Former editor of The Age Alex Lavelle

On June 18 the editor of The Age, Alex Lavelle, resigned. At any other time this would have rocked the foundations of Melbourne. But these are no ordinary times. Lavelle passed much as he rose — without a trace. 

By their own actions, the staff of The Age accidentally killed off their much-loved editor. Just days after 70 of them sent an email of complaint to Lavelle and two Sydney executives, he left the building. It was an own goal. 

It’s hard to understand this story if you haven’t experienced the unusual culture of newsrooms. 

At The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, the role of editor bears little relation to the chief executive of a conventional company. Many journalists don’t always recognise chains of authority and feel free to contradict and argue with their editors and senior executives. They feel their duty is not to their employer, but to a higher cause: the truth. 

Managing journalists at the best of times is like trying to untangle a bunch of eels in a bucket of jelly. 

Both newspapers are heavily unionised. When a journalist is promoted to editor, she or he leaves the union and becomes exempt from collective action such as a strike. In union terms they cross the line from “staff” to “management”. Their job is now managing their former colleagues who are famously averse to being told what to do. It’s a challenging role. 

Until a few years ago, being the editor of The Age meant you lunched every day with the rich and powerful, slipping back to the office to oversee stories which shaped government policy and public opinion. It was a very high-status role with all the perks: tickets to corporate boxes of the AFL and the Melbourne Cup and access to every boardroom in the city. 

Nowadays it’s a thankless job involving endless hours reading copy and angry emails from everyone — including your staff — telling you how to do your job. With few or none of the perks. 

In 1983 when Sydney-based John Fairfax Holdings Ltd bought The Age, it consolidated a media empire and created a sibling rivalry which continues to this day. 

For decades the SMH and The Age operated fairly independently, sharing few resources. But in the past few years, as staff numbers have been slashed, the two papers were forced to share copy and tensions arose. 

The simmering resentment by Age staff about being managed from Sydney — the headquarters of John Fairfax and now Nine — has turned into open warfare. The Age newsroom has always been more outspoken than the SMH and many journalists are not pleased that former Coalition treasurer Peter Costello is the chairman of Nine and therefore their boss. 

The June letter, which half the staff signed, claimed Sydney was responsible for errors in a story in The Age about a Black Lives Matter rally. 

One of the letter’s recipients, Sydney-based executive editor James Chessell, a former Liberal Party staffer, was able to show the error had not been made in Sydney. The letter also made demands including creating an Indigenous affairs reporting role in Melbourne to match Sydney’s, and hiring more staff from culturally diverse backgrounds. 

In fact Sydney’s Indigenous affairs reporter, Kamilaroi woman Ella Archibald-Binge, files for the SMH and The Age and Lavelle had been involved in her appointment. 

The letter said the masthead was in danger of becoming a “subsidiary of Sydney” because it is being edited there without regard for Victorian readership and values. It wanted Lavelle to be given back full control to edit from Melbourne.

We believe there is a growing public perception that we have become politicised, a perception that is damaging the reputation of The Age and, potentially, the viability of the business.

There had been open conflict in the newsroom about the letter — half the staff refused to sign. Sending the letter to Sydney management would sign Lavelle’s death warrant, many felt, because it showed the newsroom was hopelessly divided and had slipped out of his control. 

After nearly four years in the job, he had not been able to fix the problem, putting him in an untenable position. 

Just days after the letter landed, Chessell took Lavelle out for coffee and delivered the verdict. Chessell, like everyone else, genuinely liked Lavelle. But he’d been left with no choice. Who else to sack? Himself? 

Crikey’s proprietor Eric Beecher is a former editor of the SMH and was editor-in-chief of the Herald and Weekly Times Group. 

“For decades, the editor of The Age sat at the pinnacle of Melbourne’s power edifice, alongside the premier and probably no one else,” he says. 

In those days, an Age editor being sacked would be a huge local and national media story. 

“So it’s a fascinating comment on the status of The Age today that its editor is an unknown figure who can be removed after staff protests about a political story by an owner chaired by a Liberal Party grandee — without any public reaction,” he says.

“Actually, the big story here is about the demise and indifference towards mainstream legacy media.” 

If Lavelle’s demise is a sign of the malaise infecting all media, it is perhaps also a reflection that in these straitened times, nice people — or those perceived to be so — tend to finish last. 

The AFL-mad journalist was at The Age for almost 20 years — for most of that time he was a sports journalist and then sports editor, with a stint of about 18 months as news director before assuming the top job. 

Former Age sports writer Rohan Connolly worked closely with Lavelle for all that time. He said he was an encouraging and collaborative boss who showed great faith in his staff. Connolly, who now owns the Footyology website, said the softly spoken Lavelle was sometimes perceived as not hard enough to be editor. 

“But that was rubbish,” he says. “He could be as assertive as anyone. But if there was an angle he wanted pursued differently, or an idea he had about which you weren’t as enthusiastic, his gentle powers of persuasion and capacity to convince you of what he believed without belligerence were very effective. 

“I always felt he helped me produce my best efforts and best results, and I’m confident most of us who worked under him would feel the same way.”

Lavelle politely declined to comment when I rang him last week. Staff are said to be devastated and six weeks on they’re still waiting for a full-time replacement. 

World editor Michelle Griffin is editing — she’s a candidate for the top job, as is investigations editor Michael Bachelard and The Sunday Age editor David King. 

In April, as Melbourne reeled under the first wave of COVID-19, Lavelle addressed Age readers with characteristic optimism: “I imagine there are very few better places to be living right now than Victoria.” 

For the incoming editor it is a very different world, in so many ways.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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