FROM a top secret bunker in the studios of Taggart to show-downs with MI5 and government, the Sunday Herald has been on one hell of a 20-year journey. Here, the paper’s last editor, Neil Mackay, tells the inside story

IT began as Project White – a top secret scheme to cook up a new paper for a new century, a newspaper that would go on to define modern Scotland.

The first inklings of Project White took shape in February 1998 thanks to Gus Macdonald. Macdonald had risen from humble beginnings as an apprentice in the Govan shipyards to become one of the most significant figures in Scottish journalism. A glittering career saw him rise to director of programmes for STV by the mid-1980s and, after Tony Blair took power in 1997, he was made a life peer, taking his seat in the Lords as Baron Macdonald of Tradeston. He went on to become Minister of Transport and Cabinet Office Minister.

Macdonald, today in his mid-70s, was a powerful and influential man in the late 90s. At the end of 1997, he was appointed non-executive chairman of Scottish Media Group, then owners of both STV and The Herald. As a leftwing big beast in the media, Macdonald was a man uncomfortable with the state of the Scottish press – for both political and business reasons. He felt the right-wing tilt of the Scotsman skewed the national debate, and also worried that The Scotsman – combined with its sister paper Scotland on Sunday – was a threat to both The Herald’s circulation and advertising revenues. So he hit on an idea – what if The Herald had a Sunday title as well …

One of the other big beasts of British and Scottish journalism in the 90s was Andrew Jaspan – a gifted maverick and an inspirational leader who had edited The Observer, The Sunday Times Scotland, The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday. In early February 1998, Jaspan received a phone call from Macdonald out of the blue. Macdonald asked if they could meet in the House of Lords.

“Back in the 1970s,” Jaspan says, “Gus would have wanted a blether over a pint of beer, in the 1980s it might have been a glass of wine, now he tempted me with ‘tea served in the finest House of Lords’ bone china’.”

Macdonald had a simple proposition: would Jaspan be interested in setting up a new Sunday paper? Jaspan quickly agreed and soon he and the CEO of Scottish Media Group, a reserved but affable and media-savvy former accountant called Andrew Flanagan, met in London. Flanagan asked Jaspan to come up with a feasibility study – how much would this paper cost, how many staff would he need, how much money could it pull in, and most importantly: what would the paper stand for. Jaspan was told to keep the entire scheme utterly under wraps. Not a word was to be breathed to anyone.

Gary Hughes, Flanagan’s deputy, told Jaspan it was to be called "Project White". Jaspan asked why – Hughes replied "because we have given you a blank sheet of paper".

What followed next was a five-month period of intense and secretive work by Jaspan in order to get the figures right, mould the editorial philosophy, and come up with the branding and marketing for a new paper for Scotland – one of the most crowded newspaper markets in the world. By the end of August, Jaspan delivered Flanagan his masterplan.

He wanted to create a paper that felt young and aspirational.

The world had changed drastically by the time 1998 came to a close – the age of deference was dead, the Cold War was over, the Good Friday Agreement had been signed bringing peace to Northern Ireland, and Scotland was soon to get her own parliament again. Facile as it may sound today, back then "Cool Britannia" – a cocktail of Britpop, the craze for young British artists like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, fashion designers like Alexander McQueen, a new youthful Labour government, and a growing economy – seemed to sum up a country brimming with hope and change.

“History was in the making and I wanted a paper that would embrace this change,” Jaspan says. When it came to the new era of devolution, he wanted the paper to “welcome the opening of a new chapter for Scotland. That’s not to say the paper would be a cheerleader, but we would give the new constitutional arrangements a chance to succeed, and pounce on any ill-thought out policy or actions”. It was, then, to be a paper both positive about Scotland – there would be no "Scottish cringe" – and a watchdog over those in power. But what would it be called? From the get-go, the title that became the frontrunner was the "Sunday Herald".

“This instantly told readers that the paper was part of The Herald family, but of course a new Sunday paper,” Jaspan says. “We had messed around with other neutral names, but no others were seriously considered. The upside was that this would be an easier sell to Herald readers – that is, to ask them to drop Scotland on Sunday and chose a west coast Sunday, the downside was that Edinburgh readers might still shy away from a Glasgow paper.”

But the Sunday Herald was never intended to be just a Glasgow paper. Capturing sales and ad revenue on the west coast of Scotland was merely the first step to securing the financial future of a new national title, a newspaper which saw itself on the world stage, not on simply the British or Scottish stage.

With the title and vision in place, Jaspan needed to give the paper "a look". How to design a paper that wanted to be different to every other paper on the news stands? This was a paper that wasn’t going to talk down to readers, or tell them how to think – it would take for granted that readers were intelligent and well-read, that they wanted information and entertainment, not dull instruction from above. The look of the paper had to reflect that very modern approach to news.

So, one of the most talented designers in European newspapers made a trek north to Glasgow. Simon Esterson had won plaudits internationally for his work on the redesign of The Guardian’s G2 section. To Jaspan, when it came to designing the new paper, Esterson was the only person for the job. Perhaps the best way to explain how radical Esterson’s design was is to ask you to turn to the front cover of this paper and look at the masthead – the title is all in lower case, the colours vivid primary blue and red. It 1998, this was a radical approach to newspaper design, and a dramatic way to signal a break with the papers of old. The Sunday Herald was to be simple, elegant – a canvas for what would go on to be award-winning photography and journalism. As the first new paper of the 21st century, Jaspan wanted to “produce journalism to read, not flick through”.

The paper was to have six elements: five printed sections – News, Seven Days (made up of features, arts, books and culture), Sport, Business, Jobs and a magazine – and, crucially, one digital section, a website, marking the Sunday Herald as the only paper to embrace online at this stage. Back then, The Herald and The Scotsman still had no web presence. After the Sunday Herald launched – using its website as an integrated part of the paper – The Guardian, now one of the world’s most popular news sites, soon followed suit.

By now, everything was in place – apart from people: the staff who would make this still imaginary venture take life. And it was the people that made the Sunday Herald. Anyone – and I mean literally anyone, apart from a few sad souls who just didn’t get the spirit of the paper – anyone who has worked on the title will say without hesitation that not only did it give them the best years of their careers, but it often made their careers, and it made them friends – and sometimes lovers – who last with them until this day.

The first two people to be brought onboard were Charles Magee – a consummate journalist who has mastered every art in the industry – and Richard Walker, one of the most talented, hardworking journalists in the UK. Both had worked with Jaspan at Scotland on Sunday. Magee was to work on a publishing system – a bit like building a bespoke desktop printing press from scratch – and Walker tirelessly fine-tuned design. The three-man team holed up in a backroom in STV that stored the props for the crime show Taggart, working in secret to keep opposition newspapers in the dark.

With the foundations now in place, Jaspan went to the board of directors of SMG in September 1998 and got final approval to launch the paper – the only member of the board who seemed less than enthused was David Montgomery, the notoriously dour Ulsterman who had set up the now defunct Today newspaper, and was then running Mirror Group, which had a stake in SMG. Despite the board’s support, there was a sting in the tale for Jaspan: the board wanted the paper launched by the end of January 1999. He had three months to get one of the most ambitious media projects of the last half-century off the ground, and an entire team – more than 50 staff – to hire.

“I wanted to recruit a cadre of journalists,”Jaspan says, “who would relish the challenge of working on a new paper, which would be a beacon of editorial excellence in everything it did. I wanted to hire journalists who had fire in their bellies – those who wanted to prove themselves rather than those hacks who just wanted to play the safe game and sleep-walk to their pension. I wanted free thinkers who would give the paper a feel of being new and different, so that we would not just be another ordinary Sunday newspaper.”

In the end, that thought – "No Ordinary Sunday" – would become the tag line for all Sunday Herald marketing and branding. But it also helped Jaspan focus his mind on the kind of people he wanted working for the new Sunday Herald.

He quickly assembled a team, pillaging the best talent from opposition titles in Scotland and London – what better way to get the jump on Scotland on Sunday than taking its gunslingers and have them turn their firepower on their old employer. When staff were hired they were a little taken aback to find themselves each given a beanie hat … emblazoned with the logo "No Ordinary Headline".