Melbourne’s Metro Media Publishing joint venture has sacked 29 staff from its sprawling suburban news operation as CEO Antony Catalano slashes costs at struggling community mastheads previously controlled by Fairfax.

Four senior culture journos at the former Fairfax Community Network — now MMP — were made redundant yesterday, with a further 12 photographers tapped as well as 13 from the advertising production team.

There is believed to be significant internal unrest across the group, with some staff reporting they weren’t given the option to leave. Journos’ union the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance is currently monitoring the situation and is seeking to force an acceptable chop-out.

In a formal announcement sent to staff early this afternoon, MMP said that while “these decisions are never easy, and while we understand they do cause uncertainty, you have our cast iron commitment that we are moving as quickly as possible and will finalise the redundancy program by the end of October, 2012.”

Production costs “were way too high” and are a “significant drag on the company’s financial performance”, it said.

Much of the photography and writing work will be outsourced to The Media Gang, the labour hire firm set up by former Age and Herald photographer Louise Graham three years ago to provide casual staff to an industry struggling under the collapse of ad dollars.

Affected photographers met this afternoon at Fairfax’s Media House in the Melbourne CBD to consider their options, including effectively re-applying for their old jobs with their potential new paymaster. A production manager and one support person will be retained at each of FCN’s three suburban regions. Crikey understands that of the 12 photographers hived off, less than half will able to secure work at The Media Gang. Conflicting reports put the actual number of photographers out of a job at 18.

The decision to rein in costs was flagged in July when Catalano acknowledged in an internal email that while FCN’s western division was performing admirably, FCN’s Central and East outposts were bleeding red ink in a “less satisfactory” manner.

During the Fairfax era, dwindling profits at the struggling titles were overseen by Melbourne Publishing CEO Don Churchill and general manager Colin Moss, who is now in charge of operations at the merged entity.

The $140 million MMP-FCN merger was finally bedded down two months ago following delayed ACCC approval for the group controlled by a consortium of leading real estate agents, Catalano and Fairfax.

MMP-FCN now oversees an expanded 35 mastheads across the Melbourne metropolitan region, despite the recent closure of long-running Fairfax-owned real estate glossy The Melbourne Weekly. Next week, the company will launch The Weekly Review Eastern covering the new money suburbs of Doncaster, Templestowe, Wantirna and Bulleen.

The cuts occur against the backdrop of a bitter real-estate advertising war, with Catalano recently writing twice to agents to accuse the News Limited-controlled of offering dubious junkets, which, if they were retained, would fall foul of Victorian law.

Both MMP and the MEAA declined to comment this morning as negotiations over the departures were still continuing.