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John Cruickshank, publisher of the Toronto Star, is pictured in the newspaper's newsroom on Sept 14 2015.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Toronto Star publisher John Cruickshank is stepping down at the company's annual meeting in May, saying it is time for a generational change as the newspapers he has led since 2009 try to navigate a turbulent time.

Mr. Cruickshank, 62, will also formally cede his post as president of Star Media Group, a division of Torstar Corp. that also operates the free Metro dailies, on May 4. But in the coming weeks, Torstar president and chief executive officer David Holland will begin to take over his duties on an interim basis.

Last December, Mr. Cruickshank began discussing an exit with John Honderich, Torstar's board chair, and all but the timing was sealed soon after. Mr. Cruickshank says it was "my decision" and a "good time" to move on. Torstar has been beset by financial woes of late as print advertising revenue continues to decline, which has led to job cuts and contributed to a declining stock price. But the company has also made bold bets to try to reinvent the Star's newsroom for a digital future, including launching the Toronto Star Touch tablet edition, under Mr. Cruickshank's watch.

"It kind of felt like an era of work was coming to a close, or at least was being completed, and that it was time for renewal," Mr. Cruickshank said in an interview. "It was something where I think [Mr. Honderich] felt that this was the right time, but there was no push whatever."

In a memo to staff on Wednesday, Mr. Cruickshank noted that the news industry's "upward climb gets steeper every year." In January, Torstar announced plans to close its main printing plant in Vaughan, Ont., outsourcing production of the Star to Transcontinental Inc. and putting 220 full-time and 65 part-time employees out of work. The same day, the Star cut 28 more positions from its newsroom and circulation departments, and offered buyouts to remaining staff.

In its most recent quarter, Torstar booked a net loss of $235-million, driven largely by a $213-million writedown on its assets. It also conceded that its tablet edition, which Torstar spent $26-million last year to launch, has caught on more slowly than expected.

"I think John's done a tremendous job in a very difficult time. Obviously it has not been an easy time in the industry, but there's many factors that John was dealing with that are well beyond his control, and really the test is how do you manage through it," Mr. Holland said in an interview. "He's really been determined about it, he's been creative about it."

Torstar is not currently searching for a successor, and has no timeline for doing so. In the coming months, Mr. Holland plans to "step into the shoes of John and take on the responsibilities, and really take my time and immerse myself in it." As to whether he could take on those duties permanently, Mr. Holland said, "That's a determination we'd have to make in the fullness of time. I wouldn't want to predict that."

Mr. Holland also said Torstar remains "absolutely committed" to Star editor Michael Cooke, a close friend of Mr. Cruickshank's who has worked with the departing publisher more than once over the course of their careers.

"I think [Mr. Cruickshank] and Cooke formed a great team. They're kind of the yin and yang," said Gordon Fisher, president of the rival National Post, who has worked closely with Mr. Cruickshank. "And I think this probably foreshadows big change at the Star in the coming months."

Mr. Cruickshank will continue to serve as co-chairman of Canadian Press Enterprises, which controls The Canadian Press wire service, and as one of Torstar's directors on that company's board. (The Globe and Mail is a co-owner of Canadian Press Enterprises). He has yet to decide what his next role could be.

"He's a guy who always held true to the best values of journalism," said Edward Greenspon, president of the Public Policy Forum and a journalist who twice worked with Mr. Cruickshank. "He hasn't lost sight of that in recent years while searching for the elusive best business case."

Mr. Cruickshank previously held the publisher's title at CBC News and the Chicago Sun-Times. He began his journalism career at the Kingston Whig-Standard, worked as managing editor at The Globe and Mail, and is a former editor-in-chief of the Vancouver Sun.

Follow James Bradshaw on Twitter: @jembradshawOpens in a new window

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