by Sarah Lagan
Senior editors of Johnston Press’s The News Letter and Derry Journal, Austin Hunter and Patrick McArt, respectively, have both left their papers amid speculation that a third of the jobs will be cut at Johnston’s Northern Ireland publishers, Morton Newspapers.
Editor-in-chief of The News Letter, Hunter (pictured) leaves the paper after just two years for "health reasons" while McArt who was group editor, leaves the Journal after 25 years at the helm.
Hunter was recently given extra responsibility as editorial director of 16 titles, including those under Morton Newspapers. Johnston Press acquired the publisher last year as well as publisher of The News Letter, Local Press. It is understood that having to overlook the redundancy program had been the "final straw" for him.
Hunter claimed The News Letter, which describes itself as the oldest surviving English-language paper, saw its best circulation for eight years in the last set of ABCs bucking the trend of sliding circulation in the morning market.
Circulation rose 0.7 per cent to 28,616.
A senior source told Press Gazette: "Management is looking to cut jobs by around 25 per cent to a third in the Morton Newspaper Group which Austin had just been given responsibility for. I think this was the last straw.
"Journalists are disgusted with the way they have been treated, especially with the proposed move to split editorial and subs. The company is looking to put the subs in Portadown for production, with half the news desk in Belfast and half in Portadown."
This is the third time in the last four years that The News Letter has been left without an editor following the previous departures of Geoff Martin and Nigel Wareing. The paper has no deputy editor, but two assistant editors: Helen Greenaway, who works the day shift, and Rankin Armstrong, who works nights. The news comes as Johnston Press has appointed chief executive of the Newry and Down Democrat Tom Brennan as managing director of the Derry Journal Group.
Divisional managing editor Jean Long paid tribute to the editors in a statement and said: "Johnston Press will be investing heavily in these businesses and I think there are exciting times ahead. We are, as always, interested in getting the best people into the company."
Hunter would not comment – but said in a statement: "It is with sadness that I leave the company – but feel the time is now right to take life easier.
"When I am asked in my retirement what I did during my career I will always proudly say I was editor of The News Letter."
In an in-depth interview with the Derry Journal, McArt, who is one of the longest serving editors in Northern Ireland, said: "Life’s like a day on the beach. Eventually the tide comes in and you know it’s time to get off."
Johnston said it is now looking for "top quality journalists" to replace Hunter and McArt.