Richard Johnson, Digital, Really?

Richard Johnson, really? No, seriously, what business do Richard Johnson and Jesse Angelo, two ink-stained print lifers from a newspaper that has famously bled billions, have launching a national iPad newspaper?

Johnson, who edited The New York Post’s Page Six for 25 years, has moved to Los Angeles to head up News Corp.’s upcoming subscription-based newspaper that will be distributed on tablets. Last week Johnson nabbed former Page Six and Maxim editor Chris Wilson to serve as news editor.

News Corp. won’t comment, but insiders speculate CEO/chairman Rupert Murdoch is shooting for the populist tabloid to complement The Wall Street Journal’s successful digital product.

While many former Post staffers heap praise on Johnson for his reporting chops and Rolodex, there are questions about the depth—or lack thereof—of his digital acumen. Similarly, Angelo, is more accustomed to a police shack than a content management system. Meanwhile, News Corp.’s Web record is lousy. MySpace has lost the social networking race, and cratered after just a few months in 2008.

Per sources, prior to his cross-country trip, Johnson had been clashing with Post editor in chief Col Allan after he was denied permission to take a job at The Hollywood Reporter because of contract obligations, leading some to wonder whether his new role is a promotion or a demotion.

“It’s a little tricky to tell,” said Choire Sicha, former Gawker editor who now runs the blog The Awl. “Richard had a big job offer, and he was very well favored at the Post. But I don’t know if [the new job] is a good job. That’s going to be his head when it fails.”

There are many that question the concept of a national digital newspaper. “You mean, like a
Web site?” asked Jordan Bitterman, svp of media at Digitas. Bitterman pointed to the ascendance of news sites like The Huffington Post which are national/global by nature. He also questioned whether consumers would pay for content when so much is available on the Web for free. “Why not just improve your existing Web properties like” he asked.

But Murdoch has famously been adamant about getting consumers to pay for his news products. He’s recently taken to using the phrase “value gates” to describe his newspaper pay walls—which thus far haven’t exhibited much success. Wonder if Johnson has any ideas how to fix that?