A plate of media redundancy schadenfreude, but whose fault is the bitter aftertaste?

Nic-Christensen-234x151-234x151While SBS is being criticised for a satirical piece on the News Corp redundanciesNic Christensen argues the industry needs to come together and end the blinkered point scoring. 

In my darker moments (usually right after the latest round of redundancies have been announced) it sometimes feels like that my job as a media writer is to chart the decline of journalism in this country.

Don’t get me wrong I take no pleasure from that, in part because I also know how it feels to lose your job – it’s just over three years ago since I cleared out my desk at News Corp’s HQ at Holt Street. 

In the last 24 hours the journalism profession has mourned news of more redundancies.

At News Corp it’s understood at least 55 journalist roles are under the axe and there are also ongoing voluntary “sunset redundancies” at Fairfax Media’s The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newsrooms.

SBS parod news corp pieceIt’s within this context that a piece on SBS’s satirical website The Backburner, “Fired News Corp journalists now free to pursue jobs as actual journalists”, hit a very raw nerve – particularly among News Corp employees past and present:

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 2.00.05 pmScreen Shot 2015-11-24 at 2.00.47 pmScreen Shot 2015-11-24 at 2.01.29 pmTo be clear it wasn’t just News’ staff objecting to many of their peers at Fairfax, the ABC and elsewhere within the media also objected:

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 2.03.13 pmScreen Shot 2015-11-24 at 2.04.06 pmIndeed Mumbrella understands that some journalists within SBS’s newsroom also argued that the piece should be taken down and the piece was sent to senior management for a decision on whether it should be pulled, amid social media anger from rival outlets.

Call me biased (and yes, the News Corp microchip is still implanted although their management might argue it stopped working a while back) but for my money, although the satirical piece was actually focused on critiquing News’ style and subject matter, it should never have been run for a couple of reasons.

Firstly it wasn’t particularly funny. It was more like undergraduate humour rehashing a joke that had already been doing the rounds on Twitter and which is about as funny as the perennial joke about the company’s old name: “Is your news limited.” Geddit?

Although humour is of course in the eye of the beholder and the piece got some 350 Facebook likes and 69 shares – pretty good considering SBS Comedy’s page has less than 15,000 followers. It’s also probably not drawing a long bow to suggest they’d fall more on the left of the political spectrum, and are therefore more likely to dislike News/Rupert Murdoch.

The timing was also insensitive. Now I’m not arguing journalists should be a protected species – we dish it out and therefore we shouldn’t be immune from criticism or satire.

News CorpThat said, News Corp began tapping people on the shoulder yesterday and unlike the ABC and Fairfax who are heavy on the consultation, Holt Street’s approach to these matters often sees people showing up at 8am unaware that they have been listed for redundancy and will be out the door before 12pm.

Mumbrella understands that there were a number of redundancies yesterday and at least three more people were being told this morning. That’s a month and a day before Christmas for those without a calendar.

The result is a culture where you have a couple of thousand people all looking over their shoulders for fear of being tapped – now I’m not justifying that approach to redundancies – but it’s within this context that last night’s howls of social media anger from News Corp staff should be understood.

As Crikey reports today: “(staff) were furious about the limited information staffers had been sent about what was going on, though it’s understood some editors have taken more time to explain the changes than others.

“For a company built on telling people what was going on, one unhappy tabloid journo mused, News Corp’s internal comms were ‘pretty fucking poor’.”

And so the reality is that you have a group of people who are going into Christmas don’t know how they’re going to pay the bills beyond a redundancy payout, which may not actually be all that big given these redundancies have increasingly hit young as well as older journalists.

Now satire naturally takes things to extremes, but it’s fair to say if a similar redundancy piece – which had elements of schadenfreude given SBS’ own struggles of late – had run about another outlet there would have been greater outrage.

And while News Corp will always have it’s critics I’d note it also has some of the best journalists in the country.

Unfortunately if anything, the concern about these News Corp jobs cuts is somewhat muted in part because of management and masthead editor’s willingness to put the knife into rivals.

For instance the tabloids, which this year likened Q&A host Tony Jones to a terrorist sympathiser running front page headlines with “the ABC of jihad”, “terror vision” and publishing ISIS waving an ABC flag:

Screen-Shot-2015-06-24-at-8.22.52-am-468x195Or The Australian’s relentless criticism of its rivals likes Fairfax, and calls to cut public broadcasting (what other publication would have the near unreadable rants of both Gerard Henderson’s Media Watch Dog AND Chris Kenny’s Media Watch Watch?) that often sees criticism of the ABC and SBS somewhat overblown:

Or the less than tactful way they themselves have handled news of journalism redundancies at Fairfax, the ABC and SBS.  Which brings me to my biggest concern about the piece and that is it is a distraction from the real problem which is a broken business model for many commercial media. These are the latest in a long line of journalism redundancies, but they are certainly not the last.

Don’t believe me? Check out the media agency ad spend on newspapers in Australia in October 2012 it was $90.9m last month it was $58.9m and it’s a broadly similar story for magazines.

And while digital is growing for many media outlets it is nowhere near replacing the lost revenue, as the likes of Google and Facebook gobble up their share, and thus we see continuing cuts. (See Tim Burrowes’ analysis of Michael Wolff’s latest book for more detail on concerns around digital business models).

Just take a look at News’ rival Fairfax which has had success in building a digital subscriber base but which has again brought in the management consultants and is appears set to close bureaus in the Middle East and Washington, replaced by something which is being called internally a “super stringer” which is basically a salaried employee without the resourcing.

The company is also rumoured to be considering moving to a national newsroom model whereby the positions of Sydney Morning Herald editor and The Age editor would go and one position would have ultimate say over what is being run across Fairfax’s two most powerful mastheads. Not so local news.

This is something that a decade ago would have been unthinkable but today it appears on the cards as print revenues head in one direction – south.

As a media industry many mediums – not just print but also television and radio – face the threat of declining advertising revenues as their business models come under increasing threat from overseas operators – be they Buzzfeed, Netflix or Spotify.

Some may choose to take the cheap shot, to enjoy the jibe at the expense of the rival, but this ignores a reality that for all the talk of digital innovation, paywalls and new business models, our professional is fundamentally challenged and right now no-one has found a fully-funded solution.

And that’s ultimately something I can take no joy in.

Nic Christensen is deputy editor of Mumbrella. He is a former media writer for The Australian and reporter for the Daily Telegraph. 


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