Jaspan's departure heralds a new age

WHEN Andrew Jaspan called the Sunday Herald’s heads of department together for an unscheduled meeting late last Wednesday afternoon, most had a good idea what he was about to tell them.

The editor of the Glasgow paper confirmed to his senior management one of the worst-kept secrets in Scottish journalism - that he was joining the Age in Melbourne after five years at the helm of the Sunday Herald.

Jaspan’s likely departure had been known by the senior management for some time, but they had not attempted to persuade him to stay. Indeed, rumours that he wanted to leave Glasgow had been circulating after articles tipping him for the Age job appeared in the Australian press in June.

Jaspan had tried to deflect the rumours but despite his denials, few in Scotland - particularly in the Sunday Herald’s Cowcaddens offices - doubted he was on his way out.

On the other side of the world, news of the appointment was met with a mixture of surprise and anger that the Age was not hiring a local newspaperman.

Most staff at the broadsheet learned of Jaspan’s appointment on the front page of The Australian newspaper on Thursday morning.

Jaspan was later introduced to 30 senior Age staff in a video link meet-and-greet but he was said to have been given a frosty introduction, with not one of the senior editors asking him a question.

Margaret Jackson, a director at the Age’s publisher, John Fairfax, resigned the next day.

When Wednesday’s meeting in Glasgow was over, senior staff filed out of the room and the news spread like wildfire.

Journalists at other papers were told within minutes and the post-mortem of Jaspan’s five-year editorship began shortly afterwards.

The 51-year-old editor sharply divides opinions in the Scottish media. Some praise the man and his work; others dislike him and his methods.

But assessing his success in the area where it ultimately counts - circulation - is more straightforward.

When Jaspan, a former editor of the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Observer, launched the Sunday Herald in February 1999, parent company SMG set a circulation target of 50,000 in the first year.

Commercially, doubts existed about whether the title could be profitable on these sales and many said the venture would soon fold.

Within a year, Jaspan was claiming he had built an average circulation in the second six months of 1999 of 54,300 - down on its first half figure of 57,813.

This was achieved using heavy discounting and partly through intensive TV advertising courtesy of SMG, owner of the STV and Grampian franchises.

It was also suggested that the paper’s full price circulation was actually under 40,000, when bulk sales and reduced price sales were stripped out.

Despite the availability of free television advertising throughout the paper’s history, Jaspan has failed to push circulation to anywhere near a profitable level.

His cause was not helped when SMG decided to sell its publishing division - which also included the Herald and Evening Times - to US newspaper giant Gannett for 216m at the start of last year.

"He thought the new owners represented a sound purchase but they were a cost-conscious organisation to put it mildly," one former insider said.

In February 2003, Audit Bureau of Circulation figures showed the full price Sunday Herald’s sale was 52,700 copies. Including 2,596 lower rate sales and 3,392 giveaways, the average sale between July and December last year was 58,708.

One former Sunday Herald staffer said Jaspan had become used to working to tight budgets under SMG, but grew frustrated under Gannett, which had led to his departure.

He said: "Andrew has been working tightly within budget for a long time, with people working long hours.

"But he found there was just no scope for any increase in resources and he became more and more frustrated."

Jaspan has also enjoyed mixed fortunes editing other titles. At Scotland on Sunday, where he was responsible for an initial increase in sales, circulation in the six months to June 1994 was an average of 89,745 copies. That circulation was achieved without any rival Scottish publications deliberately targeting the same audience.

In the six months between January and June 2004, Scotland on Sunday’s circulation was 83,893, continuing to outperform the sector despite the assault from the Sunday Herald.

In August 1994 Jaspan was appointed editor of The Scotsman and stayed only until February 1995. In that time he increased the number of pages, created a separate business and sports section and boosted the number of features pages. But sales were no better than under his predecessor, Magnus Linklater, and 1994 ended with circulation down 2.1% on the year before, and down 1.9% on January-February 1994. Jaspan left to join the Observer, but it proved to be a bad move.

Sources at the paper at the time said two senior Observer staffers - John Price and Mark Rosselli - began working against Jaspan behind the scenes after being overlooked themselves for the top job.

The paper’s staff, who favoured an internal appointment, were also said to be incensed by Jaspan’s early decision to carry out an intrusive time and motion study to examine working practices.

Staff lobbied behind the scenes to have him removed and he was sacked, having failed to increase circulation. "It was a classic Fleet Street hatchet job," said the former insider.

Jaspan’s departure from the Sunday Herald will be amicable, but management at Newsquest are said to be in no hurry to find a successor.

Cowcaddens insiders say that Newsquest regional managing director Tim Blott has been more than happy with the paper produced by the Sunday Herald team in Jaspan’s absence through most of this month.

That puts deputy editor Richard Walker in a strong position to succeed rather than the daily Herald’s deputy Joan McAlpine, the current favourite. It is understood McAlpine has already begun putting forward her case for the job. Kevin McKenna, her fellow deputy editor, was being strongly tipped by insiders on Friday night.

An internal appointment is thought to be the most likely as Newsquest continue streamlining the operation.

Whoever gets the job will face the loss next year of the television advertising deal with SMG, which gave the Sunday Herald millions of pounds of free advertising. But fears that Newsquest would instigate a major cost-cutting exercise after its 216m takeover have so far proved unfounded.

Blott has recognised that a different approach is required to tackle the fierce competition in central Scotland. While extra resources are unlikely to be forthcoming for the incumbent, neither is it likely that any cost savings will be as savage as some fear.

The vacancy allows Blott to build a stronger management team after a difficult relationship with Jaspan - something he shared with his predecessor Des Hudson, who passed over Jaspan for the editorship of the daily paper in favour of Mark Douglas-Home in July 2000.

At the time Herald insiders said Jaspan failed to get the job not only because of what was perceived as an unreasonable attitude to other members of the senior management team, but because of fears he would turn the daily into a slow, six day a week Sunday, as he had done with The Scotsman.

Blott is also said to be keen to build better working relationships with other publishers - something that proved almost impossible because of Jaspan’s habit of publishing attacks on senior industry figures, often of a highly personal nature.

Readers of the Melbourne Age will doubtless be treated to regular potshots at Rupert Murdoch and his family.