Publishing legend Ita Buttrose has joined a chorus of former top editors voicing concern at an “extreme” proposal by magazine giant Bauer Media to merge the reporting staffs of its iconic titles Cleo and Dolly. Bauer staff are also alarmed by the company’s handling of the move, in which the current editors of the magazines have been portrayed as being in a “showdown” and a “fight to the death”.

Under the proposal announced to Bauer Media staff yesterday, the titles would remain separate publications but with only one pool of staff. There would be one editor-in-chief, one managing editor and one publisher overseeing both titles. All staff would have to reapply for their positions, with around half expected to lose their jobs. Either Cleo editor Sharri Markson or Dolly editor Tiffany Dunk is expected to become editor-in-chief.

Buttrose, the founding editor of Cleo, told Crikey:  “I know everybody is cost-cutting at the moment, but this seems a bit extreme. You’d have to be a very experienced, very talented editor to put out both titles.

“I ran the women’s division at ACP Magazines, but all the titles had their own clearly defined editors. For one person to edit two magazines — that may be something they do in Germany, but it’s new for me … I’d like to see their business plan.”

Buttrose adds it would be extremely difficult for journalists to write across both titles given Dolly is aimed at teenagers while Cleo is targeted at women in their 20s and 30s.

“It could add to the uncertainty that I hear exists in the company over the future of some of the titles,” she added. “People get very jittery in the when they hear these things are going on.”

A Bauer insider said: “As a strategy, it’s kind of nuts. It’s a silly thing to set the two editors up against each other. They should have made a decision and moved the other one on or found them another role.” Unsurprisingly, the tabloids are revelling in the potential stoush– see today’s Daily Telegraph headline “Battle of the teen mag editors”.

Markson, a former Sunday Telegraph political journalist and Seven News reporter, was appointed editor of Cleo in December 2012. She has overseen a relaunch of the magazine and de-emphasised stories about orgasms and sex positions. Markson is regarded as extremely ambitious and competitive — in June it was revealed she had rifled through the bin of sister title Cosmopolitan to see if the mag was working on a similar story. Before editing Dolly, Dunk was a deputy editor at TV Week and entertainment editor at NW.

Marina Go, a former editor of Dolly, said: “I was shocked … The consumer magazine business model assumes deeply engaged audiences. But that requires editorial teams who are deeply passionate and engaged in their magazine’s unique spin on content. I’m not sure how that will continue to be the case when one team produces two products for what should be distinct audiences.”

Go is CEO of Private Media which publishes websites including Crikey.

Channel Nine Today host Lisa Wilkinson, a former editor of Cleo and Dolly, told Fairfax Media yesterday: “I just hope the magazine publishers in this country have been mentoring that new talent, otherwise it simply will not work.” And former Vogue Australia editor Kirstie Clements writes today: “Stretching staff across two titles such as Cleo and Dolly is a dangerous exercise in creating sameness; something that resembles an soulless exercise in frugality rather than the exciting labour of love a magazine should always be about.”

Bauer CEO Matthew Stanton said yesterday that “it makes sense to bring the staff creating these young women’s lifestyle titles together. The single publishing unit enables us to tap the synergies and expertise between the mastheads to further enhance the reach and relevance of these two much-loved Australian magazine brands.”

The latest circulation results showed Cleo sold 76,163 copies a month, down 17.4% on the same period last  year; Dolly sold 80,315, down 12.8%. Both are seen as endangered species because younger readers are turning to the internet for the content — celebrity stories and sex advice — that has long been their speciality. “I don’t know whether anyone can save these titles,” a senior magazine industry figure said.