Peter Fray, the new editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, is once again not answering his mobile phone, which saves us from another one of those conversations.

If he was talking, I would be asking the following questions. What is your understanding of your role? Whom do you answer to? How much of a free hand will you have? Do you have a brief to further crunch together the editorial resources of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age? Do you want to take the paper upmarket, or continue the journey towards popularism? What promises have been made to you, if any, about resources?

It is not an easy time to be a newspaper editor, and a Fairfax newspapers editor in particular. Even more particularly, the Sydney Morning Herald has problems of its own, having in the last few years sought to become a more populist, middle ground paper rather than capitalising on its “quality” reputation.

This attempt has failed. The Herald seems to have alienated existing readers without reaching  new ones.  It would be harsh to blame Alan Oakley, the former editor, for this. These days newspaper editors are doing well if they merely maintain circulation. Growing it (unless you give away the paper, which is certainly being tried) is mission impossible.

The Age has had its problems, but thanks to strong leadership from editorial middle management and senior journalists managed to maintain its investigative journalism and some of its edge through the Jaspan years. The Sydney Morning Herald has been much more adrift.

To be an editor at Fairfax is no longer a postion of ultimate power. The online versions of the paper are largely out of your control, managed and edited by others. As well there is a weight of executives above and around all of whom expect to be able to put their oars in. And most of them are based in Sydney, reading the Herald over their cornflakes.

How long is it since any of us heard a Fairfax editor speaking out bravely on the positioning or future of the mastheads, or indeed on any issues of journalism and public life? No, those kind of statements are made, if at all, but more senior executives. Fairfax editors risk becoming functionaries.

So, given all that, is Fray going to change tack from the populist course, or will he continue in the same direction? Furthermore, will this be his decision, or will it be up to Fairfax CEO Brian McCarthy? And what will be the role and attitude of the Group Executive Editor, Phil McLean, who was most recently in the news for  sacking columnist Mike Carlton during the journalists’ strike earlier this year?

At the Canberra Times Fray has been popular with staff, and has acquired a reputation as an editor who likes a good strong news story. He has been energetic and resourceful – though without positively impacting circulation.  McLean and Fray go back a fair way, having worked closely together before. Perhaps they already have a strategy worked out.

But turning around a newspaper that has alienated much of its audience and at the same time many of its staff will be no easy job. The wonder is that anyone wanted the job in the first place.

Meanwhile at the Canberra Times staff are wondering who will replace Fray. No firm information on this, but the names being mentioned as interested in the job are Stuart Howie, (former deputy editor of the Canberra Times and current editor of the Illawarra Mercury) and  and the current Deputy Editor, Bruce Jones.

More as it comes to hand.

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