Piers Akerman’s bizarre letter in The Australian’s Media section last week has sparked a public rebuke from his News Ltd colleague Bruce Guthrie, who used to edit The Sunday Age but is now in charge of The Australian Magazine. Bruce had the following letter in today’s Media section:

Piers misses point

I have no problem with Piers Akerman singing the praise of Sunday Herald Sun
editor Alan Howe, whose circulation performance over an extended period
at the Melbourne tabloid has been admirable. But I can’t accept
Akerman’s denunciation of former Sunday Age editors, myself included.

True, circulation of The Sunday Age has fallen more than 400,000 copies behind that of the Sunday Herald Sun
in recent years. But it wasn’t always the case. When I completed my
editing stint there in October 1995, our circulation was a tick under
190,000, making it the third or fourth biggest selling Age of
the week. Not bad for a paper that had only launched six years earlier.
A decade later sales of The Sunday Age have moved 10,000 copies while
the Sunday Herald Sun’s sales have jumped from about 500,000 to more
than 600,000

Why has this happened? Akerman blames all Sunday Age editors, but he
would have been better advised to examine the calamitous decision in
1997 by Fairfax management to merge The Sunday Age operations with
those of the weekday Age. It may have saved Fairfax some dollars but it
robbed the paper of its staff, identity and, ultimately, sales momentum.

Finally, Akerman had a duty of disclosure. He briefly edited The Sunday Herald, which ceased publication in March 1991 after its circulation fell significantly behind that of The Sunday Age. By his definition that makes him a very unsuccessful editor.

That’s a big hit on Akerman but Guthrie is also taking a shot at Steve Harris, who was the founding editor of The Sunday Age
and had Guthrie as his deputy from 1989 until 1992. After that, Harris
was poached by Rupert to clean up the Akerman mess at the Herald Sun and Guthrie edited The Sunday Age until 1995 when he took over from Alan Kohler as editor of The Age.

The musical chairs continued when Guthrie was shafted by Fairfax in
1997 and Harris returned as publisher and editor-in-chief of The Age, only to then merge the daily Age with The Sunday Age, in what Guthrie now slams as a “calamitous” decision.

Akerman last week claimed that the Herald Sun’s circulation fell
by about 30,000 during the Harris reign, but it should be remembered it
was on a steep downward trajectory when he took over a paper that was
featuring on bumper stickers all over Victoria which asked, “Is it the
truth or did you read it in the Herald Sun?”

Akerman’s aggressively populist/controversial model severely damaged the Herald Sun’s
reputation, which explains why he was sent to Fox in 1992 before
quickly returning to Sydney as a columnist in 1993 after a still
largely unexplained incident that forced Rupert Murdoch to parachute him out of America.

The Sunday Age has
indeed struggled to make a big circulation mark, especially in the shadow of big selling Saturday Age – an
issue which is quite different to the Herald Sun Saturday/Sunday dynamic – but it was good
enough to defeat Murdoch’s pincer attack in the early days of having a
broadsheet and a tabloid to try to kill it off. It was Akerman’s broadsheet Sunday Herald that was quickly closed, a point Guthrie makes to really twist the knife against his old foe in today’s Media section.