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27 September 2022

Who will replace Britain’s longest-serving newspaper editor?

John Witherow has stepped down as editor of the Times. The succession pits an “old-school news hound” against an approachable, modern boss.

By William Turvill

Change is coming at the Times. After months of gossip and speculation John Witherow announced today (27 September) that he was stepping down with immediate effect as editor of the newspaper, after nearly a decade in the role.

Witherow has been on medical leave since June. Staff have not heard much from him in the meantime, although some spotted him in a box at Wimbledon, while Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of the Sun, claimed on Twitter that Witherow had recently flown to Montana to thrash out an exit agreement with Rupert Murdoch, who owns the newspaper. Witherow returned today to Times HQ, the News Building near London Bridge station, to break the news to staff, who gathered outside his office at midday.

Witherow, who was until today Britain’s longest-serving national newspaper editor (he replaced Andrew Neil as editor of the Sunday Times in 1994 and moved to take charge of the daily newspaper in 2013), will become chairman of Times Newspapers. As yet there has been no official announcement about who might replace him but many insiders believe that his deputy, Tony Gallagher, has been chosen and will be confirmed as editor on Wednesday.

Gallagher, 58, probably has the most impressive CV of any active British newspaper editor. He rose through the ranks of the high-pressure Daily Mail newsroom over two stints; he edited and led the Daily Telegraph through its contentious, but ultimately lauded, coverage of the MPs’ expenses scandal; he survived five years as editor of Murdoch’s British tabloid, the Sun. In early 2020 he transferred to the Times as deputy editor.

If Gallager does land the job he will have beaten competition from Emma Tucker, the Sunday Times editor and a former Times deputy editor. It is now said that Tucker may move to the Wall Street Journal, another title owned by Murdoch’s News Corp. Gossip linking Michael Gove, who was a Times journalist before becoming a Conservative MP and cabinet minister, with the editorship always seemed wide of the mark, according to insiders. However, some would not be surprised to see him return to the newspaper in some capacity.

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Gallagher is thought to have established himself as editor-in-waiting at the expense of Tucker over the summer. With Witherow on medical leave, Gallagher has stepped up as caretaker editor. Even before this Witherow had dropped down to a four-day working week, leaving Gallagher to take charge of the Monday and Tuesday editions of the newspaper.

Without doubt Gallagher has the background to succeed in the job. Insiders say he performed solidly through the summer (although he faced criticism after the Times mysteriously withdrew a story about Boris Johnson trying to make his now-wife, Carrie, his chief of staff while he was foreign secretary). Whoever succeeds Witherow will have a tough act to follow, however.

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Witherow’s Times has established a reputation as a well-regarded newspaper of record that balances investigative journalism with thorough news coverage and a sprinkling of fun. It returned to profitability for the first time in 40 years under his leadership and managed to retain print readers through the 2010s as rivals struggled. Between January 2013 and December 2019, its circulation fell 7 per cent from 399,000 to 370,000. Over the same period the Daily Telegraph’s print run fell 43 per cent, from 556,000 to 318,000.

As well as filling the shoes of a journalistic giant, the newspaper’s next editor will inherit some new and significant challenges. Many Times and Sunday Times insiders see their news organisation as being at a crossroads editorially, strategically and culturally.

Under the leadership of Witherow the paper has remained consistently right of centre, endorsing Conservative Party leaders in the 2015, 2017 and 2019 general elections – it has not backed Labour since 2005. The Liz Truss administration may present a challenge to this approach. In August, during the Tory leadership battle between Truss and Rishi Sunak, a survey of readers found that the former chancellor (who the Times endorsed in July) was the preferred candidate. The same internal polling, shared on the newspaper’s intranet, suggested readers in general were more likely to vote Labour than for Truss or Sunak at the next general election.

Strategically, the Times will have to decide whether to risk damaging its print circulation by putting a heavier emphasis on building digital subscriptions. Witherow’s Times had already changed its daily schedule of conferences to prioritise the digital edition. At the end of June the Times, Sunday Times and Times Literary Supplement had approximately 445,000 digital subscribers. This compared with 578,000 at the Telegraph, which makes more use of introductory offers, and around a million at the Financial Times. Internationally, it lags even further behind would-be rivals in America: the digital subscriptions market leader, the New York Times, had more than eight million digital subscriptions at last count.

The other major issue that will probably have to be confronted in the coming years concerns the relationship between the newspaper and its sister title, the Sunday Times. Although both are owned by Murdoch the newspapers have traditionally been run as separate entities, with fierce competition between reporting teams. In modern times they have been forced together digitally with a shared website. This year Boris Johnson’s government lifted a decades-old legal restriction that protected the independence of the two newspapers. Today the Times and Sunday Times share resources across several editorial departments, including sports, travel and money. The titles also now both operate on the 11th floor of the News Building, having been on separate levels before the pandemic. The company would save money and boost profits by pooling further resources. But any move to do so, particularly in the news and politics departments, would be contentious.

There also exist cultural differences between the Times and Sunday Times. Insiders I spoke to raised questions about how well Gallagher’s Times might work alongside Tucker’s Sunday Times. Tucker has a reputation as an approachable, modern boss. As well as editing her newspaper, she is said to have a strong interest in making content work well online. Staff say she has built a youthful newsroom and has no issue with her reporters dressing down in the workplace – few Sunday Times men wear suits and ties nowadays, and Tucker herself has been spotted around the office in her gym gear on Saturday mornings. Editorially, close observers say the newspaper has become more centrist under Tucker. She is cautious about becoming embroiled in culture wars and dissuades writers from using the word “woke”.

By comparison, Gallagher is seen by many as an “old-school” editor and a “hard news hound”. Because he started shortly before the Covid-19 crisis, many Times journalists hadn’t seen much of him until relatively recently. Gallagher is said to be quiet by nature, and he can come across as standoffish, but he is well liked and respected by many who have worked closely with him. Throughout his interim leadership Gallagher has been known to sit out in the newsroom, on the “backbench”, rather than directing proceedings from Witherow’s office. One staffer questioned whether Gallagher would show sufficient commitment to the digital growth of the Times. Another source dismissed this claim, saying that News Corp would not consider appointing an editor in 2022 who was not committed to the company’s digital-first strategy.

Whether it is the “news hound” Gallagher, the “modern editor” Tucker, or even Gove, Witherow’s replacement is likely to be responsible for overseeing a time of great change at Britain’s oldest daily national newspaper. And they can be sure that Murdoch will be watching them closely. In his leaving speech to staff today Witherow revealed that Murdoch has a “soft spot” for the Times and Sunday Times, and that he regards them as “the best two newspapers in the world”.

[See also: We should fear TikTok’s influence on news media]