It was a full house and expectations were high, but West Australian Newspapers CEO Chris Wharton didn’t deliver the headline his audience were seeking at his Perth Press Club address on Friday.

While it was generally understood that he wouldn’t be announcing the name of the new editor — the recruitment process was still continuing, he said — Mr Wharton’s address included veiled criticisms of the previous management, including controversial editor Paul Armstrong.

But there was no stand-out item to gab the attention of the audience, which included leading figures from politics, business, academia and the media.

The large and influential audience was indicative of the community’s interest in both the direction of WAN and of The West Australian, in particular, which has not been travelling so well.

Chris Wharton was appointed CEO only two months ago, after steering Channel Seven Perth to spectacular success during his eight years at the helm.

He comes across as a slightly self-deprecating, good bloke in an ocker sort of way, but is sharp and quick-witted and made it plain that, together with recently appointed editor-in-chief Bob Cronin and the new editor of The West, he would be leading the company in a different direction from his predecessors.

Mr Wharton was obviously pleased to announce that the decline in circulation had been arrested and he paid tribute to Bob Cronin as interim editor for his efforts.

However, the content and presentation of the paper is causing disquiet among journalists at The West with its emphasis on softer stories and pictures of happy, smiling people.

Compounding that disquiet is Mr Wharton’s determination to draw heavily on market research, which he said would help every newspaper in the group build a better relationship with its readers.

He said this research would enable his journalists to understand what their readers needed and wanted.

Mr Wharton said he was not about “slashing and burning” to rein in expenditure, and WAN journalists would have been reassured by his commitment to editorial independence, freedom of the press and the readers’ “right to know”.

However, reader-driven content based on market research also has the potential to curb editorial independence and inhibit journalists in their ethical obligation to inform the public.

The West‘s online presentation has been poor, and Mr Wharton confirmed that it had been heading for a $6 million loss this year, with $3 million already lost in the first half of the financial year. However, he is determined to turn that around and is looking to a joint venture with Yahoo!7 to deliver a new online strategy.

As for the merging of newsrooms at Seven and The West, he said that wouldn’t happen.

Peter Fray

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