Rupert Murdoch

Even by the harrowing standards of recent years, it’s been an especially brutal week for Australian newspapers and the people who work for them. Bodies are being thrown overboard everywhere you look — with the seniority, and longevity, of those who are leaving especially stunning.

News Limited editors have long been petrified when Rupert Murdoch comes to town — and not just because of his notoriously harsh appraisals of their front page story selections. The press releases announcing the “resignations” of those who have fallen out from favour traditionally start appearing as soon as Murdoch’s plane home leaves the tarmac. The mogul’s last visit, in April, came and went with no major moves. He’s been accompanied on his latest visit by incoming News Corp CEO Robert Thomson, surveying the scene before News splits into separate entertainment and publishing companies later this month. It’s now clear the silence in April merely represented a stay of execution, rather than a pardon, for those whose time was up.

News Ltd announced yesterday afternoon that Phil Gardner, editor-in-chief of Melbourne’s Herald Sun, would leave the company on Monday. It’s no surprise that Gardner’s leaving the Hun. “Phil Gardner was a dead man walking ever since the restructure of operations was announced last year,” one News insider said. The Hun was seen as unusually top heavy with Gardner as editor-in-chief, Damon Johnston as editor and Peter Blunden still exercising control as Victorian editorial director.

But the fact Gardner has departed News altogether has come as a shock to his staffers. The South African-born veteran had long been rumoured to be taking up a new post that would see him integrate News Limited and Fox Sports content. But Crikey hears this has been fiercely resisted from editors who hate the idea of “remote control” of their sports sections.

“I’m shocked – I had him picked as a company man through and through,” one Herald Sun reporter told Crikey. This source reckons the failure of the Hun‘s freemium paywall experiment wouldn’t have helped Gardner — even if he was handed a “shit sandwhich” from his bosses.

Gardner was a well-liked figure inside News, although one staffer describes him as a “bit of an enigma” and “not a people person”. Outsiders praise him as a moderate, generous with his time, and not a News bully boy.

A News Limited spokesman refused to say whether Gardner would be replaced as editor-in-chief.

The changes in Brisbane’s News Limited corral, announced earlier this week, were even more dramatic: Queensland editorial director David Fagan, a towering figure in Sunshine State journalism for decades, is gone. So is Courier-Mail editor Michael Crutcher, who is reported today to have hired a top lawyer. Crutcher famously pulled his reporters off the campaign bus during the 2012 Queensland election — a stunt to be sure, but journos around the country cheered him for calling bullshit on the contrived nature of modern political campaigning.

Crikey hears that Murdoch has been unhappy with The Courier-Mail‘s often critical coverage of Premier Campbell Newman — particularly his public service job cuts. It’ll be fascinating to see if the tone of the coverage changes under new editor Chris Dore, who’s departing as head of the News Limited Sunday Times in Perth.

Interestingly, The Australian reported the Queensland overhaul yesterday under the headline: “Editorial changes strengthen teams nationwide.” Fagan and The Oz’s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell have long been on unfriendly terms. Mitchell launched a poaching raid on the paper when he took over at the broadsheet, which sells better in Queensland than most other states.

And it’s not just News Limited where the axe has fallen this week. Staffers at Fairfax were shocked yesterday by the sudden departure of editorial heavyweights Lisa Hudson and Lauren Quaintance. Hudson, the former CEO of Fairfax Magazines, was the general manager of food and wine; Quaintance was the general manager of travel. Sydney Morning Herald sources say Hudson appeared devastated as she departed Fairfax’s pyrmont HQ yesterday afternoon.

Both Hudson and Quaintance had been appointed to their posts in late 2011 by Metro Media boss Garry Linnell with a mission to eliminate costs and drive copy-sharing between The SMH and The Age. This has caused special alarm at The Age, with staffers fretting about the “Sydney-ficiation” of Melbourne icons such as foodie insert Epicure. Now Hudson and Quaintance are the victims of cost-cutting: there’s no room for them in the slimmed-down Life Media division headed by Melina Cruickshank.

These announcements, of course, followed the news on Tuesday that Kerry Stokes’ West Australian Newspapers would slash 100 jobs — with 40 editorial staffers to go. You know it’s been a grim week when reporters are being laid off in an economically booming, one-newspaper town like Perth.

Newspaper heavyweights hope income from paywalls will eventually help plug the gaps left by disappearing circulation and display advertising revenues. But, until that day, more reporters, editors and managers can be expected to walk the plank.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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