The former editor of the West Australian, Paul Armstrong, was not answering his mobile phone this morning, so we don’t know how he is feeling about his ousting. Surely surprise cannot be among the emotions.

For those of us on the outside looking in, the surprise in Armstrong’s removal is that it took a whole month from when Kerry Stokes gained control of West Australian Newspapers. Stokes had made his view on the editor, and the direction of the paper, abundantly clear.

By the end of his time, Armstrong had few friends among his staff, readers or the elite of Perth. Comments on the rival West Australian Today blog give some of the flavour. This article by Tony Barass in The Australian late last year details the background.

So why did it take a whole month for Armstrong to go? Observers are speculating that it is because he hung on hard, and had to be prised loose. Others speculate that there was a feeling among senior executives that his position might just be savable, once the steady hand of Bob Cronin was in place as editor in chief. But all this is mere gossip.

Cronin, now acting editor, was referring all calls to the company’s Chief Executive Officer, Chris Warton, who did not return our call before deadline.

This leaves us to reflect on editors in general, as well as the position of the West Australian in particular.

The last twelve months has seen a massive movement of deckchairs aboard the vessels that are the nation’s metropolitan daily newspapers. There have been changes of editor at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Canberra Times, the Herald Sun, the Daily Telegraph and now the West Australian.

We await the announcement of the new editor for the Canberra Times — about which more in my blog later today.

It all raises the question of what a modern newspaper editor needs to be. Years ago journalists used to talk wistfully about “great editors” — the sort of people who kindled fire in the bellies of their staff, and who helped set the agenda of a city or a nation. They were big personalities. Being editor of a daily newspaper was the most a good journalist could aspire to. It was an end in itself.

Those days have gone. Newspaper editors aren’t like that any more. They don’t get a chance to be. They are managers at best.

These days it is as likely to be a stepping stone on the way to other management jobs — and that is if you succeed in navigating fickle management, circulation figures and readers. Old editors used to be revered, put out to pasture to write op ed columns. Now when their time is done, they are as likely to find themselves scrapping with their former bosses and even fighting in the courts for their payouts.

Armstrong’s assets were always said to be energy and a take-no-prisoners approach. Well, that wasn’t enough, particularly when it was mixed with bias, a stream of inaccuracies and the inability to admit error gracefully. But what does the editor of The West Australian need to be? What does any editor need to be in the current age?

David Penberthy, who was editor of the Daily Telegraph, also had energy and incisiveness. Yet his circulation dipped, and he was gone, albeit after a longish run, and to new opportunities within News Ltd.

Bruce Guthrie at the Herald Sun — well, that is mired in legal action, which we have reported on before.

Andrew Jaspan at The Age was not so much an editor as a marketing man. His circulation held up when all around were sinking. But he lost the confidence both of his staff and his bosses. He became a figure of fun. So he has gone.

Alan Oakley at the Sydney Morning Herald appeared to take the paper downmarket, annoying traditional readers without picking up new ones.

Peter Fray at the Canberra Times was hardly there long enough to allow definitive pronouncements — and he has been promoted, despite a slump in circulation. Fray is one of the few who can feel happy about his move. He was liked by the younger reporters he hired, but the view among some of his more senior staff — several of whom left during his time — was that he didn’t understand Canberra. Canberra is a country town where the main industry is public service and the main reason for buying the morning newspaper is to gain insight into what is happening there.

All these men had their strengths and weaknesses, no editor is perfect. All pursued strategies that seemed reasonable enough to them and their bosses at the time. Yet the record of the last twelve months is merciless. Only Fray and Penberthy have any reason to feel comfortable about the manner of their departures, and even then circulation figures tell a sad story.

All these editors were constrained by various toxic mixtures of budget cuts, and factionalised and/or clueless management. It is a truism in the industry that the present editor is always a bastard, while his predecessor looks nowhere near as bad in retrospect.

Yet who can doubt, as we see editors moved like spak-filler around the nation, that the era of GREAT newspaper editors is over. We now live in a different age.

Peter Fray

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