The Age newsroom is hot with fury over the erratic rule of editor Andrew Jaspan — and this at a time when speculation is rife over whether his contract will be renewed when it reportedly falls due in October. The words “dissent” and “mutiny” might not be too strong for what is happening.

The last straw for many senior editorial staff was a stuff up in the production of arguably the most important edition of the year — the Wednesday Budget coverage.

Jaspan this morning played down the incident, describing it as a “misunderstanding” and “of no importance”, adding: “It is just beyond belief that this stuff even reaches your ears.”

But, meanwhile, many senior editorial staff are more than willing to “vent”, describing the incident in such terms as a “debacle” and “a monumental stuff-up” and “cause for despair and derision”.

As is the custom, coverage of the Budget had been planned for weeks before the event with deputy editor Paul Ramadge in charge. The plan was to have a front wrap-around containing Budget news, opinion and analysis. Inside would be a separate paper containing everything except the Budget.

Jaspan was out of the country when this was planned, but had been back in the office for a full week when Budget day dawned. Yet, that morning, he changed the plan, ringing the Tullamarine printing plant to instruct them to make the non-Budget part of the paper the front, and make the Budget pages an insert. Jaspan apparently didn’t tell any of the staff involved in putting the paper together in the separate Budget lock-ups in Canberra and Melbourne.

Jaspan himself says: “We had a discussion about whether to do it as an insert or a wraparound. Unfortunately, as Paul Ramadge was already in the lock-up in Canberra I wasn’t able to talk to him about it.”

In fact, the lock-up staff found out about the change when they emerged at 7.30pm — having prepared all copy to the original plan. One senior editor who had been in the lock-up “lost it”. Ramadge, says a source who was there, retained his composure but was clearly upset.

Ramadge rang the printing plant and effectively overruled the editor by ordering staff to print the paper in the originally planned format. This required re-webbing of the presses.

One staff member who was there said: “Someone had to take control and act decisively and Paul did it. If he hadn’t, the paper wouldn’t have worked.”

A “discussion” with Jaspan followed in which Ramadge argued for the wraparound. Jaspan says: “We did it the way that I agreed to. I have the final say.”

The originally planned wraparound went ahead. Jaspan denies that there was any tension or upset over the matter.

Ramadge did not return calls asking for comment before Crikey’s deadline.

At Tullamarine, the result was delay and increased production costs — none of which has stopped Jaspan from issuing a memo congratulating his staff on the coverage and on getting the paper out on time. He told Crikey he was delighted with the coverage.

As for his contract, Jaspan would say only that he was “a member of staff”. Did this mean that there was no contract? “I just told you I am a member of staff. I am employed until for whatever reason the company decides not to employ me anymore.”

He would not be drawn further.

Nor would he be drawn on the contents of an address he planned to make to staff at 3pm this afternoon. “It is a private discussion between me and my staff.”

Some say Jaspan’s contract has already been renewed or will be shortly. Circulation is up, and he is still favoured by chairman Ron Walker, who is either unaware or uncaring about the state of relationships on the newsroom floor. Fairfax management tend to discount journalists’ concerns — if they even hear about them.

Others doubt that the contract is a done deal saying that if this was the case, Jaspan would surely by now have let everyone know that he is staying. Perhaps, that is what he will do at 3pm today.

Into this ferment, an interview with Brian McCarthy in this week’s Bulletin is unlikely to soothe Fairfax journalists. McCarthy makes it clear that he has not been impressed with Fairfax journalists’ coverage in the past — particularly concerning Rural Press and his own reputation for cost-cutting.

“I’m very unimpressed, because it just shows me that the journalists who are writing those sorts of comments aren’t in touch with reality and they are operating on gossip and innuendo,” he says.

Asked whether The Sydney Morning Herald runs sufficient local news, McCarthy says:

“My motto for the past five years has been ‘life is local’. I think it’s a great way to run Rural Press. Now I’m not suggesting for one minute that’s the way Fairfax should run The Sydney Morning Herald or Melbourne Age … All I can say at this point is it’s a debate that we need to have, the mix of local versus national or international news.”

McCarthy wants to see less emphasis on the war in Iraq. “I know its important for the world and for us here in Australia and I’m not underestimating it in any shape or form, but the reality is we are about selling newspapers and that now is a boring subject on page one.”

As the author of the article, Jennifer Sexton, observes, The Sydney Morning Herald has run a dozen stories on the Iraq war on the front page this year, which would hardly seem excessive.

Sexton’s article also contains favourable quotes about McCarthy from the recently installed editor of the Canberra Times, former Age senior journalist Mark Baker. Baker says that McCarthy has backed him “on the direction of quality journalism” at The Canberra Times.

Perhaps Baker is being politic, or perhaps McCarthy knows a good editor when he sees one.