Former Fairfax exec Sean Aylmer labels journalists ‘miserable’ and ‘insecure’, says revenue model is broken

Fairfax Media’s former editorial director who oversaw the company’s restructure and a series of redundancies has declared the revenue models of Fairfax, News Corp and the free-to-air television networks are broken.

Sean Aylmer also characterised journalists as “a miserable bunch” who are “insecure” and admitted any time he made an announcement about the company’s future to the Fairfax newsroom, it would inevitably end up in a rival News Corp publication.

Aylmer (right) with Filtered Media’s Mark Jones

“Anything I said to the journalists at Fairfax immediately appeared in News Corp publications,” he said at a Filtered Media event on storytelling this morning. “We leaked like a sieve.

“And you’d stand there and say ‘Look, let’s just have this between us, we’re Fairfax rah, rah, rah, let’s not tell anyone’ – and they’re tweeting it as you’re actually talking. It was a really amazing kind of experience.”

Journalists are some of the most-driven, “hungriest” and critically minded people you will ever meet, he said, but are “a miserable bunch, they really are, and they’re insecure, which is exactly why you love them”.

Aylmer said as a consequence of the leaks and the response from cynical, insecure journalists, he learned to conduct restructure conversations one-on-one, rather than make announcements to the newsroom.

“What I found is eventually is you kind of had to pull back a bit from being too honest – never dishonest – but you just can’t say everything you want to say, and then I went for the one-on-one conversations.

“And if you have a one-on-one conversation, it never leaked, because the person thought, it was probably ‘I’m the only person having this conversation potentially’. So I kind of went from this big mass thing, to literally thousands of one-on-one conversations to get the point across.”

Aylmer said his main skill throughout the restructure process was his ability to distill the information and tell the company’s story.

“You have to tell the story all the time. There is no point saying from on high ‘This is what we’re going to do’. It just doesn’t wash. So you always have to tell the story. What I’m really proud of is we negotiated two EBAs [Enterprise Bargaining Agreements] without a strike. Fairfax had a three-day strike every EBA negotiation for umpteen years until we did that, and that was all about telling the story. It was beginning the story six months before negotiations began, just continually reinforcing it again and again and again,” he said.

“For me, what I was doing was effectively making people redundant and downsizing and trying to explain this to a news room of cynical, smart journalists. As soon as I lied, I mean I never lied, but as soon as I stretched the truth, you’re in all sorts of trouble.

“I think if I had a skill, it’s actually making it simple.”

The simple truth, he said, is that revenue models for the likes of Fairfax are broken, and everyone knows it.

“Fairfax, and News would be the same – ABC’s a bit different because it’s government funded – but certainly the free-to-air TVs are exactly the same – the revenue model is broken.

“There simply is not as much revenue as there used to be, therefore you have to cut costs. It’s hard to say that, but that’s just the truth of the matter, and everyone that I dealt with knew it deep down.”

Traditional newsrooms, he said, are still struggling with consumer feedback and having to respond to reader demand, rather than simply dictating the news agenda.

“Your audience has to be at the centre of everything you do. 20 years ago, the great thing about being in a newspaper is that you didn’t care what your audience thought, right? You were a monopoly, you could tell them what they should think. What technology has done is give power to the consumer. That’s all that’s happened. So they can choose what they want, and as a result, all media organisations have to be much more customer centric,” he said, noting that this has been a difficult and fundamental change for the Fairfax newsroom.

Despite the printed press struggling to keep up with consumer demands and capture a large share of brands’ advertising spend, Aylmer said as long as the ‘ruling class’ is of a certain age, Fairfax and News Corp will maintain their edge.

“No matter what you say, where Fairfax and News win over everyone else is they have a print product which gives gravitas. While the ruling classes are my age or above and Turnbull or Shorten stand in parliament and say ‘Did you see this in the Fin Review?’, or ‘Did you see this in The Australian?’, it’s got gravitas.”


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