John Witherow has been a national newspaper editor for 21 years, first for The Sunday Times and then for The Times since January 2013.
This means that when Paul Dacre, 67, retires from the Daily Mail, Witherow, 63, will be the longest-standing national newspaper editor.
But Witherow, who sits alongside him on the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee, is not holding his breath. “Dacre’s going to stay on as long as he possibly can,” he tells Press Gazette in a rare interview.
Is that what you think, or what you know? “I know that’s what he intends,” answers Witherow. “He’s a relatively young man – only 67 or something.” (Dacre pictured, right)
Previous Times editor James Harding was squeezed out of the job by proprietor Rupert Murdoch, but looking at the paper's performance, Witherow looks unlikely to go the same way.
The Times has been the best performing national newspaper, in terms of year-on-year circulation change, in each of the past 17 months. In February 2013, shortly after Witherow took charge, its circulation was 393,814. Last month, its average circulation was 394,240.
Admittedly, last month’s count included 23,828 bulk copies, and this figure was 18,547 in February 2013. But over the same period, The Daily Telegraph’s circulation has dropped from 541,036 to 474,981, the Daily Mail’s from 1.8m to 1.6m and The Sun’s from 2.3m to 1.8m.
Why has The Times outperformed rivals over this period? “Obviously, the brilliance of the newspaper – the fact that people love it,” says Witherow, adding: “We are competitively priced” – the weekday Times costs £1.20, cheaper than the Financial Times (£2.70), Guardian (£1.80), Independent (£1.60) and Daily Telegraph (£1.40) – “but we’re not so competitively priced that it’s damaging us or losing money… so we want to keep that advantage.
“And I think people like the newspaper. We are retaining readers who might in another time have just abandoned newspapers altogether. We have a loyal readership.”
Scotland accounts for a small part of The Times’s readership. But Witherow points to the fact that, over the last year, the newspaper’s circulation there has grown from 18,243 to 19,868 while other newspapers have struggled in the area. He says: “We are outselling The Scotsman, which is remarkable. It’s an indigenous, important Scottish newspaper.”
Witherow adds: “And people like the approach of The Times. They like the fact that it’s pretty straight, it’s centre/ centre-right in its coverage, but in news it tries to give a straight account so people make up their own minds. A lot of other papers are more slanted now, partially because of the competitive nature of journalism.”
Witherow believes that, with rolling news available for free on the internet, “newspapers have to distinguish themselves": "For a paper like us, with a subscriber model, we have to provide better comment, analysis and scoops, basically, to make people think it’s worth it.
“People like newspapers, the readers like newspapers to be uncovering things, because they feel that’s what they should be doing. And if they’re just getting a run of stuff that’s available anywhere else, they will stop subscribing.”
A key to The Times’s success, according to Witherow, is investment in journalism. “We have not cut back on journalists, if anything we have invested in them.
“And that’s our firm commitment… people will only pay for subscriptions if you have quality. You shoot yourself in the foot by cutting back on journalism, because they won’t subscribe and then our whole model falls apart.”
Last year Times reporter Andrew Norfolk won Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards for his work exposing the Rotherham child abuse scandal. And the judges for the British Journalism Awards, which mainly celebrate campaigning and investigative journalism, have noted the high standard of more than 300 entries this year.
Is UK investigative journalism currently going through going through something of a boom?
“It’s been said for many years investigations are in trouble and then hark back to Thalidomide or something,” says Witherow. “Actually, there are more investigations going on now, I think, by newspapers than at any time.
“And it’s certainly something we want to drive on The Times. The Mail has raised its game hugely I think this year. The Sunday Times keeps going at it.
“Papers that invest in journalists, which those titles do, are doing a lot of investigations. So I think it is a great period.”
Paywalls and profitability
As well being commended for its journalism, and being rewarded with a stable circulation, The Times, along with The Sunday Times, also celebrated profitability – of £1.7m – for the first time since 2001 last year. “And as far as we can see, that profit will grow in the years ahead.”
Why? “One reason is our digital. We’ve increased the price of digital and we have, on both titles, about 170,000 digital subscribers. And this – because there’s no cost of delivery and all the other things, which is obvious – this is a highly profitable part of the newspaper now. And people are prepared to pay quite a high price for digital.”
Witherow says the newspaper’s tablet app is the most successful part of its digital offering: “About 70 or 80,000 people spend 40 minutes on that every day. And they really like it because it’s a half-way house between a website and a newspaper – they find the migration from a newspaper to a tablet really easy.”
The Times website, which is set for a “significant” revamp in the near future, is behind a full paywall. How much does this strategy help the newspaper?
“Clearly it does. You’ll know from your own experience, if you can get free content, you won’t necessarily buy the print product.
“So we have quite a rigid paywall. The downside is we don’t have the reach that, say, The Guardian or the Mail has. But the upside is, yes, it encourages people to buy in print or to subscribe.
“And you get a very selective audience, a very informed audience, that we have to cater for – a very demanding audience, and rightly so, rather than one spread across the globe that might come in once a week or something. It’s a loyal readership because they pay.”
Witherow says The Times has experimented with giving some content away for free online. “The balance is: How much do you put out free to encourage subscriptions, and how much do you not? And we and the FT and The Economist have pretty tight paywalls. We like the clarity they bring – not getting ten stories and then you have to pay, which I think just irritates people.”
At the end of this month, The Times’s sister title The Sun is making all of its content free online after two years behind a paywall. Why did its paywall fail?
“I think papers where you supply extra material or foreign news or business news, a lot of analysis, a lot of comment, and good commentators, people are prepared to pay for.
“The problem The Sun had was that there was so much good free content out in its marketplace: you know, whether it’s jokes or stories and everything – and humour. It’s incredibly difficult to charge for that, and that’s the problem they ran up against."
Last year, then Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger (right) described the paywall as a “19th century business model”. “Well, I think we’re proving him wrong. He himself, I remember talking to him, didn’t rule out paywalls for The Guardian. In the end, everyone’s looking at what works.
“If The Guardian has sufficient money to fund a free site, which costs it a huge amount of money, that’s fine for it. But we actually want to make The Times and The Sunday Times profitable – because we want to secure the future of them and of the journalists.”
In recent months, The Times has been highly critical of the online presence of the BBC. In September, an editorial headlined “Broadcast Behemoth” condemned the fact the licence fee-funded broadcaster’s news website brings it into “direct competition with local and national newspapers”.
Witherow says: “The BBC was set up as a broadcaster, and obviously radio migrated into TV. It was not set up as a publisher. And it’s become de facto, with nobody agreeing to it, a publisher spending more money on, essentially, the printed digital word than we spend by a long way – and, I’m sure, [what] you spend and almost everybody spends.
“And this is undermining regional newspapers and, I think, national. If you can get good content from a state-sponsored publisher, you’re less likely to subscribe to papers like ours. And if we want a diversity of media, it’s really important.
“I don’t think they should be a publisher. I think they should put up their content, their broadcast and radio content, online with maybe a few words or something. But they shouldn’t be blogging and writing articles – that’s not what they were set up to do. And it’s a back-door state publisher.”
The Times also regularly concerns itself with press freedom issues in its news and editorial pages, condemning Government press regulation plans, police abuse of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the proposed watering down of the Freedom of Information Act. “You’ve been very good on FoI. And we absolutely back you on that,” says Witherow.
Press Gazette’s petition calling on the Government not to weaken FoI has been signed by more than 42,000 people.
“I think any attempt to restrict FoI is a really retrograde move, and I hope they don’t do it. But I suspect they will try something. We know Blair hated it, we know Cameron doesn’t like it – so they’re going to do something.
“The truth is, papers like ours, and for you and for regional newspapers, it’s been invaluable in exposing what’s going on in Government – which is one of the prime [reasons] we exist. So we’re opposed to any restrictions on that.”
He adds: “We have to be very vigilant on freedom, because we find the police very unhelpful these days. And, really, they’ll use the press when it suits them, but a lot of the time they’ll give no information.
“And this is partially, I think, as a result of the phone-hacking. They’ve swung too far one way. The police really need to play a better role in communicating with the press, I think.
“As it is, our readers and all newspapers’ readers are quite ignorant about a lot of things that are going on because the police are now so secretive. And you find, actually, we get more access to GCHQ and MI6 than we do to the police. How’s about that? I’d have never said that a few years ago.”
Have recent criminal trials involving journalists and public sector sources led to a chilling effect on journalism?
“I can’t cite examples, but I’m sure that effect is taking place, that people are frightened and inhibited [from] coming forward now.
“They’re confused about the law, they’re confused about these trials where some go to prison and some are freed and are not convicted.
“I think there’s an atmosphere of intimidation out there. Which is a real problem, because we all want whistleblowers. Without them, whole areas of public life are not exposed.
“It’s amazing, actually, how loyal and secretive people are in this country to the organisations they work [for]. I think that not enough go to the press.
"And I think one of the problems the press has had in this whole scandal [is] that everyone’s been dragged down by it and the press is not seen as much as it used to be as a campaigner and spokesperson for people. They’ll go to some other source other than the press to expose things, which we’ve really got to turn around.”
Is this as a result of the hacking scandal and the Leveson inquiry? “I think so. All the prosecutions, post-Leveson – the polling shows the public never had a very high opinion of the press, but I think it’s got even lower, and stayed lower. These things happen – they’re scandals, they come and go – but I think the press has taken quite a hit out of that, which will take years to recover from.”
Did you become more timid as an editor around the time of the Leveson Inquiry in terms of the stories you ran?
“I can’t think of specifics, but I would say I think everybody became more cautious and more worried about the impact of anything that they were doing.
“And I think reporters become more cautious so that as an editor things didn’t even come to you because of a form of self-censorship from reporters who were worried about things. Because they were confused: Who can you talk to? Ridiculous stories emerged, that you’d been infringing the Official Secrets Act and things, so people were scared… So there was a sort of filter taking place.
“And I think for a while – I don’t think that exists now – I think for a while there was a dampening effect.”
Would you have covered the material leaked by Edward Snowden (pictured) in the same way The Guardian did? Or at all?
“It’s a really tough question. We’re much more critical of Snowden than they were," says Witherow.
“The main accusation of the intelligence service is: ‘You have really damaged what we do by this.’ And we would have tried to get the thrust of what he got out, but the public interest thrust without doing that – what they’re alleged to be damaging.
“And when it’s a live story that’s very hard to judge, because they’re telling you this is damaging, and sometimes they exaggerate. So you’ve got to form a judgment on what is likely to damage and what isn’t. But you’re talking from a position of greater ignorance… so it’s difficult.
“I think as a newspaper we couldn’t have ignored it, but we would have approached it a bit more cautiously.”
How much of a challenge is it dealing with intelligence stories, and police stories to an extent, when you’re in a position of greater ignorance than the authorities?
“We don’t get much where they say: ‘Really, please don’t publish this because it could damage.’ If they were to come along with this, you’ve got to listen to what they’re saying and you’ve got to form a judgment: Is it convincing?
“What we’ve found is that because of the debate that’s going on, the intelligence services are far more co-operative now than they’ve ever been. They wanted to get stuff into the public domain and we did a big series on GCHQ – editors have been taken around GCHQ – because they needed to communicate.
“This is a positive thing, I think. It also helps you form judgments better. When you have a story, could it be damaging? And, in the current climate of what’s happened in Paris and the threat to this country, people have to be fairly cautious. But it is still our aim to publish as much as we possibly can.”
Do you believe that some media outlets’ coverage of Snowden leaks damaged national security?
“That’s what they tell us, and in stuff they’ve shown about how suspects and terrorists are using greater encryption and new methods.
“It’s not just The Guardian, it’s the effect it’s had on some of the big providers like Google and others who are having more encrypted stuff. They say this is a real problem now and they can’t track terrorists, and this is largely as a result of Snowden.
“Now, I have no reason to particularly doubt what they’re saying, they may exaggerate a bit, but I think there is some truth in it.”
To publish or not to publish
Are there any stories you regret not publishing?
“Yeah, lots – lots that other people have that are good. But that’s what I like. You look at other papers and say: ‘That’s a really good story, I wish we had it.’”
One of the most sensational stories of this year was the claim that David Cameron inserted a private part of his anatomy into a dead pig’s head. This was the Daily Mail’s splash story on the first day of its serialisation of the Prime Minister’s biography, Call Me Dave.
Witherow says that if The Times had serialised the book, which is in his office, he would not have printed the allegation.
Are there any stories you regret publishing? “Yeah, lots. And I’m not prepared to talk about them.
“Inevitably, you make gaffes. But not that many, and the more experienced you get, the fewer gaffes you make, you hope, because obviously you learn from them…
“Inevitably mistakes happen on a daily newspaper. We try to eradicate them and we try and learn from them, but we should always correct them and, if it’s a horrible mistake, you apologise. And I think that’s only right.”
Do you think that the Independent Press Standards Organisation is tougher than its predecessor, the Press Complaints Commission?
“In theory it is, because it’s got greater powers. It hasn’t had a real crisis yet to be able to judge that.
“I know Alan Moses intends it to be. And if a scandal emerged he would take probably a tougher line than the PCC would’ve, but it hasn’t been tested yet.
“And in a way it shows that its kind of working, that the press hasn’t gone nuts. And it did at times over Madeleine McCann and things, it really did go nuts.
“And I think now that wouldn’t happen. I think IPSO would step in much more quickly and stop it.”
Did The Sunday Times ever go nuts? “… No, not nuts.
“You know, we were first on to [disgraced cyclist Lance] Armstrong, exposing drugs? We were sued and we lost. We had to settle, we didn’t have enough evidence. And in the end the authorities exposed him and we were vindicated.
“And the same on FIFA. The press can set these things up and say there are problems here without necessarily getting all of the information.”
How do your two editing jobs, on a Sunday and then a daily, compare?
“The Sunday is a stressful job, because you only get 52 shots a year and if you don’t get it right, it really hurts.
“Whereas on a daily, if you don’t get it right, you put it right the next day. That’s the best part – it’s a relentless machine, the daily. You’ve got to turn it out, you’ve got to maintain, improve quality, you’ve got to do the best you possibly can.”
Having worked across both Times titles, Witherow is Rupert Murdoch’s longest serving editor in the UK (both pictured, above). Do you have a good personal relationship with him?
“I hope so! I don’t know, I haven’t asked him.”
Does Murdoch have much involvement on the editorial side of the operation?
That’s one for the conspiracy theorists?
“Yes. You only have to look at various things: I think he was an advocate of Scottish independence, we were not. He doesn’t interfere with The Times and Sunday Times – The Sun is a different matter – but he doesn’t.”
When Witherow was named editor of The Times it was rumoured that Murdoch wanted to merge the daily and Sunday titles. Do you think this will happen in the future?
“No, for a number of reasons. One, when he took it over there were legal commitments to keep them separate and there’s no desire to change those.
“Secondly, The Sunday Times is the bigger circulation and more profitable part, so you would do nothing to damage that. So you have to keep investing in the journalism of The Sunday Times.
“And if you believe that’s the way forward, there’s no merit in merging them because they have to be separate. You don’t want to erode any of The Sunday Times journalism by making them work during the week.
“They’ve got to be separate to break lots of stories and we’ve got to do our own thing. So there’s no intention of breaking that.”
Relentless curiosity, a refusal to give up and a huge competitiveness
Witherow says: “What I love about British newspapers is how competitive we are – I think the most competitive newspapers in the world. And when you go abroad and compare newspapers with here, they are exceptionally good here.
“Every day we look at the opposition and some days we say they’ve done better than us, and other days we say we’ve done fine. But I like that because that’s the way we all improve.
“And I think over the years newspapers have got better and better here. Because of competition.”
In what way have newspapers improved?
“If you go back 20 or 30 years, it was very rigid. People worked on dailies or Sundays and they did it differently. The dailies took no notice of the Sundays, really.
“Now you’ve had journalists move back and forth and have brought a Sunday approach into daily journalism, so you get greater depth on a daily basis than you used to, if you go back and compare newspapers.
“Newspapers are bigger, much bigger, than they used to be – you get far more content, you get superb writing, and it’s still very competitively priced.
“I think readers get amazing value. People tell me they spend three or four hours reading The Times and they say: ‘For £1.20 that’s the best value of anything I get.’”
Witherow enthuses about the quality of journalism in newspapers, but does not speak much about website news content. Do you think Buzzfeed’s doing well? What do you think of Mail Online?
“I think Mail Online is an amazing tip-off service. It’s very nice of it, that’s what Dacre says, being very nice to us.
“The websites are really impressive – I think the Telegraph’s good. We use them as a resource.
"And I think in a way that has driven on the quality of journalism again. Because you can see what’s out there all the time and then you think: How do we move it on? How do we give readers, 12 hours later, something different and in greater depth?
“The Mail is extraordinarily comprehensive – it just goes on and on.”
And Buzzfeed? Does you take it seriously? “I don’t really read Buzzfeed. I look at Twitter, which is really good for news.”
What makes a good journalist or editor?
“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.”
And how long will Witherow keep going as editor of The Times?
“As long as they’ll have me.”