The journalists’ union has held last-ditch negotiations with Fairfax management in a bid to save the job of Paddy Manning, a business journalist sacked yesterday after blasting his employer in an article for Crikey.

Manning — who criticised The Australian Financial Review for being too cosy with big business — was fired late yesterday afternoon by Fairfax Metro Media editorial director Garry Linnell. According to sources at The Sydney Morning Herald, he was told to clean out his desk immediately and was unable to access his work email on his laptop.

“He had tears in his eyes, he was shaking,” one senior Herald reporter said. “He was devastated, absolutely devastated.”

Representatives from the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance met with Linnell this morning in a bid to have Manning reinstated. A pre-planned stop work meeting will be held this afternoon at The SMH, with the paper’s house committee expected to make a statement on Manning’s axing.

Several Fairfax staffers told Crikey management should have disciplined Manning — with, say, a first and final warning — but that firing him was a step too far. “Fairfax has made a f-cking mess of the whole thing and made the guy a martyr,” an AFR journalist said this morning.

“The sad thing is he’s right and instead of self-reflection they just sack him,” said one SMH scribe. And another Herald reporter: “It was a total over-reaction. They could easily have taken the higher path and just ignored it, or written a reply or any number of thick-skinned, mature options.”

The departure of Manning, who has a young family, capped off what was already an emotional and distressing day for many at Fairfax’s Pyrmont HQ. The memorial service for former SMH sports editor Rod Allen, who fell to his death last week, was held yesterday afternoon at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

In his piece for Crikey yesterday, Manning blasted the publication of “rubbishy” sponsored content in the AFR and criticised the merger of the SMH/Age business teams and the Australian Financial Review Group into one division. The merger, he argued:

“… tramples on the legacy of quality, independent, consumer- and reader-driven business journalism established at The SMH and The Age. Both papers will be much poorer for it.”

AFR editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury and Garry Linnell both declined to comment this morning.

A reporter at The Fin told Crikey many at the paper were “really pissed” when they read Manning’s article because it “sledges everyone in the paper”. But the source added: “All the things he said about the business stories were right.

“Business journalists should be pro-market. Now we’re a paper that’s in bed with business; what we should be is pro-market. That’s what Brett [Clegg, AFR Group CEO] doesn’t get.”

A former senior SMH business reporter, who left in last year’s redundancy round, says they’re stunned by Fairfax’s decision to fire Manning. But they concede the trend towards sponsored content is unstoppable given the dire financial state of the media industry.

“Anyone who thinks subscriptions and display advertising will bring in enough revenue are kidding themselves,” the veteran reporter said.

UPDATE: Australian Financial Review editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbuy says: “In no sense is our First Person series advertorial. It is independent editorial. It is a series of interviews with Australian chief executives and business leaders about their businesses and the business environment, conducted by some of Australia’s most credible financial journalists, beginning with Jennifer Hewett. They and their editors, and no-one else, determine who is to be interviewed, what topics are covered and how the interviews are written up and presented. The Commonwealth Bank pays to advertise next to these interviews and has no involvement in the content, which has nothing to do with the Commonwealth Bank.”