It was, as one departing journalist put it, probably the biggest clear out of talent in the history of Australian journalism.

At around 3pm yesterday, staffers at The Sydney Morning Herald began being summoned to level five of Fairfax’s Pyrmont HQ to discover if they had been granted redundancy. By the time the announcements were done it was clear the paper would never be the same again. Hundreds of years of experience is walking out the door starting Friday. A similar exodus is underway at The Age and The Canberra Times — read Crikey‘s current list here.

At the Herald, Australia’s oldest newspaper, around 70 editorial staffers have now received the long white envelope containing a hefty redundancy payout. Some have been knocked back but most who applied were given the go-ahead.

Among those departures announced yesterday were senior business columnist Ian Verrender, urban affairs editor Matthew Moore, media writer Julian Lee and Good Weekend feature writer Greg Bearup. Colour writing specialist John Huxley is leaving after 26 years; former political correspondent David Humphries after 17. The paper’s health editor, Julie Robotham, is going as is health correspondent Mark Metherell. Arts editor Clare Morgan and crime editor Geesche Jacobsen are going too.

“It was weird,” said one. “There was a sense of relief and sadness. Sadness because so many people are leaving and relief that those who have made plans can move on.”

“It was a deeply emotional day,” said another. An Australian Story camera crew was there filming for an upcoming special on Malcolm Brown, who is retiring after 40 years at the SMH.

The paper’s highly-regarded business section has been particularly hard hit. As well as Verrender, whose weekend SMH column was a must-read for his ability to cut through corporate spin, Elisabeth Sexton, Annette Sampson, Leonie Lamont and Scott Rochfort are departing.

Progressive hero David Marr, social affairs veteran Adele Horin and education editor Andrew Stevenson had already announced their departures.

“It’s really sad,” said one departing journo, who has spent over two decades at the paper. “I’m not sure if it can recover — they’ve killed off a lot of the spirit.

“You’ll have a lot of people scrambling to fill the paper. My theory is the paper won’t even publish a Monday to Friday edition in 18 months.”

Most of those going at the Herald concurred the process had been handled sensitively and professionally. One departing scribe, however, was peeved at being “congratulated” for receiving redundancy.

Younger journalists are understood to be upset that so many of their mentors are on the way out. There’s little doubt among Herald insiders that there will be less time and resources available for the investigative work the paper prides itself on.

“In the new environment people will inevitably be judged more on productivity than quality,” said one departing scribe.

At The Age, high-profile staffers set to go include associate editor and keen ALP chronicler Shaun Carney, former Washington correspondent Simon Mann, weekday editor Mike van Niekerk and arts writer Raymond Gill. Senior writers Ian Munro, Jo Chandler, Farah Farouque, Gary Tippet, Julie Szego and Nicole Brady are going. So is senior editor Gary Munro and experienced business writers Ian McIlwraith and Phil Hopkins. Sixty editorial staffers in total are understood to be leaving.

Newsroom moles reported farewell cards were being circulated this morning for Epicure editor Jane Willson, police rounds gun Paul Millar and Gary Munro. This humorous tweet from Karl Quinn yesterday documented deputy arts editor Mark Ellis’ elation at the receipt of his successful redundancy. Experienced art department legends Frank (“the littlest cowboy”) Maiorana, Judy Green and Christina Carter are also upping sticks.

As Crikey today reports, Mann will — as of early next year — become the editor of Margaret Simons’ new university-based online journalism venture The Citizen. The departure of the tenacious Willson will add to fears that Sydney based food-tsar Lisa Hudson’s plans for a consolidated pan-Metro Media foodie insert may soon be announced.

Age staff will converge on regular watering hole Saint & Rogue in Little Collins Street tomorrow night to bid farewell to those who are going. The SMH crew is gathering at The Shelbourne on Sussex Street after deadline tonight.

In the nation’s capital, the atmosphere in The Canberra Times newsroom was sombre as those who had applied for redundancy were summoned into editor Rod Quinn’s office one by one and the door was closed. One staff member approved for redundancy is long-term and much-respected cartoonist Ian Sharpe, whose graceful daubings have featured in the paper for decades.

The Canberra Times has been my life for the past 24 years, I leave with mixed feelings. Yes, it will be a bit of a wrench,” Sharpe told Crikey.

Many of those summoned to meet Quinn yesterday were told they would not receive a redundancy (the program has been oversubscribed). Morale at Fyshwick is said to be low.

“It’s been absolutely miserable, people are despondant, I’ve never known anything like it,” one newsroom source told Crikey. Another said: “Everyone’s just hating what’s going on.”

Almost all of the night subs desk (11 subs) applied for redundancy, although some were knocked back yesterday.