In the space of 24 hours Fairfax has removed three senior editors and appointed four more, leaving heads spinning in newsrooms and journalists confused about who’s really in charge.

The company confirmed this morning the appointment of Christchurch Press editor Andrew Holden as the new editor-in-chief of The Age, and Saturday Age veteran Steve Foley as its Melbourne news director. Yesterday, Sean Aylmer was named editor-in-chief of The Sydney Morning Herald and Darren Gooodsir as Sydney news director — replacing the departing Peter Fray and Amanda Wilson.

Paul Ramadge “resigned” as The Age‘s editor-in-chief “at the top of his game” after four years in the hotseat. In an email to staff announcing the changes, Fairfax metropolitan chief Garry Linnell hailed Holden’s grace under fire as his adopted city crumbled last February:

“Andrew’s leadership during the earthquake attracted world-wide notice and acclaim. It wasn’t just the exemplary manner in which he guided and cared for his staff at a time of crisis – it was also the way he led the Christchurch community, informing them of the situation and keeping a cool, calm voice when others might have trembled.”

Holden was a former chief sub-editor at The Sunday Age, production editor at The Age and was also once editor of Fairfax’s short-lived morning freesheet Melbourne Express. Colleagues praise his work in getting The Press out during last year’s devastating earthquake. Holden, who grew up in Melbourne and attended Carey Grammar, has a young family, and was apparently keen to return to his roots. Rumours of his imminent appointment first began circulating on Twitter last night.

A former colleague told Crikey that Holden was a “accomplished delegator who loved a glass of good red or a snifter of Booker’s single barrel bourbon” during his time in Melbourne.

Foley, a former Sun copyboy, was previously editor of The Saturday Age. He rejoined Fairfax in 1992 after a long period at the Herald & Weekly Times and was editor of The Sunday Age for three-and-a-half years. One newsroom source told Crikey this morning said Foley was talented but that he was sometimes “frustrating” to work with and occasionally “dilly-dallied on deadline”. Another said that Foley was a “foot solider who gets the job done. He’s been around for awhile so it helps ease the transition.”

Tomorrow, Age staff will be furnished with a lavish 30-page document explaining the newsroom restructure. A 90 minute all-staff briefing will be held tomorrow at 11.30am at the Media House auditorium with “Garry Linnell and the editorial project team on the new operating model and final details”. In recent weeks a glossy “culture and values” wheel was sent to staff to prop up on their desks.

Sydney Morning Herald staffers, used to a “strong editor” structure, are understood to be particularly perplexed about the company’s latest change in direction after its two editorial leaders were replaced yesterday.

Former business editor Sean Aylmer will take on the sweeping role of editor-in-chief. It is unclear who will fulfill former editor Amanda Wilson’s duties, which included story selection and overseeing the day-to-day running of the newspaper. Darren Gooodsir, who has appointed to the newly created role of Sydney news director, will continue to edit the Herald‘s website during the restructure.

“The key question is: who will staff be reporting to?” one concerned journalist told Crikey after yesterday’s dramatic announcement. “Who will be editing the paper? We don’t know.”

A Fairfax spokesman told Crikey this morning “to watch this space” regarding the restructure, with Linnell expected to announce further changes later this week. Staff are eagerly awaiting details on where they might fit into the new news-gathering structure that will see 19 “topics editors” replace rounds reporters.

Despite his dramatic elevation, Aylmer remains an unknown quality to many of the the Herald‘s most senior and experienced reporters. “I haven’t had anything to do with him,” one veteran reporter told Crikey this morning.

Those who have worked with the trained economist and former BRW editor describe him as a likeable pragmatist with strong people skills. “He can get along with arseholes as well as nice people,” said one former colleague.

Goodsir, a former Herald news editor and chief of staff, is better known among the paper’s non-business section staffers. One senior journalist described him as “sharp eyed”, “very competent” and “highly respected”.

Neither Aylmer nor Goodsir is feared by the Herald‘s journos like the strong-willed, at-times abrasive, Wilson.

Linnell is forcing through the editorial changes to rationalise the company as a subset of CEO Greg Hywood’s swingeing $235 million, three year cost cutting drive. Linnell will implement a new structure for the loss-making broadsheets, enmeshing them with the digital arms and sharing content between previously-siloed mastheads. The new gigs have a mostly-editorial focus.

Fairfax staff have reacted in a muted fashion to changes and are planning a national stopwork on Thursday to mull over Hywood’s 20% redundancy target. They are also concerned about billionaire mining heiress Gina Rinehart’s refusal to sign the papers’ charter of independence, and her apparent desire to plaster the news pages with climate change skepticism. Her outsized desire for three board seats also continues to rankle.

In an amusing coincidence, four past winners of the PANPA Newspaper of the Year Award have all left their respective mastheads shortly afterwards — Bruce Guthrie at the Herald Sun, Ramadge and Andrew Jaspan at The Age and now Holden at The Press.

Fairfax shares slumped 5.7% this morning to 54 cents as Crikey‘s deadline approached. The market was reacting not to the editorial moves, but to Rinehart’s threat to sell her 18.7% Fairfax stake if she couldn’t force a board change.