Roger Alton, who left The Times after five years as executive editor last week, has criticised newspapers that have a default position of: “the world is shit, and here are some bad stories about it".
Alton said Times editor John Witherow, like him, recognises that newspapers are there to “entertain as well as inform”.
The former Independent and Observer editor described The Times as a “phenomenal operation”. He told Press Gazette: “Until you come from outside The Times and into The Times you don’t realise… what a formidable operation it is.”
He added: “It’s brilliantly edited and extremely well produced, and it’s got very, very, very good stories. And it’s got a very high story count.
“And it looks extremely up-to-date… it’s the most contemporary of all the papers around at the moment… and at the same time it’s got this tremendous legacy in history. And so the combination of those two things is pretty unbeatable.”
Alton described former Times editor James Harding and Witherow as “both extremely talented people”. He added that the current editor is “much better than I am”.
The Times has consistently outperformed its rivals in terms of year-on-year circulation change in recent months, according to ABC figures. Asked why this might be, Alton said it was a “symptom, if you like, of a title that is extremely well edited… good news, well marketed, very well edited, well written, well done”.
He also said that The Times and editor Witherow know the importance of “balance”. “You’ve got to try and entertain as well as inform.
“Some newspapers – very much not The Times, and I hope not any paper that I’ve ever worked for, really – the default position is: the world is shit, and here are some bad stories about it. And I don’t think that’s what papers should do. And I know John doesn’t think that either.”
He added: “You should feel better when you read your paper rather than worse.”
Asked what his highlights of the last five years at The Times have been, Alton cited the newspaper's “brilliant investigations, notably on tax and Andrew Norfolk’s investigation into sexual abuse”.
He also praised the paper’s campaigns on cycling safety and its recent coverage of King’s College plans to demolish and redevelop buildings on the Strand in London. An editorial described the plans, which have since been paused, as “nasty and brutish”.
He said the Strand coverage was a “small scale” example, but added: “A website wouldn’t have done that – couldn’t have done that. That’s how newspapers can change things.”
He added: “Newspapers can do things that basically nobody else can, no other media organisation.”
Asked whether his departure from The Times was a retirement, Alton, 67, said: “I don’t think so. I love journalism, I love newspapers, and I think I know my way around newspapers and journalism as well as anybody, so I wouldn’t want to get out. Far from it.
“I want to stay involved in newspapers and all sorts of other things. I mean, I think I could… certainly manage the reputation of damage to Thomas Cook, for example, a bit better than what actually happened. For example.”
Alton joined The Times after stepping down from being editor of The Independent in 2010. He previously edited The Observer for ten years, between 1998 and 2007.
Liz Gerard, a former night editor of The Times, has paid tribute to Alton on her blog, SubScribe. Read it here.