Sunday Tele in 2006, he worked as The Australian‘s sports editor and launched News’ men’s magazine Alpha.

During his tenure the Tele has delivered many cracking tabloid scoops, including film star Ralph Fiennes’ mile-high s-x romp with a Qantas flight attendant and swim star Grant Hackett’s battle with an addiction to Stilnox sleeping pills. Breen would probably rather forget the publication of n-de pictures of Pauline Hanson, which later turned out to be bogus.

Breen will continue to edit the paper until the end of October and then depart the company. A replacement has not yet been announced.