The Sydney Morning Herald has a new editor – Alan Oakley, currently editor of The Sunday Age. “I am privileged to take on the best job in Australian journalism,” he said yesterday. “It is a challenging time for newspapers. I will concentrate my efforts to ensure that we are continually meeting the evolving needs of readers.”

Oakley, who is a popular choice, may feel he is taking up the best job in Australian journalism (it certainly felt like that when I had it in the late 1980s), but I suspect it won’t be much fun.

Newspapers like the Herald that depend solely on classified advertising for their profits are on the skids. Fewer people buy them or respect them, and their classified ads are migrating inextricably to the internet because it’s a better, cheaper medium for that kind of advertising.

Unfortunately, this consigns their editors to saying one thing (“I will concentrate my efforts to ensure that we are continually meeting the evolving needs of readers”) but doing another – cutting costs and eliminating jobs. These days, editors of papers like the Herald are more like executioners than editors.

Quality newspapers are a sunset industry desperately trying to prop up their historically high profits by cutting costs. Over the past week in the US, for example, six of the country’s more prestigious newspapers – including The New York Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer and San Jose Mercury News – have sliced hundreds of editorial and non-editorial jobs. And no-one believes this culling was anything other than business as usual for big newspapers.

Fairfax CEO Fred Hilmer said yesterday that Oakley’s appointment means the Herald “is in excellent hands for the future.” Unfortunately, that can only mean that Alan Oakley knows how to wield the knife.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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