Johnston would not comment with specific reasons, but said in a text message it had been “an enormous privilege editing the Sunday Herald Sun and then the Herald Sun for the past 11 years … I’m looking forward to a new adventure in journalism at The Australian“.
People close to him say it was simply a case of it “being time” after 11 years running the Melbourne tabloid. Others are not so sure.
The well-regarded Johnston was editor of the Sunday Herald Sun for four years from 2008 before taking on the top job. His lengthy tenure is not unique – Chris Mitchell ran The Australian for 13 years – but relatively uncommon among the News tabloids where editors tend be shuffled by executive chairman Rupert Murdoch relatively often.
Media observers note the Herald Sun is more moderate than The Daily Telegraph, currently edited by Ben English, and The Courier-Mail, whose editor Sam Weir will take over the Herald Sun in 2020. Current Victoria editor for The Australian David King is moving to Nine Entertainment Co’s The Sunday Age as editor.
Several of Johnston’s high-profile editorial decisions show a different approach to his northern cousins. One senior figure at News Corp pointed out he did not run a contentious “gotcha” article about Bill Shorten’s mother that was published on the front page of The Telegraph under the headline “mother of invention” in May before the federal election. The article was widely criticised, including by Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt. Johnston also decided against running a Telegraph story that accused actor Geoffrey Rush of sexual harassment (The Courier Mail published the article). Rush sued for defamation and was awarded $2.9 million in damages – the largest payout to a single person.
Some people believe Johnston’s more moderate politics put him offside with his bosses at a time when Lachlan Murdoch – who is close to conservatives such as former prime minister Tony Abbott – was becoming more influential at News Corp. (News Corp’s local boss, Michael Miller, would not comment on the reasons for the reshuffle). They point out that his new job at The Australian is a sideways step at best although he is now in a stronger position to take over from Dore or editor John Lehmann should either leave. There is a perpetual rumour within News that Lehmann is looking at other opportunities.
Certainly Weir is a more traditional News Corp editor with tabloid instincts. During his two years in Brisbane he went after the state Labor government while also attacking Shorten during this year’s federal campaign. The front page of his federal budget edition depicted a road sign promising “REWARD” if the Coalition was re-elected and “RISK” with Labor.
Other media observers dismiss the theory that political differences cost Johnston his job. They say Weir’s promotion is simply because he is a good candidate. And News executives accept the Herald Sun should be more toned down because Melbourne readers tend to be more moderate than Sydney and Brisbane.
From a readership perspective the Herald Sun is one of News’ best-performing mastheads with an average print audience of 900,000 from Monday to Friday and 691,000 on Saturday, according to the latest Enhanced Media Metrics Australia data. The Australian has 424,000 on weekdays and 491,000 on weekends. Across all platforms the average readership in September for the Melbourne tabloid was 4.21 million, making it the fourth-most-read in the country compared with The Australian’s 3.42 million at fifth place.
Another theory about Johnston’s departure concerns changes News has made to its tabloids aimed at cutting costs. The Herald Sun has lost or cut many journalists over the past two years. There has also been speculation about the centralising of some content and editing, though senior figures denied there had been any major changes.
Another area of discussion has been an internal email sent by Johnston to staff, relating to a story about magistrates clerk Ashleigh Petrie whose relationship with Victorian magistrate Rod Higgins became front-page news in the Herald Sun in October.
On October 11, in an internal email, Johnston said the online reports attracted 93,000 subscriber page views and 30 subscriptions. “To put that into perspective, a story is considered a digital success if it gets 2500 page views or one sub,” he said in the email, published by ABC’s Media Watch in early November. A source close to News Corp said the email annoyed management as it disclosed that 2500 views was considered good when “they say something else to advertisers”.
Regardless of the reasons for the changes, Johnston will take up his new post in 2020 with The Australian. No doubt his next moves will be watched closely.
Jennifer Duke is a media and telecommunications journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.