Fairfax Media is bracing for sweeping changes to its senior executive ranks, with well-placed sources telling Crikey acting chief executive Greg Hywood is now an unbackable favourite to be confirmed in the top job following the company’s board meeting next Friday.

The choice of the savvy Hywood — an increasingly popular figure among journalists at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald — is looking like a fait accompli despite a global search for a new leader sparked by the resignation of Brian McCarthy in early December. Fairfax has been paying the former Tourism Victoria chief $50,000 a week while the board deliberates.

“Fairfax would be crazy if they didn’t give it to Greg,” the insider said. “You can’t appoint a person of Greg’s standing and then pull the carpet from under them.”

But as Hywood prepares to settle permanently into the corner office at Pyrmont, a number of key underlings appear to be heading for the exit as part of a purge of former Rural Press staff loyal to McCarthy.

These are said to include the head of Sydney publishing Lloyd Whish-Wilson, who was coaxed out of retirement by McCarthy following the Rural Press takeover in 2007. Whish-Wilson is slated to leave next month, with the possible elevation of SMH editor-in-chief Peter Fray, currently on part-time study leave, to a joint publishing/editing role.

Another rumoured departure is that of Whish-Wilson’s Melbourne counterpart Don Churchill, who critics say has overseen the erosion of The Age‘s revenue, profit and circulation base. The launch next week of a new masthead, The Saturday Age — which will involve a substantial redesign and tabloidisation of key sections — is said to be the Kiwi executive’s swansong before a dignified exit on his own terms in either April or May.

According to a document penned former senior Age executives last year entitled The Age: a litany of decline, the paper has recorded a decline of $101 million in revenue and $68 million in profit over the past five years. There is also concern over the diminishing gap between The Age and the Herald Sun in the race for the vital AB demographic. Instead, a mid-market mentality has encroached with supermarket and liquor ads, usually News Limited’s bread and butter, becoming increasingly prevalent.

The staffing shake-up could also extend to editorial, with rumours continuing to swirl among Age journos that editor Paul Ramadge is preparing to hang up his boots, possibly in conjunction with Churchill’s exit. But others have disputed this, believing Ramadge has yet to make a severe enough error to be cast aside.

A key question for Hywood will be whether to proceed with McCarthy’s infamous corporate restructure, delivered just weeks before his departure in November. Fairfax is yet to appoint a Metropolitan CEO, despite McCarthy promising that the new staffer would be hired before Christmas.

Crikey understands that several other ex-Rural Press senior execs are hovering above the chopping block. But there are concerns that flushing the remains of Rural Press could lead to a reduced focus on Fairfax’s stable of regional assets. Some analysts are asking whether this will have a negative impact on the considerable profits from that area of the business, which is less glamorous than the metro stable but under far less competitive risk.

Speculation over the looming Hywood epoch comes after he and Fairfax chairman Roger Corbett conducted a walk of The Age‘s editorial floor in December, in what insiders dubbed a “very successful ra ra session”. The intervention was unusual, not only because Hywood was acting at the time, but because of the positive energy that lingered in its wake. Hywood, also a Fairfax director, has since emerged as a journos’ champion and is now surfing a wave of approval in his pitch for the top job.

In other staffing moves, Age executive sport editor David Dick has recently reinvented himself as the paper’s iPad overseer, with prominent House Committee head Greg Baum — who delivered a stirring speech during the recent Fairfax Community Network industrial dispute — said to have thrown his hat in the ring as a potential replacement.

Meanwhile, Crikey understands Australian media writer Mark Day spent the week in Melbourne and is preparing a big feature on Hywood and Fairfax’s future fortunes, to coincide with the long-awaited return of Monday’s media section.