Jonathan Ashby, founder of celebrity and entertainment news agency WENN, has died aged 66.
Described as a “true media visionary” by one colleague, the father-of-two began his journalistic career at the East Anglian Daily Times before going on to Fleet Street.
He contributed to showbiz columns at the Evening Standard, Sun and Mirror – becoming good friends with singer Boy George along the way – before getting his own column at the Sunday People called Sunday Brunch under then editor and friend John Blake.
Blake was writing a showbiz column for the Standard when he gave Ashby his first break on Fleet Street.
Blake told Press Gazette: “It’s the end of an era. Today you would need a degree to get into journalism but he just walked in and had ideas and stories and was fantastically successful.
“He was very eccentric but a fantastic journalist and just had a natural talent. He was a lovely, fabulous character.
“He was a proper old fashioned hippy, very sweet-natured, kind and hard-working. If you mentioned John, people would always smile.”
Former colleague David Hancock said Ashby was a “larger than life character” and a “consummate provider of entertainment stories”.
He said it was Ashby who broke the story of Beatle George Harrison’s cancer diagnosis in July 2001, though his reputation took a blow after the story was vehemently denied by Harrison’s people. Harrison died from the disease in November the same year.
While working as a London correspondent for America’s ABC News Ashby founded WENN (World Entertainment News Network) in 1989, serving as its CEO until 2001 when he was forced to step down due to ill health.
Under his leadership the media group expanded into photography, radio and TV divisions. It now has offices in London, Los Angeles, New York and Berlin.
Group chairman Lloyd Beiny described Ashby as “a true media visonary”.
He said: “Ever-charismatic and passionate, Jonathan was beloved by those he mentored and encouraged.
“Many of the young journalists who came through the doors of WENN, the company he created from his home in the London suburbs, went on to become top journalists and TV personalities around the world.”
He added: “All those who have been at WENN over the years, including our current workforce, owe him a massive debt of gratitude.
“He gave many young minds direction and purpose, and also offered the occasional waif and stray the chance to shine among the best of the best – and become a part of the WENN family.
“He will be greatly missed by family, friends, acquaintances and colleagues.”
Ashby, who had bipolar disorder, went on to become a passionate mental health advocate and ran Forward Publishing, a global mental health news and information network.
He died on Wednesday last week, days before his 67th birthday. He leaves behind daughters Jessica and Juliette from his marriage with ex wife Jackie.