The Age digital editor Michael Schlechta

The Age’s digital editor has hit back at suggestions the website publishes “clickbait”, telling staff this morning that while he’d tried to stay silent while accusations The Age was going downmarket stacked up, he could stay silent no more.

“I have had enough,” Age digital editor Michael Schlechta wrote. “Andrew Jaspan, Gay Alcorn, Jon Faine, Paul Barry, Crikey. They have all had a good shot at us. Digital, that is.”

Schlechta took aim at characterisations of “clickbait“, “trash“, and “taking the masthead downmarket“:

“During the past couple of years I have had hundreds of conversations with reporters, topic editors and the like, and I don’t remember ever asking anyone to dumb down what they do. I have never asked anyone to give us clickbait.”

The Age’s digital presence reflected The Age’s brand, he said, though, “according to the critics, it is a given that we are running a site totally separate from our print products, jumping at every opportunity to chase clicks.”

“What a load of rubbish. It just makes me absolutely furious that most of them — who live in a protected world of guaranteed funding — are happy to take on such a pompous, self-righteous tone in an area they know little to nothing about.”

(On the ‘guaranteed funding’ point, Crikey relies on your subscriptions to stay afloat.)

Everyone in the digital team, Schlechta continued, took pride in working at the Age, and understood what that meant:

“We have a very loyal audience of more than 500,000 people every weekday who come to our site, most of whom are very happy with what we offer.”

“We understand that increasingly the digital team will be the face of The Age for most people so what stories we select and how we present them matters. But we also understand the reality that for our newsroom to survive at a scale that gives us an advantage, we need to attract a very large, dedicated audience. We get that, and we work with that in mind every day.”

Under Fairfax’s new restructure, announced last week with the departure of Age editor-in-chief Andrew Holden, print editors, whose role has steadily decreased in the “digital-first” newsroom, will no longer be able to commission any journalism. Topic editors and online editors will have all the commissioning power. Fairfax’s print paper editors will no longer even report to the editors in chief of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. Instead, they’ll report to the publishing director.

The changes have been accompanied by a wave of commentary that has drawn some angry reaction from Age staff, who feel they are being lectured to by people with little understanding of how the business works. “Everyone is a bloody expert,” one staffer told Crikey this morning. “We stuck around during the hard times and do what it takes day after day. We are the experts.”

Earlier this week, former deputy editor of The Age and Sunday Age editor Gay Alcorn (now the Guardian Australia’s bureau chief) wrote a piece about the Sydneyification of The Age. The reflection was filled with sadness for what The Age had become. The piece was widely praised outside The Age, but it sparked a fierce reaction from many Age staffers on social media. Acting Age editor-in-chief Mark Forbes — seen as a leading candidate for the role when it gets assigned permanently — hit back at Alcorn on Twitter. “A hypocritical, inaccurate, self serving piece of crap from one who pushed newsroom changes,” he tweeted. “I had respect for [Alcorn], but that partisan piece mocks the best journos in Oz”.

Peter Fray

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