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September 27, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:17am

John Witherow to stand down as editor of The Times

By Dominic Ponsford and William Turvill

John Witherow is to step down as editor of The Times with immediate effect after nearly a decade in the role. He has been appointed chairman of Times Newspapers.

In a meeting at The News Building on Tuesday, Witherow announced the move and told staff that his successor would be named on Wednesday.

[UPDATE: Tony Gallagher named new editor of The Times]

Staff expect the job to go to Tony Gallagher, his deputy since 2020. Emma Tucker, editor of the Sunday Times, was also linked with the position, as was Michael Gove, a former Times journalist turned Conservative MP.

Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of News Corp, said in a statement: “John is one of the great editors of his generation and he can look back on an outstanding career. His leadership of both The Sunday Times and latterly of The Times has taken each paper from strength to strength, breaking stories that have resonance around the world.

“His skill in crafting a quality newspaper that sets the agenda and is an enticing read is unparalleled. I am very proud of The Times and The Sunday Times and my sincere thanks go to John for his immense contribution to journalism over the past 42 years. I am delighted that he will stay with the business and take on the role of chairman.”

[Read more: John Witherow reveals Rupert Murdoch’s ‘soft spot’ for The Times and Sunday Times in outgoing editor speech to staff]

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Witherow said: “Throughout my career as an editor, I have always been aware that I have had the heavy responsibility of preserving the reputation and success of these brands so they can continue to succeed for future generations.

“I believe that The Times is an authoritative, credible, responsible and trusted part of the nation’s cultural heritage and it has been my honour to be the editor. Our industry has been through immense change but The Times is thriving and I am proud every day of its agenda-setting journalism. I am grateful for the opportunities Rupert Murdoch has given to me, his support and his investment in journalism through the decades. Thanks to him, the future for The Times is bright.”

Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp, said: “During my time as editor of The Times, I admired the journalistic excellence of The Sunday Times, which was an artful blend of headline-snatching scoops, the finest writing and superior craft under John’s sage leadership. He brought those same enduring qualities to The Times, which was much enhanced under his editorship, and patently became a global beacon of editorial integrity at a time when journalistic standards around the world have slipped perceptibly and profoundly. John’s positive impact on journalism and on society will resonate for many, many years to come.”

Rebekah Brooks, CEO of News UK, said: “The Times is an exceptional newspaper, highly regarded around the world and known as the paper of record. Under John’s editorship, we have some of the finest writers and the best journalism in Britain which makes it an unmissable read. John has overseen the transition from print to digital, ensuring that The Times is now a highly-creative, multi-channel media operation with a healthy digital subscription business. In John’s new role as Chairman, I know he will continue to share his wisdom with both the business and editorial teams.”

Witherow has been on medical leave since June and returned to News UK’s office in London on Tuesday to announce the news to staff.

John Witherow’s 42-year career at Times titles

A long-standing News Corp employee, Witherow first joined The Times in 1980. He succeeded Andrew Neil as editor of The Sunday Times in 1994 and moved to The Times in 2013.

He presided over The Sunday Times during its high-water mark in profitability terms.

Up until the mid 2000s sales of The Sunday Times were steady at around 1.4m copies per week and it was the profitability powerhouse of News UK (then called News International).

These were the years after the move to Wapping when owner Rupert Murdoch smashed the power of the print unions and heralded in an era of print profitability helped by streamlined high-tech production.

When Witherow moved over to edit The Times, print circulation of The Sunday Times had begun to decline and had dropped below one million. Today its print circulation sits at around half that figure.

The future of The Times titles was secured by the launch of an online paywall in 2010 (ahead of the market) and an unusual edition-based online publishing strategy. Each daily edition of The Times and Sunday Times is not an endless website, as with most rival publishers, but instead a distinct edition which is replicated on an app and is similar to a print-style reading experience.

The Times and Sunday Times focused on quality and invested in journalism  and investigations in the 2010s to create a point of difference for subscribers at a time when some publishers were chasing clicks.

Print circulation of The Times has declined during the Witherow years from 400,000 to around 300,000 copies per day today.

But print decline has been offset by paid-for digital growth. Today The Times and Sunday Times have more than 400,000 digital subscribers.

The challenge for the next editor of The Times will be to grow those digital subscribers and create online content that is sufficiently compelling for readers to pay for.

Possibly because of the presence of The Guardian and BBC, the UK has one of the lowest take-up rates for news subscriptions in the world. Just 9% of Britons pay for any online news and most only take out one subscription.

Digital subscriptions have stimulated growing profits at Times Newspapers in recent years and helped pay for phone-hacking fuelled losses in News UK’s tabloid division. Last year Times Newspapers tripled its pre-tax profits to £34m.

Times under Witherow hard to pigeonhole politically

During the Witherow years The Times has been one of the few UK national newspapers that has been difficult to pigeonhole politically.

The Times was neutral in its coverage of Brexit. Press Gazette analysis showed The Times was uniquely even-handed in its coverage of the various Partygate scandals at Downing Street.

The Times was however strongly criticised in June this year for a decision to publish, and then pull, a story claiming Boris Johnson wanted to install his then mistress Carrie Symonds as chief of staff when he was foreign secretary.

Witherow was away at the time but it seems unlikely he would not have been consulted about the decision.

Witherow was close socially to the Johnson circle, and in May 2020 was photographed by a paparazzi leaving Rachel Johnson’s house after giving her a lift home from a tennis club during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Witherow Press Gazette interview

In one of his rare media interviews, Witherow told Press Gazette in 2015 about what makes a good editor.

He said: “I think relentless curiosity, a refusal to give up and just a huge competitiveness. Those really are important.

“I like it if reporters get upset if they’re scooped on a story and they want to get back on it.

“You’ve got to be competitive, you’ve got to be curious, you’ve got to enjoy just breaking stories.

“Because you don’t come into journalism for the money, do you? So the buzz is your byline, writing and making people uncomfortable a lot of the time.”

Picture: Reuters/Andrew Winning

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