With scores of redundancies in 2012 and a mass exodus of experienced journos, is this the worst time to be a journalist? In a feature that first appeared in Encore, Nic Christensen asks the question.
In June last year a tsunami of redundancies began to sweep across Australia’s media landscape. They came in a series of waves and in the 12 months that followed, an estimated 1,200 journalists departed the mainstream media.
The tide first went out on Fairfax Media. The company unveiled its “Fairfax of the Future” project and explained that this future would involve shedding 1,900 jobs over three years with more than 20 per cent of the departures coming from editorial. Reporters who were in the newsroom at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that day have told Encore of a palpable sense of shock.
“We’d seen redundancies before, but never of this magnitude. Many sensed that it was time to get out,” says one Fairfax reporter.
“There was a genuine sense of shock in the newsroom. I remember Amanda Wilson (then editor of The Sydney Morning Herald) looked genuinely stunned,” says a reporter at the paper. “And of course we’ve now had all the departures both here and at News Limited. It’s certainly been a very rough time to be a newspaper journo.”
Indeed, just days after Fairfax’s dramatic announcement, News Limited reporters were left reeling after CEO Kim Williams informed staff via a video address of a restructure that would mean: “We will hire new people where required, but regrettably some roles will become redundant.”
The publisher has consistently refused to disclose how many staff have been let go but it is believed to be more than at rival Fairfax.
“It’s very empty here in the newsroom,” says one News Limited reporter. “Empty desks everywhere – so many people have left. But the paper still has to come out. We’re doing it with fewer and fewer people.” And it’s not just newspapers feeling the pain. Television and magazines have also been impacted. In November, Channel Ten made up to 100 journalists – including prominent presenters such as Helen Kapalos and Bill Woods – redundant after their expanded news experiment failed. In the world of Australian magazines, Bauer Media axed women’s titles Grazia and Madison with dozens of journalists and other editorial staff departing as a result.
“We had the farewells last week,” says a junior journalist at Bauer. “It’s all been very sad and people across the board are afraid. Everyone is. Rumours circulate about what is happening but then the surprises just seem to come out of nowhere.”
The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the union which represents journalists, says the exact number of industry redundancies is unknown.
“We think there were more than 500 from News Limited, around 380 to 400 at Fairfax if you include the offshoring of jobs and then around 80 to 100 at Channel Ten plus other losses at various other titles,” says Marcus Strom, strategic campaigner on the MEAA’s future of journalism project. “Our figures are more concrete for Fairfax than they are for News but we know more than 1,000 and probably as many as 1,200 journalists have left traditional mainstream media, mainly in print.”
The biggest blow to the industry is the departure of some of the country’s most experienced reporters. Names that graced the pages of newspapers for many years are no longer there and as the former publisher and editor-in-chief of The Sydney Morning Herald Peter Fray – who himself took redundancy – concedes, the changes have put pressure on the quality of the journalism as media outlets are forced to do more with fewer resources. “If you look through the prism of the way we’ve thought about media for the last five decades, then yes it’s not been a great time,” says Fray. “There are clearly a lot of challenges and anyone in the media would have absolute empathy for the many hundreds of journalists who have lost their jobs. Having been there myself it’s traumatic. It’s worrying and doesn’t do much for your bank balance. It has been very sobering in many ways. I thought I’d leave Fairfax on Friday and on Monday someone would give me a great job. That didn’t quite happen.”
A NEW SKILL SET
Instead Fray, like many others, has been forced to diversify and this week launched an Australian version of the fact-checking website Politifact.
Amid the doom and gloom, many in the media industry are asking whether this the worst time to be a journalist.
The answer to that question is complex, says Margaret Simons, director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism.
“It depends where you look and who you are. If you are a broadsheet newspaper journalist in the States, the UK or Australia it is probably the worst of times, in living memory, but there are many areas of journalism where it is good times – if not the best of times.”
Lawrie Zion, journalism program coordinator at La Trobe University, agrees but says the age and willingness of reporters to embrace change is also a factor. “A mid-career newspaper reporter of my vintage would probably be having a different experience from a recent graduate who is trained in multimedia and who is going into journalism with a sense of adventure not necessarily aiming to work for a big masthead,” says Zion. “It depends a lot on what you’re up for and whether you enjoy being part of something that is genuinely changing. We are in a disruptive moment – it’s a media revolution – but the answer may be that there is more responsibility on journalists to be their own bosses.”
The MEAA says a number of experienced journalists who took redundancy payments are now working freelance while others have chosen to move into related fields such as corporate communications, book publishing, non-traditional media or teaching. “Only a handful have popped up at other publications,” says the MEAA’s Strom pointing to the example of Mark Coulton, the former deputy editor of The Sydney Morning Herald who has moved to The Australian.
“That used to be the traditional way – they’d take a redundancy at Fairfax and then go to News or the other way around. But one of the things about journalists is that they are highly trained professionals with a skill set that is applicable across a number of industries.”
Among those who took redundancy from The Sydney Morning Herald was Joel Gibson, the newspaper’s opinion editor. The 35-year-old was one of the youngest reporters to take redundancy but says his journalism skills have transferred easily into the corporate word.
“I loved being a fly on the wall of the world as a journalist, but I didn’t want to retire without doing something others would write about too,” says Gibson, who is now the news editor of consumer price advocacy company One Big Switch. Gibson says his new role is a mixture of writing, editing and analysis. “About half of what I do now is traditional journalism – news aggregation, data and visual journalism, social media, research and pitching story ideas,” he says.
While he misses the energy or ‘buzz’ of the daily news cycle, there are other parts of the modern newspaper environment he doesn’t miss.
“It’s churlish for the major papers to say the cuts don’t hurt morale or quality, of course they do,” says Gibson. “You do notice there’s less depth when you get a few pages in to the paper, but I’ve been impressed by the papers’ ability to keep up appearances and remain compelling. I’m told morale is not great, but the journos are doing a good job in difficult circumstances.
Gibson says the problem is that “we compare our industry today to a golden period before the turn of the century when staffing, salaries and budgets were as fat as the lunches were long”.
Walkley Award-winning journalist Caroline Overington is a 20-year veteran of newspapers who recently made the transition to magazines leaving The Australian to take a role as associate editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly.
Overington, who has worked at Fairfax and News Limited, says the so-called ‘golden age’ is often viewed through rose-coloured glasses.
“When I started at The Age the culture was very blokey, so much so there used to be a ‘bog bar’ which was a fridge in the men’s toilet where the men would gather at the end of the day and decide what would be on the front page,” says Overington. “It was an absurdly sexist and quite mediocre environment to work in but now because the barriers to entry have collapsed we are seeing women rise to the top and create other opportunities that didn’t exist when I started,” she says. Overington points to websites like Mamamia, run by one-time Cleo editor Mia Freedman, and former broadcaster Wendy Harmer’s website The Hoopla, as examples of how the internet is changing journalism.
THE NEW JOURNALISM FRONTIER
In Australia, myriad online news websites such as Crikey, The Conversation and Business Spectator have firmly established their place in the media landscape and will soon be joined by other entrants including The Guardian’s online Australian operation and Politifact which have both recently been hiring ahead of their launches later this year.
“If you look at the opportunities in the digital space, you have to say what a great challenge and what great opportunities are in front of us,” says Politifact’s Fray. “Not all of these startups are going to have long lives – a lot of them will have temporary or short lives, some will be failures but some will be with us for many years to come.”
However, when it comes to the traditional media players Fray is less optimistic about their future.
“It is possible to see a landscape where there is a rather large hill called the ABC, publicly funded and leaning a bit to the left, and then another large hill called News Limited, privately funded leaning a bit to the right,” he says. “In between those two hills will be a plain of little hills – growing hills – hills of people trying to do different things in between. I am hopeful that we will see some of those little hills growing into reasonable- sized, bigger, hills.”
When asked where Fairfax and its journalists fit on that landscape Fray says the key to the 180-year-old publisher’s future lies in maintaining both audience and influence.
“I think Fairfax has a great audience but I do fear that it’s influence is waning a little and that to me is all about the journalism and this is the trick,” says Fray. “It is very difficult and I have absolute respect for everyone in Fairfax, and I’m not seeking to shit on them in any way, but I do think their central conundrum is how do you reduce costs and maintain quality.”
Margaret Simons, a former Fairfax journalist, says we are likely to see more redundancies in ‘traditional media’. “Sadly it is going to get worse before it gets better,” says Simons. “And when it does get better it may not be in the organisations that we have associated with the mainstream of the industry. While some will probably make the transition, quite a few won’t.”
This year has already seen the closure of a number of magazine titles, with more expected to follow, but executive director of Magazine Publishers Australia, Robin Parkes, says this is more cyclical than structural. “The magazine sector is going through one of its toughest times but I think we have to be careful not to go too hard on the doom and gloom,” says Parkes. “We often get carried away with the whole ‘everything is closing’ but some of it is just the commercial reality where the lifecycle of a particular masthead has run its course and it will get shut down and a new one will open.” One major launch on the horizon is Bauer’s Elle.
This perspective isn’t shared by Simons. “It’s very difficult to be the big kid on the block, the one everyone went to, and the mainstream media still has that but now you are moving to a place where news is a big ecosystem with many players,” says Simons.
“Most of them won’t die but I think most of them will be smaller and less profitable. That will probably mean that some of them will have to transition from being publicly owned companies to being in private hands.”
According to the Department of Innovation, as recently as 2010 there were a total of 4,750 people studying to become journalists. The Centre for Advancing Journalism’s Simons says graduates wanting journalism jobs should not despair.
“There is plenty of hope. Anecdotally, many of my students have found jobs or paid work since last year and four out of five of these graduates are in new media outlets,” says Simons. “It’s only a small sample but I think it’s indicative. Young people are much more optimistic and alive to the opportunities than their older counterparts.”
Its a perspective shared by La Trobe University’s Zion. “Our graduates have gone to places like Crikey and The Conversation,” he says. “A lot of people who are doing well in early career stints seem to like that they have a chance to shape the new things that are happening in media.”
Zion also points out that outlets including the ABC have been hiring for newly established regional bureaux and fact-checking units. He says: “A role like a multimedia producer, that’s a position that simply didn’t exist five years ago.”
So is this the worst time to be a journalist? Those in the profession Encore spoke to for this piece hold out hope for the future of the trade and its practitioners.
“I’m a natural optimist,” says the MEAA’s Strom. “It’s certainly a difficult time to be a journalist but I think there are also a lot of opportunities.
“As a writer 10 years ago, all you had was 400 words and a photo to tell the story. Now there are all sorts of ways to interact with the people formerly known as the audience.”
Politifact’s Fray agrees. “It is about finding your audience, finding out what your audience wants, loving your audience and getting them to love you or hate you or whatever and hammering away at that,” he says.
“There is absolutely a future there. I do honestly and sincerely believe that the role the journalist has to play in our society and community is as needed now as it has ever been. The real question is who pays for it? Sure, there are challenges, but I do see some exciting stuff happening.”
This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.