Risky, long overdue and a threat to democracy: that’s the verdict of former Fairfax editors on the dramatic overhaul of Fairfax’s metropolitan newspapers announced this morning.

Michael Gawenda, a former editor-in-chief of The Age, told Crikey the decisions were sad but inevitable.

“None of this is good news for journalism; none of this is good news for people who believe that Fairfax has produced good papers,” he said. “The old Fairfax papers and the old Fairfax media are gone. I can’t imagine what the print papers will be like. It seems like an interim strategy on the way to closing down print altogether.

“It’s a very risky strategy but they probably didn’t have a choice. The share price was falling and they had to make a decision.”

Gawenda said he was surprised by Fairfax’s decision to adopt a tabloid format for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age: “It’s too late in the day. They should have done this eight or nine years ago. Going tabloid isn’t going to save newspapers.”

Gawenda’s successor at The Age, Andrew Jaspan, was more positive, saying: “At last there is a proper radical rethinking that has been missing for the past 30 years.

“Broadly speaking, I applaud what they’ve done. At last they’re having a logical, comprehensive look at what the future for Fairfax means … They are being bold and brave and innovative in thinking about the future.”

Jaspan says he expects editorial duplication to be slashed at The Age and SMH — a development that will boost the company’s bottom line but further restrict diversity in reporting and analysis.

“The downside is where you had two defence or health correspondents you’ll end up with just one. You’re halving the number of voices in Fairfax. They’ll be looking at cuts across everything: the environment, science, health, politics,” he said.

“In Australia, our problem is a lack of plurality of voices. [Fairfax] are reducing the number of voices and number of specialist reporters who gather and analyse news.”

Jaspan says he’s optimistic about Fairfax’s chances of succeeding with a New York Times-style paywall. He’s also a big fan of the move to compact format — a change both he and Gawenda tried to drive through during their time as editor.

Broadsheet, Jaspan says, is a “shape that belongs in the past”. He adds that people worried about a decline in quality should note that The Times of London, The Guardian and The Australian Financial Review are all published in compact formats.

Former SMH editor Eric Beecher (chairman of Crikey‘s parent company Private Media) says Fairfax has failed to explain how the changes will improve the quality of its reporting.

“I must have missed it in the Fairfax statement, but I didn’t see the bit about how the company would be reinventing its journalism and its publications to make them both viable and editorially excellent over the next decade,” he said. “Cutting toes, fingers and limbs from an antiquated journalism model doesn’t quite achieve that objective.”

Mike Smith, a former editor of The Age, described today’s announcement as “painful”: “The idea behind it is to support newspapers not to kill them. It’s a shame they didn’t do something like this 20 years ago.”

Smith says the cuts should be targeted at its lifestyle divisions. He wants resources re-directed towards investigations, news reporting and analysis.

“The newspapers can survive and find a market if they stop covering so much celebrity pap and food and wine. TV and radio do that so much better. They aren’t going to be able to continue the traditional role of being a watchdog unless they get rid of most of the other stuff — all the lifestyle stuff,” he said.

“They’re introducing a paywall but to do that they have to have a product worth paying for. It’s a big ask — so the product had better be good.”

Former Herald Sun and The Age editor Bruce Guthrie tweeted this morning: “Fairfax cuts painful but overdue. Time for genuine innovation and editorial excellence. Let’s hope there are enough journalists to do it.”

Peter Fray

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