Supposing you had Genghis Khan and his army camped outside your gates, threatening to go home if you didn’t let him in for a bit of r-pe and pillage, what would you do? Hard question, eh? Well, not really.

And it’s no harder to decide what the Fairfax board should do in response to Gina Rinehart’s threat to sell her 19% stake if they insist on getting her to sign the pledge not to interfere in editorial policy.

It’s possible, of course, that a Gina withdrawal could open the way to a full takeover of the company by someone who might want to break it up and sell off the parts. But in the immediate term it would remove a huge amount of pressure that is currently destabilising Fairfax.

Yesterday, the group’s two most senior journalists, Peter Fray and Paul Ramadge, editors-in-chief at the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age respectively, opted to walk the plank, as did the Herald‘s editor Amanda Wilson, who told staff there was no role for her (or anyone like her) in Fairfax’s brave new digital world.

A week ago, when the move to a digital-first newsroom and 1900 job cuts was announced in Sydney, Wilson sat with the troops and Fray played with his mobile phone while national editorial director Garry Linnell broke the news to staff. It was clear then that both had been sidelined.

Senior colleagues at The SMH are adamant Fray and Wilson were both forced out, and can’t understand why management is doing it, because the paper’s audience is larger than ever.

Fray was liked and admired by his staff, and greatly respected as an editor. His replacement, Sean Aylmer, can’t match him in either department, but may well be both — more commercial and more pliable.

Wilson’s replacement, Darren Goodsir, is a former police reporter and chief of staff, who has been editing the website. He is well-liked and respected but not regarded as a world beater.

The new power structure at the Herald (and at The Age and Canberra Times) will involve five of six “platform editors” who will package the news for online, print, tablet, mobile phone, online TV and social media. There will also be 19 topic editors, responsible for “creating content” on national affairs, foreign affairs, health, education, Drive, Domain, food, lifestyle, etc, but not necessarily in that order.

Now, perhaps, you can see why old-style crusading journalists may feel they’ve been left out of the equation.

Insiders at Fairfax say it has long been obvious that print and online would have to merge, and that the battle has been about who would end up on top. It’s now clear who has won. The website has always had more celebrity stories, more shock horror, and more tittle-tattle, and that will surely be the way of the future.

The changes are a major victory for Jack Matthews, whom one senior journalist describes as “a New Zealander in his late 40s or early 50s with a big American accent, who screwed up some telco in NZ”. In actual fact, he just turned 60, and is an American pay-TV specialist, who did indeed spend time in New Zealand in the late 1990s, where he ran Saturn Communications, which ultimately became part of Telstra Saturn.

“No one has accused him of being a clot,” the NZ Herald declared in a profile of him in December 2000, in celebration of naming him Business Leader of the Year.

“Both my parents are very successful people,” Matthews told the paper. “My father was a general in the US Army with a PhD from Princeton. They are both very much achievement-oriented folks.”

Clot he may not have been, but Matthews had been accused of blowing $250 million of Saturn shareholders money, the article noted, by taking on NZ Telecom in telephony. He had then apparently saved their bacon by selling out to Telstra. Previously, he had enjoyed stints at Playboy TV and worked as a roadie for the Allman Brothers Band, after growing up on army bases around Europe.

Matthews has been at Fairfax since 2006, and has been running “metropolitan media” for just over a year on a $1 million-plus salary. Many say he is charming. Some are convinced he’s not as smart as he thinks he is.

We’re certainly confused by his jargon, which is not a good sign for someone who is in charge of communicating news to the public. Last month, Fairfax’s highly-respected head of digital publishing, Jane Huxley, left the group, suggesting (like those three departing editors) that her role had been phased out. She had turned down — in Matthews’ words — the job of “chief product officer”. And what is that? Well may you ask.

The other winner in the big Fairfax revamp is Linnell, whom Fray brought over to the group a year ago, after he was fired as editor of The Daily Telegraph. “Fray’s really pissed off about that,” one senior Fairfax journo told us yesterday.

Last night, Fray refused to confirm that titbit, or to share his views on the restructure. When contacted by The Power Index, he told us “need to keep mum for a while”, adding that he was glued to the ABC’s Four Corners program on guess who … Gina Rinehart.

*To comment and for more visit The Power Index

Peter Fray

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