What a rotten time to be an editor of a newspaper. Yesterday afternoon Sydney Morning Herald editor Alan Oakley either stepped down or was sacked, depending on who you listen to.

More on the implications of that later, but step back a moment and think about all the editors whose heads have rolled in the last twelve months. Admittedly not all the moves were forced, and some of the editors went on to better things, but it’s still a hell of a carousel.

Oakley has had just over three years in the job, which makes him look positively long-lived by comparison.

Think of the dear and recently departed: The Daily Telegraph’s David Penberthy, who is now heading up some hypersecret mega multimedia thingy in the pipeline.

The Herald Sun’s Bruce Guthrie, sacked after just two years in the job, amid tensions with managing director Peter Blunden.

The Age’s Andrew Jaspan, gone but not mourned. Then there was the game of musical chairs around The Canberra Times, with editor Mark Baker moving back to the Melbourne Age to what was thought to be an editor-in-waiting position, but turned out not to be. Baker’s post was filled by Peter Fray, formerly of the Sunday Age. Which, significantly, leaves Baker still in Melbourne, perhaps still waiting.

Meanwhile, the Adelaide Sunday Mail editor, Phil Gardner, replaced Guthrie.

Just to make it a potential clean sweep of the nation’s mainland metro dailies, Paul Armstrong at the West Australian probably has his resignation letter drafted and awaiting signature following Kerry Stokes’ coup on the board.

Now these are all very different editors, and the reasons for their movements are also various, but there is no doubt it is a bloody, bloody time to be in charge of a newspaper, and no prospect of things improving either. The future is one of downsizing, trying to do the same with less, sackings and redundancies.

So what’s the story with Oakley? I haven’t been able to find out yet. It may well be that he stepped down, as stated. Rumours that there was an extraordinary Fairfax board meeting today preceding the announcement are not true, I am told.

On the other hand I have been hearing from sources since early this year that there would be a “clear out” of editors at Fairfax before too long. Those sources were obviously correct.

Those who have seen Oakley in recent days say that he has been obviously tired to the point of exhaustion and fed up. Certainly he looked that way at the Walkleys last week — and the endless jibes from the stage about Fairfax management wouldn’t have helped.

Who wouldn’t be fed up? The Fairfax trading position is miserable, budgets are slashed, the staff are revolting and more redundancies may well be around the corner.

It does make you wonder why Fairfax would introduce yet more instability when they don’t need to, which lends weight to the theory that Oakley had simply had enough. It would be understandable if he decided life didn’t need to be so hard.

Significantly, the mercurial Fairfax publisher Lloyd Whish-Wilson specified in his announcement that Oakley’s replacement would be from an internal list of candidates.

So who is in the running for the job that maybe nobody wants?

This article appeared originally on Simons’ brand new Crikey blog, The Content Makers. In a later post, she notes that Peter Fray is firming as a front-runner

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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