The Fairfax strike: what is the core of news?

Update March 17 2016: Today in the wake of Fairfax staff walking out en masse we revisit a piece from May 2014 where Nic Christensen looks at the structural factors driving print redundancies and questions how far a publisher can cut the core of journalism and still remain credible.

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 4.08.39 pmLet’s be clear, we’ve been here before.

Much of the anger and despair we are seeing from Fairfax staff comes from the fact that it was less than two years since Fairfax management announced its “Fairfax of the Future” project, which saw 1,900 jobs slashed from the publisher with around 400 of those coming from editorial.

As one Fairfax reporter told me yesterday: “We did the 2012 negotiations in good faith and now this; it never ends.”

Personally I understand the sentiment and remember covering the 1,900 jobs announcement on a cold June morning back in 2012. It was the most dramatic round of media redundancies in Australian history.

This was before News Corp also began its tsunami of redundancies. Among the Fairfax staff you could see the palpable sense of shock among reporters, photographers and sub-editors alike.

Yesterday was no different. Fairfax announced “proposals” for major redundancies across its editorial production, lifestyle and photographic sections that would not only see 80 jobs go but have major repercussions on Fairfax’s quality of photographic journalism and which will likely see even more sub-editing moved to New Zealand.

Journalists at the Herald describe how SMH editor-in-chief Darren Goodsir yesterday addressed the newsroom in an “emotional” exchange with staff.

“Darren called all the staff together and actually got quite emotional himself. He wasn’t crying or anything but you could see he was visibly shaken by having to tell us the news,” said one journalist.

“There were certainly tears in the newsroom, some staffers ran out crying.

“The photographers were all pretty emotional especially, when they realised half of them were going to go.”

If you look at challenges facing Fairfax management the structural pressures are, once again, driving these latest cuts.

In recent months the market has been hearing a story of revival. Fairfax has been pushing the line of “cautious optimism”.

It has argued it is through the worst of the cost-cutting and was experiencing somewhat of renaissance in terms of improving advertiser interest in print and growing digital subscriber revenues through the paywall. The ASX seems to agree, with the FXJ share price remaining steady yesterday and slipping only slightly today.

Many senior editors and journalists inside the company privately question this more hopeful interpretation of Fairfax’s future fortune and whether a revival, against the broader structural challenge of moving from print, will last.

Indeed the latest redundancies and yesterday’s strike don’t help the renewal narrative. Structurally, Fairfax still faces huge hurdles to overcome in the next few years as it tries to build a sustainable revenue base at a time of collapsing print revenue and fixed costs.

The fact that on Monday the company will have been without a group sales director for five months following the departure of Ed Harrison and his number two Paul Sigaloff to Yahoo!7 doesn’t help the narrative either.

The publisher will continue to move away from print towards a digital future where readers pay for content, but this will likely mean continued declines in print revenues as Fairfax trades the more lucrative print dollars for the so-called “digital dimes”.

Standard Media Index, which tracks the expenditure of Australia’s big media buying agencies, records how in March 2011 metropolitan newspapers had advertising revenue of $76.3m while in March of this year those same newspapers had only $42m – down 26% year-on-year.

While News Corp Australia is far from immune to these massive revenue declines, Fairfax Media has arguably borne the brunt of them, while simultaneously also facing renewed competition from the likes of new overseas players such as The Guardian, Buzzfeed and the MailOnline, all of which are quickly growing their Australian audiences and working their way up the Nielsen Online Ratings.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I personally sympathise with Fairfax staff and the journalist’s union, Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), who are fighting to get more clarity from management and to retain a strong photo desk.

Having spent my early years in journalism at The Daily Telegraph and The Australian I can attest to the importance of photojournalism to the practice of both print and online journalism.

I can recall a number of times at News where a news story would fail to run, get moved towards the back of the book or had to be reshot because the photo wasn’t good enough.

Pictures are an incredibly important factor in storytelling and I question whether News Corp management would ever take the view that its in-house “shooters” could be replaced by the likes of a photo agency such as Getty Images.

That’s not to denigrate the Getty snappers – if things follow the same course as the PageMasters outsourcing of subbing, I suspect some will be ex-Fairfax staffers themselves. But the face-to-face newsroom relationship is important to creating a good brief for a news photograph.

However, the reality is that Fairfax is simply following international trends which have seen photodesks in the UK and America dramatically shrunk, and in some cases even eliminated and outsourced, in recent years.

The question increasingly for Fairfax management appears to be: are there any parts of the newspaper, beyond the actual editing of the newspaper, which they believe can’t be outsourced or placed into the hands of contributors? As one Fairfax staffer told Mumbrella, yesterday: “What do we keep? Is it the investigations team? Sport? At what point is everything bar the news desk outsourced?”

The answer to this question will be watched keenly in the coming weeks and months by journalists, readers and advertisers alike.

Nic Christensen is the deputy editor of Mumbrella


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