Canny Scot who modernised tech and built an empire

May 16, 2022 at 09:31 pm by admin

When Freddy Johnston returned as works manager to the ‘family business’ of the Falkirk Herald in 1964, it was at the start of a technological revolution and of great things for the Scottish publisher.

Johnston, who died this month aged 86, steered the company into web-offset printing – with the acquisition of a new Solna press – and photocomposition.

And following the death of his father in 1973, he led the company, F. Johnston & Co on a programme of acquisitions which led to the creation of the nationwide business of Johnston Press.

In the Falkirk Herald this week, Jill Buchanan recalls the life of the man who was involved with the running of the company for more than half a century, building it from a handful of Scottish titles to 200 daily and weekly newspapers.

He had retired as chairman in 2001 and stood down from the board as a non-executive director in 2010, but “never lost his appetite for news or the media industry,” she says.

The fourth-generation publisher – his family had been involved in printing since 1767 and bought the Herald in 1846 – “was no hard-nosed hack or media mogul, but a gentle, dignified man who regularly made time to speak with the journalists, printers and other staff involved in the production of his newspapers.”

Born in Edinburgh in 1935, he had lived in Falkirk, where their home was requisitioned by the Canadian Army during World War II, Dunblane and Crieff, leaving for National Service and an extended army career which took him to Uganda – under regimental sergeant major Idi Amin – and led to him learning Swahili so he could chat with local people.

Back briefly to the Falkirk Herald before reading history at New College Oxford, he took the traditional route of ‘learning the ropes’ with other publishers, working as a journalist with Liverpool’s Daily Post and Echo, and as assistant company secretary at Times Newspapers in London. There he met his life partner, home economist Ann Jones, before being approached to return to the family business.

After his father’s death – and with managing director Tom McGowran, who was later to hold a similar role with Tindle Newspapers – the company “made its first foray south of the border” to buy the Derbyshire Times, then the second-largest selling weekly newspaper in England, following up with more papers in Yorkshire, Sussex and the Midlands.

In 1988, as Johnston Press plc, the business was floated on the London Stock Exchange. It bought the Halifax Evening Courier in 1994, Emap’s publishing interests two years later, and in 1999, Portsmouth & Sunderland Newspapers, the company with which I had started my own newspaper career before returning to our own ‘family firm’ and the transition to offset – in 1968.

Freddy Johnston was chairman from his father’s death until his own retirement in 2001 but remained on the board. In 2006 the company bought the Scotsman and sister mastheads for £160 million.

The story of the group’s mixed fortunes, post financial crisis, has been well documented. A canny Scot, Johnston was to see it fall into administration with debts of £200 million, leading to its sale in 2018.

With his wife Ann, Johnston had moved to Edinburgh, to Ludlow in Shropshire, and more recently Wimbledon, where his funeral on June 10 (North East Surrey Crematorium at 11.20am) will be followed appropriately by a celebration at Hotel du Vin.

He is survived by Ann Johnston, sons Michael and Robert, their partners Claire and Nick, and grandchildren Kathleen, Patrick, Angus and Grace.

Peter Coleman

Picture Falkirk Herald

Sections: Newsmedia industry


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