Judith Whelan has been appointed editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.

This makes her the second most powerful person in the SMH newsroom, after editor-in-chief Darren Goodsir. The position of editor is “responsible for all content produced across topics,” as editorial director Sean Aylmer put it yesterday. “This is a digital job and will run the newsroom on a day-to-day basis”.

Whelan is a former editor of Good Weekend magazine, editor of the Saturday edition as well as being a features editor, and a health and transport reporter. Her appointment is a bit of positive news for the SMH, which was yesterday the subject of a extraordinary 4000-word investigation by Richard Cooke into the career of Paul Sheehan that ran in the Monthly and Guardian.

Cooke savaged Sheehan’s particular article on ‘Louise’, that ran on the front page of the SMHover a fortnight ago. But he dug much deeper, detailing how generations of editors at Fairfax had tried to reign in or, when that wasn’t possible, forgive Sheehan’s many editorial indiscretions. The senior writer, despite a history of dodgy articles far longer than ‘Magic Water’, was in recent years able to run rough-shed over more junior editors, who no longer had the clout to pull Sheehan in line. His very public recent failure, Cooke writes, comes as no surprise:

“On this day, at this moment, Sheehan’s aura and history culminated in an awesome failure of institutional memory. A man who had messed up so many times was given one last calamitous benefit of the doubt.”

Last Friday, Goodsir said Sheehan “will stand aside from his duties until further notice”. Many noted this wasn’t the same as saying Sheehan had been fired. But the Herald has let some of its other columnists go.

Yesterday, new ABC Sydney Mornings host Wendy Harmer said her monthly column in the Herald had been cut. She’s not the only one — the cutbacks affect columnists who got the back page of the SMH’s Saturday News in Review section. Those writing for the column in the past four weeks have been Jacqueline Maley, Peter Munro, Wendy Harmer and Malcolm Knox (though he was just filling in) — so a mix of in-house journos and contributors. Author John Birmingham, also a contributor, has also seen his column end (though he’ll still write for Fairfax’s Brisbane Times).

The intention, Crikey has been told, is to put Maley — the SMH’s parliamentary sketch writer — on the column every week. It’s been described as a cost-cutting measure.

Birmingham retweeted news of the death of his SMH column with the comment: “Well they have to fund Paul’s gardening leave somehow”. Could he mean Sheehan? Living on the edge.

Clarification: The above has been amended to make clear that Malcolm Knox was not axed from the column — he was only an occasional contributor to the section and still write for Fairfax.

Peter Fray

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