The board of West Australian Newspapers and editor Brian Rogers have created a PR disaster for themselves by sacking business editor Steven Loxley just days after he covered the company’s AGM with a story headlined “WANH directors grilled on fees”.
Crikey did an interview with ABC Perth on Tuesday morning with Liam Bartlett and this sacking looks like an absolute shocker when it comes to editorial independence.

Editor Brian Rogers apparently called Loxley in the day after the AGM coverage and said there was too much focus on the doubling of director’s fee to $700,000 with not enough attention to the 17 per cent increase in net profit for the first quarter.

Three days later Brian Rogers calls Loxley in and tells him to hand back the keys to his car, take a $20,000 pay cut and take up the position of deputy chief of staff, even though he has previously been chief of staff.

Not surprisingly, Loxley declined this offer so he was sacked after a total of 23 years service in two stints.

Some WAN watchers reckon that Rogers has been so hamfisted in his approach, that he might be getting set up for the high jump by new managing director Ian Law, who joined WAN from Rural Press in February.

But if Law was telling Rogers what to do, it is bit difficult for him to then turn around and sack Rogers whose three year contract as editor expires in March and is widely not expected to be renewed.

Then again, it is up to the editor to make sure coverage on company affairs satisfies the board and management. Unfortunately for Rogers he was too busy at the post-AGM dinner with the board to know what was appearing in the paper.

Herald Sun editor Peter Blunden always took a keen interest in the headline and first few paragraphs of News Corp stories.

Once I put Rupert’s sister Janet Calvert-Jones on a list of Australia’s richest woman after the BRW Rich List came out and Blunden deleted the copy muttering something about her being the chairman of the Herald and Weekly Times.

Loxley will no doubt be claiming a six figure severance package and WAN can expect this to take a high profile as Perth is a small town.

Crikey rates Loxley as a serviceable business editor although the only stories he wrote each year were about WAN. Business editors who roll up their sleaves and also write yarns are harder to dispose of in such circumstances.

Brian Rogers responds

A few minutes after Crikey finished a 5-minute slot with Liam Bartlett, Brian Rogers called in to defend himself and the sacking of Steven Loxley.

He denied point blank that the AGM coverage had anything to do this sacking and said that Loxley had been offered a new position as chief political reporter two months earlier. However, this position is no longer available.

Bartlett asked Rogers why he had not approved the story before it went to press and he said it was “a question of trust” in his business editor.

This is the story that the storm is all about. Was Loxley too harsh? You be the judge.

‘WANH directors grilled on fees’

West Australian Newspapers Holdings yesterday posted a 17 per cewnt increase in net profit for the September quarter but it did not stop shareholders at the annual meeting critcising the companys performance.

A number of shareholders spoke out against a resolution to increase directors’ fees, scrap retirement benefits for directors and partly pay them in shares

WANH chairman Warwick Kent defended the proposal to double the aggregate available to the non-executive directors to $700,000 saying the money would not all be used immediately and that “top quality directors will not work for peanuts”.

Mr Kent, in charge of his first WANH annual meeting, said that under the proposals a directors fee would rise from $55,000 a year to $75,000 a year but that would be the total amount each director was paid.

Other shareholders questioned where the companys growth would come from and whether directors Peter Mansell and Mel Ward, both standing for re-election, had too many other directorships to devote enough time to WANH board matters.

Mr Kent said Mr Mansell and Mr Ward had the complete confidence of the board. Earlier, Mr Kent announced the retirement of director Tony Manford .

He said the board was actively looking to grow the company and was not prepared to depend on organic growth only.

“It is possible that, if the mooted changes to cross-media ownership laws are given effect by Parliament, more opportunity may arise and we will be actively looking at these, although so will a number of other parties,” he said.

Managing director Ian Law told the meeting that $15.9 million September quarter profit had been assisted by a number of initiatives that had been introduced and by an improvement in the advertising market in some areas.

But he said he was cautious about the outlook for advertising revenues. “The key to our prospects going forward is going to be our ability to achieve further advertising revenue growth and this will only be done in a competitive market if we operate at the highest levels of initiative,” Mr Law said.

“I believe the resource sector growth and the solid economy should provide us with a platform for growth over the next two to three years.”

Mr Law said it was clear that to achieve the targets that had been set it was necessary to continue to find operational savings and control expenses.

Eighty-five per cent of total expenses were in four main areas personnel, newsprint, depreciation and distribution.

“Our total staffing of about 1200 full-time equivalents is under constant review,” he said. “There is simply no choice but to keep reviewing personnel costs given that they now represent 41 per cent of the total cost of the business.”

“There is great pressure to find new ways to do things if these personnel costs are out of step with our underlying revenue growth.”

The September quarter profit was achieved on revenue of $78.9 million, up 6 per cent.

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Finally, this is a letter of support for Steven Loxley that has come in from one of his colleagues:

Dear Crikey,

I used to work with Steve Loxley. He was decent bloke and from my experience, an ethical operator and endeavoured to do what too few journos do these days, tell it straight. Rogers I don’t know, but clearly the capacity for spineless toadying is now one of the essential criteria for stewardship of The West.

As far as your comment about it being “up to the editor to make sure coverage on company affairs satisfies the board and management”, surely you’re kidding! Can’t we still expect some semblance of editorial independence from newspaper editors, especially those of major metro dailies and especially when they have a Statewide monopoly?

There was a time at The West when the Chief of Staff, subs and journos would have downed tools to back their colleague in this sort of situation. I can even think of one or two editors at The West with some backbone who wouldn’t have thought twice about taking on the board.

What is the publishing world coming to? Increasingly, it seems, like a clone of News Ltd.

Despondently yours, Name withheld

CRIKEY: The editor is always responsible for everything that appears in the paper. There will always be power struggles but it is appropriate that the editor make the decisions rather anyone from management or the board.

Peter Fray

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