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Last week’s shock departure of the editor of The Age was sparked by discontent among staff over editorial direction and leadership. But it seems the warning shots claimed an unintended victim. By Rick Morton.

How divisions at The Age cost its editor his job

Former Age editor Alex Lavelle.
Credit: Paul Rovere

It appears Alex Lavelle, who was until the afternoon of June 18 the editor of The Age, did not know his time was up.

Just hours before the sudden announcement of his resignation, Lavelle’s executive assistant was emailing small groups of newsroom staff, inviting them to have lunch with the editor.

He wanted to discuss their concerns about the paper’s management, which were outlined in a letter signed by almost 70 staff members from the Melbourne newspaper and addressed to Lavelle, Nine newspapers executive editor James Chessell and chief digital and publishing officer Chris Janz.

And then Lavelle was gone.

“The staff who wrote the letter didn’t want Alex sacked, that’s the irony of it,” one journalist in The Age’s newsroom tells The Saturday Paper.

The missive was a bid to wrest back control of the publication from what those who signed perceived to be an interventionist Sydney operation.

It listed as its chief concerns the apparent introduction of errors into reporters’ copy, pressure to deliver certain angles and stories and a “failure to understand the values and interests of our Victorian readership”.

Specifically, the reporters highlighted concerns about a lack of diversity in the Melbourne newsroom, a problem that had existed long before Chessell assumed control of the two mastheads and the company’s digital-only operations in Brisbane and Perth.

“We ask that an Indigenous Affairs reporting role be created in Melbourne,” the letter read. “We also ask that a greater effort be made to hire and promote people from culturally diverse backgrounds.”

These were the substantive demands, but the timing of the note – which was leaked to and published in Guardian Australia just hours after the paper’s explosive joint investigation into Adem Somyurek aired on 60 Minutes – was described as “amateur hour” by some Age staffers.

It also came after a horror run during which an editorial in both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age claimed Australia had no history of slavery – corrected days later – and a news article appeared on the front page of the Melbourne masthead, hooked on a single anonymous source, citing police concerns that Black Lives Matter protesters would “spit” on officers during the Melbourne rally.

The paper later corrected the article, saying it did not meet editorial values and standards.

A time line of events within The Age has been pieced together following conversations with 13 current employees of the newspaper, half of whom helped organise or directly supported the letter of complaint and others who refused to sign it.

The Saturday Paper understands the contentious report on the Black Lives Matter rally was never seen by Lavelle, despite being placed on the front page.

Lavelle declined to comment for this piece.

The letter began to circulate without the imprimatur of The Age’s house committee, an internal union body that usually handles reporters’ concerns.

The committee’s chair, Bianca Hall, did not know about the letter and when she discovered its contents resigned her position as chair within minutes.

The Black Lives Matter article was written by The Age’s state political editor, Noel Towell, who is Hall’s partner, and journalist Tom Cowie.

When James Chessell learnt of the letter, he attempted to call the main protagonists, a small group of reporters.

They did not answer their phones.

This prompted a terse email from Chris Janz, which noted management’s disappointment that those involved would not talk to him and Chessell.

“We weren’t screening their calls,” says one organiser. “But we didn’t want to speak to James one on one. We wanted to speak with him as a group.”

The first draft of the complaint letter did not include any reference to Lavelle’s editorship, but once the group realised he would bear the brunt of the blowback, the note was amended to include a paragraph in support of their boss.

The revised wording was not shown to staff who had already signed the draft.

“It was never our intention for Alex to lose his job,” says one reporter.

“And it was never our intention for it to leak and certainly not for it to get out on the night of one of our biggest investigations.”

That scoop, a year-long investigation by Nick McKenzie, Sumeyya Ilanbey and 60 Minutes producer Joel Tozer, brought down state Labor minister Adem Somyurek – but the timing of the leaked staff complaint gave ammunition to detractors who accuse the newspaper of shifting to the right.

Reporters with concerns about the direction of the newspaper deny there are any clear divisions on the news floor.

However, the handling of the whole saga did incense some staff who were broadly supportive of the diversity agenda.

To the extent that there are camps within the old Fairfax empire, they fall roughly into those who are worried about James Chessell’s perceived politics – he was a former Liberal staffer to Joe Hockey – and those who think he has introduced more rigour and breadth of coverage to the publications he oversees.

“James doesn’t have many allies in the newsroom,” one reporter says. “But he has been hiring very much in his own image.”

This is code for “hiring people from News Corp” – although reporters were loath to name any individual journalists with whom they took issue.

Chessell’s first hire was former Labor adviser Sean Kelly, who joined Nine as a political columnist in September 2018.

He also brought in former Herald Sun political editor Rob Harris as national affairs editor across both Nine mastheads; Chip Le Grand, a long-time journalist at The Australian, to be The Age’s chief reporter; and Patrick Elligett from The New Daily, who is now news director.

Another of Chessell’s relatively new Melbourne recruits is David King, former Victoria editor for The Australian, now editor of The Sunday Age.

According to those familiar with the process, King “was the line editor that landed the Somyurek investigation”, checking the sensitive copy for accuracy and legal holes.

Investigations editor Michael Bachelard, tipped as a leading contender to take up The Age’s editorship, is on extended leave.

King is also in the mix, as is Michelle Griffin, world editor across The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, who has stepped in as acting editor at The Age.

An outside pick is former Herald Sun editor Damon Johnston, who replaced King at The Australian as its Victoria boss.

It seems unlikely though, because, as one Age journalist noted, there would be a “newsroom revolt” if Johnston were parachuted in.

 

By all accounts Alex Lavelle was universally liked. Colleagues variously described him as a “gentle soul” and “kind man”, while also someone who was “not the most charismatic leader” nor capable of being firm to either the demands of his own staff or Sydney management.

“If you read the letter, it is a list of things that Melbourne got wrong,” one reporter says.

“Alex wasn’t entirely aloof but he wasn’t engaged in the way that an editor needs to be on a day-to-day basis.”

Other reporters say that since the editorship of Michael Gawenda, which ended in 2004, The Age has been led by a series of editors “who do not believe it is their job to actually edit the paper”.

They say that left a vacuum, which Chessell has been trying to fill.

Sources say Sydney Morning Herald editor Lisa Davies and the papers’ national editor, Tory Maguire, both have a constructive relationship with Chessell, and are able to push back when needed.

Chessell has told colleagues it is this “creative friction” that produces a better newspaper. But a reporter who supported the letter said some staff, without direction, are “trying to guess what James would want” in the paper.

“I think there is a bit of inexperience and double-guessing Chessell, and that hasn’t helped,” they said.

There have been production issues, too. Senior reporters said they did not believe the letter would ever have been sent were it not for staff working from home during the coronavirus pandemic shutdown.

“People were stuck at home, copy was getting mangled in the system – not deliberately, but there were some issues – and journalists saw what was happening in some other newsrooms and thought, ‘We better do something,’ ” one reporter said. “But I don’t think they thought it through.”

Some experienced journalists say they tried to counsel others to raise the issues but to consider whether, in doing so, a show-of-force letter could backfire and claim one of their own in friendly fire.

Despite the fallout in the newsroom, many who signed the letter still believe it was the right thing to do.

“These issues are really important and there was a real sense that we were being diminished organisationally but also culturally – our reporting needs to reflect the values and experiences of our readers,” one organiser said.

“I haven’t heard from anyone who has regretted signing it.”

For his part, James Chessell says both the global conversation in newsrooms about diversity among staff and the Melbourne newsroom’s request for an Indigenous Affairs reporting role are worthwhile.

“It’s hard for a newsroom to reflect the community it seeks to represent unless it embraces a healthy degree of pluralism,” he told The Saturday Paper.

“The discussion about journalistic diversity should not just cover race but extend to the geographic, educational and economic backgrounds of the journalists who make up newsrooms. Every good masthead should be a broad church where different – and sometimes divergent – ideas can be aired as long as they are backed by sensible evidence-based reporting, analysis or commentary.

“I’ve always believed Age readers don’t like to be told what to think.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 27, 2020 as "Age of discontent".

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Rick Morton
is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.

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