There is more agony ahead for The Age in coming weeks.

News has emerged that in the next few weeks there will be big cut backs in page numbers. The paper’s most popular sections – Green Guide, Money, Insight, Sport, and A2 are all about to lose pages, and special sections and news may be in the gun as well.

This follows the dropping of Friday’s form guide last week, which has resulted in a record number of over 600 reader complaints. The guide was cut, incredibly, on the eve of the Golden Slipper in Sydney, which is a bit like blocking up the chimney the night before Christmas.

Even more bad news. A staff freeze is also about to be imposed.

I understand that all these cuts have been vigorously fought by besieged editor Andrew Jaspan, and are the result of direct intervention by the Victorian chief executive Don Churchill.

It is happening because, while circulation is comparatively good and ad volumes are up, heavy advertising discounting means that revenue has gone backwards over the last three years.

Apparently things are even worse in Sydney, with the Sydney Morning Herald revenue about $24 million behind on budget. The difference is that the NSW economy is sick, which explains some of the problems, while the Victorian economy is holding up well, giving Melbourne management fewer excuses.

The Age still makes a healthy profit of about $100 million a year, which some journalists argue makes the wisdom of gutting sections and quality questionable on purely business grounds, let alone the impact on the long term future of the masthead, and journalism in Melbourne.

This is the miserable background to the current struggles between management and journalists over editorial independence. Sydney management would find it hard to intervene in Age management when their own house is in even worse order.

Meanwhile, a year after the Rural Press and Fairfax merger, the divisions within the company are becoming more intense – between Sydney and Melbourne, and between the print sections and online.

Despite the integration of the newsrooms the Fairfax Media management structure is out of kilter with industry trends in that the online division is run separately to print media and business media. One of the effects is a digital presence that is out of character – and considerably more “tabloid” than the hard copy mastheads. Both Fairfax insiders and industry observers are questioning whether this effectively undermines the “brand”. And at a senior management level, the increasing tensions are described by insiders as making the operation “unstable and commercially risky”.

The focus on cost cutting to achieve short term financial targets brings to mind Kerry Stokes’ point about The West Australian – that you can’t build a healthy business by cutting back on the things you sell.

Meanwhile the Age Independence Committee met yesterday afternoon to consider its next move in the push to protect editorial independence from the paper’s commercial arrangements – but the committee isn’t talking.

This is not because nothing is going on. It is likely the committee will try to draft its own protocol, given management’s refusal to negotiate one.

And the troubles at the Age are being openly discussed among Victorian Government MPs and other public figures and opinion leaders.

There are moves afoot, and rumblings around Melbourne both inside and outside The Age building. But Age staff don’t want the next developments announced in Crikey.

In this, though in little else, staff and management are as one.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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