By Crikey reporter Lucy Morieson

Robert Whitehead, editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, has
quit.
After almost five years at the helm of John Fairfax Holdings’
biggest-selling paper, and Australia’s biggest-selling broadsheet,
Whitehead has announced a move to the company’s sales and marketing
branch.

The rumour from Crikey’s Fairfax sources is that there was a
falling out between Whitehead and CEO-in-waiting, Brian Evans, over the
editorial budget, which saw Whitehead shifted aside.
In an internal announcement to staff, Evans attributed the move to
Whitehead’s desire to “return to the commercial side of the business,”
and named editor-in-chief of metropolitan, regional and community
newspapers, Robert Scott, as Whitehead’s temporary replacement.

But Whitehead told Crikey that rumours of bad blood between him and
Evans were wrong: “I have never had a falling out with
Brian Evans on any issue,” he says, and insists that he’ll soon be working more
closely with Evans than ever before in his new role.

According to Whitehead, the motivation behind his move was personal –
after almost five years he’s ready to move on from a position that
he’d seen as a two-year posting, and he’s keen to return to the
business side of the publishing world. Though he began his career as a
cadet at The Age and worked in editorial positions at the SMH and the now-defunct Times on Sunday, he also has a long stint of management with Fairfax’s commercial arm, as well as an MBA, to his name.

In a personal statement circulated to SMH staff, Whitehead gives his on take on the move:

I said I’d do two
years and as I approach five I’m overdue for the change. A 2-year-old boy at
home and another just gone four weren’t around when I started and I’m often
reminded how little I’ve been around for them. Leaving the office at 6:30pm will
be a start.

A decade ago I left
editorial to work in and run various operations and commercial departments and I
hope I can now draw on my experience to make a major contribution to the Herald
from the other side of the business.

By
all accounts, Whitehead was popular with his staff and seen as a good editor, and he
lasted a lot longer than his predicted two years. Certainly, the SMH’s circulation has been suffering in recent
years, with a 4.7% drop in weekday sales, and a 4.1% drop on weekends, in the
last six month survey by the Audit Bureau of Circulation. But Evans’s
statement praised Whitehead’s editorial standards, particularly the
“outstanding coverage of September 11, the wars in Afghanistan and
Iraq, and the Boxing Day tsunami.” Evans added that last year the Herald won more Walkleys than any other paper, and thanked Whitehead for his “tireless dedication and service in the role.”

Meanwhile, Glenn Dyer writes:


There are lots of stories around today about why Robert Whitehead quit as editor
of The Sydney Morning Herald, and
one that stinks is the official
explanation
from Fairfax and its chief operating officer, Brian Evans – that Whitehead wanted to return to
the commercial side of the business.

Now, I may be an old fart having been a journalist for
36 years, but I have never, ever known a journalist wanting to be on the
commercial side of the business. The usual ambitions are to be rich, be the
editor, own your own paper or media group, be a columnist, a sports writer,
etc.

And if the story that he quit because of arguments over the SMH’s declining circulation figure is
true, why make Whitehead head of sales and circulation and marketing for the
paper?

But with Fairfax anything is possible: Michael Gill is still in
charge of Fairfax Business Media, despite falling sales for the Australian Financial Review and the
various business magazines (most of which are being closed), but it would be a
bit much to give a former editor the job of “marketing” a paper that he helped
send down the chute over the past three years.

Peter Fray

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