MIKE who? is the phrase on everyone's lips in Scottish media circles at the moment, but this is not a relative of the nation's favourite Timelord.

It is a response to the naming of Mike Gilson as the man finally chosen by Johnston Press to be the next editor of The Scotsman. Stand aside Andrew Marr. Step back Mark Douglas-Home.

Make way for the editor of Portsmouth's The News, who has never worked on a "quality" paper and has never worked in Scotland.

The decision is certainly not what anybody was expecting. The newspaper gossip in recent weeks had been that Douglas-Home, former editor of The Herald, had the job in the bag. He was understood to have won through in a second interview in early August over Independent executive editor John Mullin.

This might not quite have been in line with speculation that previously linked Marr to the job, but these were still big hitters in the Scottish media.

As the days ticked by, rumours even swept The Scotsman newsroom that former Sunday Herald editor Andrew Jaspan, now editor-in-chief at The Age in Melbourne, was in the frame.

The one thing that nobody was talking about was an internal candidate.

Neither deputy Ian Stewart nor Evening News editor John McLellan had been given a second interview, and the same seemed to be true of candidates from other Johnston papers, who did not seem to have the right experience or Scottish credentials in any case.

At the same time, well over 100 days had passed since John McGurk had stood down as editor. Surely the company would never take this long to settle on an internal candidate.

Yet that is what has happened.

The decision has been met with such astonishment that it has plunged Edinburgh into a deeper gloom than at any time since the darkest days of the Barclay brothers' tenure.

Gilson, 43, has been editor of The News in Portsmouth for six years, having previously held the same post at the Peterborough Evening Telegraph for four years. Before that, he was night editor at the Cardiff-based Western Mail and news editor at the Hull Daily Mail.

Colleagues describe him as an alphamale character who is approachable, is one of the boys and "enjoys the power and prestige of being an editor".

One says: "At Johnston conferences with lesser editors, he would let them know that he was the top dog."

He is said to have a tabloid approach to news, with a fondness for poster-style front pages and big pictures. "We compare ourselves to the Daily Mail, but not so raving rightwing, " says one source, adding that Gilson's politics are unknown. He professes to be on the left, but some say he is more truly "soft Tory".

His main priority is said to be news, with a great enthusiasm for big stories and investigations. "He is very supportive when he gets enthusiastic about something."

While colleagues from the Western Mail generally liked and respected him, they say he had little time for Wales or Welsh issues. Stories had to have something more universally appealing if they were to be included, which may not bode well for The Scotsman.

Campaigns have been at the heart of his approach, including a push for British veterans of second world war Russian convoys to win Arctic Star medals that led to a Campaigning Paper Of The Year award from the Newspaper Society.

Sport, particularly football, is another high priority for Gilson, a diehard Gillingham FC supporter. Meanwhile, features are expected to be news-driven and he is said to have little time for arts coverage. "He is not interested in anything arty-farty, " says a former colleague. Not perhaps the most encouraging news for a paper based in the city that hosts one of the world's biggest and best arts festivals.

The News does have a weekly business supplement, but there is little business news in the paper.

Gilson also has a reputation for being tough in union negotiations. Don Mackglew, assistant organiser for the National Union of Journalists, says: "We have met him on a number of occasions on issues of pay and holidays, which have resulted in taking it further up the line or going to [dispute resolution body] ACAS."

It is nevertheless easy to find reasons why Gilson might have been given the job.

Michael Johnston, son of former chief executive Freddie, was the managing director of the Portsmouth operation before he arrived in Edinburgh earlier this year. He knows Gilson and they are said to have worked well together.

Johnston is quieter and more introspective and was well complemented by his more bullish editor.

THE fact that his presumed preference has succeeded gives an interesting insight into his rising stature in the company. Money would have been an issue too. Having cleared out McGurk, who was said to have been on as much as GBP150,000, the company would have been able to save more with Gilson than with either Mullin or Douglas-Home.

The Sunday Herald understands that the Portsmouth News editor only earns around GBP60,000 in his current role, which would suggest that Johnston Press might have hired him for The Scotsman far below the going rate. If so, it could even be that he will be earning less than both his deputy, Ian Stewart, and the incoming Scotland on Sunday editor, Les Snowdon.

The other important reason why he has succeeded is that as chairman of Johnston Press's digital publishing working party he will be central to the company's emerging web strategy.

Johnston has already trialled a digital newsroom in Preston, taking steps to integrate online activities like blogging and podcasting with traditional journalism. With Scotsman. com already noted for its strong web presence, the group will want an editor who can take that forward.

The main question, however, is whether Gilson sounds like a man who can turn the main paper around.

Although all papers are struggling in the current market, the Edinburgh paper is arguably in freefall after a tumultuous decade at the hands of the Barclay brothers, Sir Frederick and Sir David.

By the time Johnston bought The Scotsman Publications for GBP160 million at the beginning of this year, the paper was on its seventh editor in 10 years and morale had been all but destroyed. According to Audit Bureau of Circulation figures, actively purchased sales were down 11per cent to just 52,170 in July, compared to a decline of 7per cent at The Herald and much smaller (though not directly comparable) declines at The Press & Journal in Aberdeen and The Courier in Dundee.

Gilson's own newspaper's performance does not increase confidence that he will make inroads into this. Sales at The News are down 19per cent since the beginning of the decade, compared to 24per cent at The Scotsman. As one wellplaced source says: "I don't think Johnston has understood what The Scotsman is and I don't think it has grasped the terrible place the paper has been in over the last five or 10 years.

"It really needed somebody who could reconnect with Edinburgh in a very immediate sense."

Although neither Michael Johnston nor Gilson were made available to answer these questions, one response might be that people misunderstand Johnston's strategy.

It has made much of wanting to take the paper back to its Edinburgh establishment roots, but it could be that it feels more comfortable with making The Scotsman more parochial.

This has after all protected the Dundee and Aberdeen quality papers to some extent (although Gilson was quoted in The Scotsman as saying that The Scotsman is a "Scottish paper first and foremost").

Whatever the case, Gilson is likely to have the fight of his life on his hands when he arrives in Edinburgh. Time will tell whether he has what it takes to survive.


THE FACTS Johnston Press stunned observers by installing Mike Gilson as the new editor of The Scotsman even though he has no experience in Scotland.

BACKGROUND On second thoughts, the appointment makes some sense because Gilson knows Scotsman MD Michael Johnston and chairs its digital newsroom working group. But can he turn the struggling paper around?


www. thenews. co.

uk For a look at the web version of Portsmouth paper The News, which Gilson edits.