Former senior Age executives have backed the release of a document calling for a radical restructure of the ailing Melbourne daily’s management team, following the launch of a public campaign to save the newspaper from oblivion.

This morning, The Australian reported details of a stinging treatise — The Age: a litany of decline — that revealed the masthead was set to plunge into the red next year without serious strategic surgery.

The paper’s current management team, led by Melbourne Publishing CEO Don Churchill, had overseen the demolition of The Age‘s annual earnings to $22 million, down 80% from the June 2005 figure of $105 million. During that time revenue has crashed to $225 million from $326 million, the document claimed. Circulation had also apparently tumbled below officially audited figures.

The group of “concerned citizens” will now launch an online petition to save The Age next year in the vein of previous public salvos led by Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser in the 1980s. And their assessment was backed by current and former members of the paper’s management team this morning.

“With an operating margin of just 10% The Age’s days are numbered unless there are sweeping changes to its business model,” one former executive told Crikey. “The cars section and the employment section have been decimated to the point where it is difficult to see why any advertisers would use them.”

“If classified revenue continues to contract at the rate it has been over the past two years then The Age will be a loss-making business, like The Sydney Morning Herald, within a couple of years. And if the circulation continues to fall at that rate then there will be a sea of red ink within 12 months.”

The source said the Saturday edition of the paper, propped up by steadily-eroding real estate classifieds, is the only day that remains profitable, effectively subsidising the weekday edition and The Sunday Age, which continue to haemorrhage cash. By contrast, The Age‘s main competitor, the Herald Sun, rakes in $100 million a year.

A current serving senior executive described conditions inside the newspaper as a “shambles”. “It would be a shame if quality journalism was killed off and the Herald Sun was the only paper in town,” the executive said.

Another source inside Fairfax confirmed speculation that the Saturday Age‘s current audited circulation number of 279,000 was inflated and that Churchill had recently convened a crisis meeting, with executives told that there was no way the paper could maintain advertising rates at current levels. If revenue continued to dwindle, The Age would be tipped well into negative territory.

Bumper edition and promotional sales had meant the real Saturday number was more like 260,000. According to the insider:

“The last ABC audit number of 279,000 is consistent with the number the manager is quoting. Every audit has the artificial boost to Saturday Age circulation numbers provided by the bumper editions they put out each quarter. The bumper, which means selling the Saturday paper twice on a Friday and Saturday, creates a boost to sales of 140,000 as a one-off spike. That number is divided by the 13 Saturdays in the audit period to provide an artificial boost in sales of 10,769 average per week.”

Speculation swirled this morning as to the identities of the anonymous concerned Melbourne citizens who mounted the campaign, who will apparently out themselves in the coming weeks. Crikey contacted former editors Steve Harris, Andrew Jaspan, Michael Gawenda and Mike Smith, however only Smith returned calls, ruling out his involvement.

Meanwhile, there are suggestions that Churchill remains a mystery man to some key Fairfax employees. At a recent Oaks Day function in the Emirates Marquee, veteran 3AW breakfast host Ross Stevenson reportedly couldn’t identify Churchill when he was pointed out by an accomplice, despite Churchill occupying the biggest office in Stevenson’s building.

According to the insider: “Ross looked a little puzzled, like he didn’t know what I was talking about, and said who is he?

“I was in shock and said: ‘What do you mean, that’s Don Churchill, he occupies the biggest office in your building.’ Ross replied: ‘never heard of him and never seen him before.'”

This afternoon, Churchill, who did not respond to a request for comment, will preside over The Age‘s 25 Year Club Christmas Party at William Angliss College behind the newspaper’s former Spencer Street headquarters. Present and former staff, potentially including the masked critics, are invited to assemble from 4.30pm.

Peter Fray

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