Demoralised staff at The Canberra Times have warned the paper will be produced “largely by formula” as experienced journalists — including, possibly, editor-at-large Jack Waterford — head for the door.

The Fyshwick newsroom is abuzz with rumours that Canberra identity Waterford — who started at the paper as a cadet in 1972, rose to be editor in the 1990s, and is seen as the heart of the publication — is leaving.

Crikey understands Waterford is considering applying for a redundancy as the Fairfax axe falls over its metro dailies. Some newsroom sources claim he appears not entirely happy with the direction of The Canberra Times in recent years, and with the latest round of job cuts. As a 40-year veteran of the paper, Waterford would be in line for an eye-watering payout — if editor Rod Quinn were to let him go.

Waterford writes several opinion pieces a week on issues affecting Canberra and federal politics. His knowledge of Canberra, macro perspective, long memory on complex issues, and contacts are not matched by anyone at the paper. Waterford, a genial, larger-than-life character who is popular with staff, is called in to write on the tough issues.

The possible loss of Waterford would compound the flight of experienced “old hands” from The Canberra Times as Fairfax sheds 1900 jobs. Highly respected literary editor Gia Metherell is leaving, as is arts editor Diana Streak. Both had their positions cut from under them and have chosen to leave.

Editorial heavy-lifter Gillian Lord, who is features editor and editor of Panorama (the paper’s Saturday arts, books and film lift-out) is going. Environment reporter Rosslyn Beeby, who served nine years at the paper, has left. According to reports, she applied for a redundancy last month, was accepted and was told to leave the next day. She negotiated to stay until the end of that week.

Crikey understands the redundancy program, which is still open, has already been oversubscribed and Quinn has told some staff that not all applicants will be allowed to leave.

Some staff and readers are concerned that the exodus of experience — and the curtailing of local copy and specialist positions — will weaken the paper. Changes are still being finalised, but there is speculation there will be no literary editor, no arts editor, no full-time arts reporter, and the Food and Wine lift-out will have less local copy. The parliamentary bureau is to be shrunk from four journalists to two. Quinn’s mantra to staff is “no duplication” with other Fairfax copy.

The changes have sparked a backlash from Canberra’s arts and literary community. Crikey understands some companies are reviewing their advertising spend at the paper. Sources say there have been dozens of letters to the editor complaining about the changes; none have been run.

“They’re precisely the wrong sorts of decisions,” one newsroom source told Crikey of Quinn’s changes to the paper. “The paper will increasingly be staffed by very bright but very young people who don’t know their towns and communities very well. Papers are increasingly largely produced by formula.

“If you don’t have older heads, wider heads, people with specialist interests, the paper will get weaker.”

Another newsroom source said the changes had “very serious implications for The Canberra Times”, warning that management had misread its audience. Canberra was a “sophisticated, intelligent and informed market” with a particular interest in world affairs and high-level specialist coverage in areas such as defence. The source said the paper had been losing its intellectual mettle under Quinn and the latest changes “do not bode well”.

Quinn, who is ex-Newcastle Herald, survived the recent cull of Fairfax metro editors and is seen as a company man.

“Management is confused on who the readers are … [the paper is] becoming much more monosyllabic,” the source said. “There’s a great sense of bewilderment out there in the community.”

A third Fyswick insider says the arts community has taken Quinn to task amid concerns about the reach and quality of arts coverage. There is at least one page of arts coverage in the daily Times 2 liftout, plus arts reporting in Panorama on Saturday.

“There’s no one as a custodian of the arts at The Canberra Times, and that is a big worry,” the source said. “The arts section is important and I think they’ve underestimated how important.”

Staff told Crikey that newsroom morale was low, and they are confused about who was leaving and what was happening to the paper. However, one staff member was more upbeat, saying they understood the business case to rationalise production across Fairfax, and are willing to work with Quinn.

The Canberra Times has been unsettled in recent years by a succession of editors including Mark Baker, who remains in a senior role with Fairfax, and Peter Fray, who went on to be editor-in-chief at The Sydney Morning Herald but quit recently. The Canberra Times has had to reinvent itself as a Rural Press publication, and then as a Fairfax publication, due to ownership changes.

Crikey has contacted Quinn for his response to the concerns about the quality of The Canberra Times, and is awaiting a response. Applications for redundancy close on August 24.

Peter Fray

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