Andrew Jaspan has been changing The Age in his own image, reports Hugo Kelly, and in Melbourne he has found fertile ground.

Tomorrow, Irish trainer Dermot Weld will look to the skies and determine whether his champion, Vinne Roe, thrown in by the handicapper with only 58 kilos on his back, runs in the Melbourne Cup. If we don’t get the forecast rain, Weld plans to scratch his horse; never mind the millions bet on the pre-post markets, or the fact that local trainers would crawl over razor wire to get their eminently qualified horses a start in the race, or that there are no emergencies allowed to make up the numbers. Weld has won the race twice, and racing authorities are doing their best to send the Cup back to Ireland a third time. But if Vinnie Roe doesn’t get the racing surface his trainer wants – he’s out.

In Melbourne, we bend over backwards for our international guests. One man who will be warming to this generous predeliction is the new editor-in-chief of The Age, Andrew Jaspan. He’s been given a taste of Melbourne hospitality since arriving from Scotland last month, and the fun is just beginning for the new boy in town. Melbourne is at its best in Spring, and Jaspan has arrived at the right time. Jaspan will have enjoyed his day at the Derby on Saturday – perfect weather, everything on tap in his marquee in the Birdcage, and a swarm of fawning locals keen to make their best impression on the new editor of the only “serious” paper in town.

On Friday, Jaspan got the taste of Melbourne’s obsession with outsiders when he joined a panel of media types at the Melbourne Press Club’s annual journalism conference. One by one, journalists, students and citizens lined up to ask questions of the newcomer, while the other panellists looked on. Co-panellist and editor of the other paper in town, the Herald Sun, Peter Blunden wasn’t impressed. He threw in a few attention-seeking barbs, but as a popularity competition, it was no contest. In the end, when a media student finally got up and asked Blunden why his paper ignored big issues like the crisis in Sudan in favour of trivia, it came as a relief. Blunden prattled on about why covering Mark Philippoussis’s love life was important to Melbourne, and Jaspan drew breath.

It was Jaspan’s first public appearance since leaving his job as editor of Scotland’s Sunday Herald (Five years old, circulation 60,000, and an editorial staff of under 50) to take over the venerable Age (150 this year, circulation 200,000+, and an editorial staff of 300+). Actually, the comparison is unfair. Jaspan started up the Herald himself, taking a business plan to investors and creating a paper acknowledged as a fair-minded new voice in the crowded Scottish media.

The last time anyone attempted such a feat in Melbourne was during the Sunday paper wars of the late 1980s – and then, the new Sunday Herald and Sunday Age had the advantage of being bankrolled by the Fairfax and News Ltd duopoly. Jaspan’s appointment was handled amateurishly by Fairfax management. After word got out during the protracted search, the company refused to confirm it, then had to deal with a revolt by Age journalists concerned about the appointment of an outsider. But the politics he encounters at Fairfax will be nothing compared to the Fleet Street nightmare Jaspan endured during his time as editor of The Observer. Check out our coverage of the Jaspan appointment and his account of his time at The Observer here:
http://www.crikey.com.au/media/2004/07/23-0005.html

By comparison to The Observer/Guardian turmoil, The Age is not riven by internal disputes about control or driven entirely by naked ambition. Jaspan inherits a newspaper with the kind of resources a keen editor with a lively mind and a constitution tested by the fire of Fleet St would find irresistable.

“‘At the Sunday Herald I had one investigative journalists,” Jaspan told the Press Club conference on Friday. “At The Age I have a team of six.”

One of that team, Gary Hughes, wrote a strong story two Saturdays ago investigating the handling of polio vaccinations contaminated by a mokey virus. Jaspan chose to splash with it, and it created a stir. It made a big impact, as big stories splashed all over page one on your most important day of the week should. While some health professionals were critical that the story – and the paper’s handling of it – unnecessarily scared up concern amongst tens of thousands of people immunised during the period, it was the kind of agenda-setting story The Age used to do very well.

Lately, The Age has struggled to stay with the agenda – let alone change it. During Friday’s Press Club talk-fest, ABC radio host Jon Faine took Jaspan to task on the polio story: “Was it your call to make it the whole front page? Is that the Jaspan style?…We’re not used to that kind of style.”

Jaspan: “I think you’d better get used to it.” He added: “This is a very serious story affecting a lot of people. This newspaper is not going to swallow the pills and take the jabs without asking questions.”

It’s good to see an editor splashing with an important story, then solidly backing up the journalist who wrote it. At The Age, it hasn’t always happened in the past. Typically, as a new regime takes over, the stable stars feel the need to assert themselves. Potentially, this can lead to instability in the ranks, as insiders jostle for position and egos clash. But creative tension is not necessarily a bad thing, and sometimes the cream rises.

Since Jaspan’s arrival, some of the paper’s best performers have been positioning themselves at the starting gates. Aside from Gary Hughes, national political editor Michael Gordon hit the front page with a couple of his trademark political interviews; Julia Gillard standing down from the race for the shadow Treasury job, and Mark Latham accepting responsibility for the election loss. Both were the kind of story that will encourage the political classes to renew their subscriptions.

And last Sunday came the kind of flash of inspiration that makes a hack’s heart race: a beautiful layout for a Sunday broadsheet. While the stories themselves weren’t startling, they were presented cleanly and presented in a way that made the page compelling. With the lead displayed below the fold (an unheard of indulgence in the conservative word of Australian newspaper layout) and accompanied by a good Sunday read piece, the whole page was brought together by a brilliant close-up color photo of Cox Plate winner Savabeel and delighted jockey Chris Munce. It’s the kind of photo a pic editor dreams of, but it’s the way it’s used that counts. We will credit the Sunday Age editor Alan Oakley with the idea of lighting up the front page with this narrow, seven-column splash of colour. But it’s a Jaspan-esque touch.

Check out today’s paper, and you’ll see another clean, elegant front page. Highlighted by another quirky horsey picture, the lead is again consigned to below the fold. Turn the page, and you’ll see a softer page 3, brought together by a lovely deep-etched pic of Dame Phyllis Frost. And notice that all stories now start with full caps, another nod to Observer style. The Jaspan adventure is only beginning. Unlike Dermot Weld, the newspaperman will not take his cash and quit for home. Stand by for more creative use of color and space, more innovative design, more attention-provoking use of investigative journalism – the kind of changes every 150 year-old institution badly needs.

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