News

‘People like to pick on Fairfax’: News boss insists newsroom is on board with changes

Sean Aylmer

Aylmer: “We still have a stable of great writers”

Fairfax news and business media chief, Sean Aylmer, has defended the latest round of job cuts and suggested newsroom staff fully understand that change is unavoidable.

However unpalatable it is to make people redundant “we would not have a business” if hard decisions had not made now and in the past, he said.

Speaking to Mumbrella on the sidelines of the International News Media Association (INMA) world congress in London, Aylmer also vehemently rejected suggestions the redundancy of 120 staff – some of them senior journalists – made a mockery of Fairfax’s continued vocal commitment to quality journalism.

Denying the job cuts were threatening the quality of the product, Aylmer said: “I just totally disagree with that. We still have more than 600 people in the newsroom. We still have a bunch of household names who write for us.

“We have a stable of great journalists, and I totally disagree with the proposition that we are cutting and there is no one good left. It is just wrong.”

Aylmer claimed people “like to pick on Fairfax” and question the quality of its journalism when the reality is that the quality, particularly on its digital platforms “is as strong as it ever has been”.

“Yes we have lost some good people, there is no arguments there, but we have a bigger audience than ever which suggests some things must be going right,” he said.

“No one wants redundancies. In a perfect world we wouldn’t have any, but consumer behaviour has changed. It is not just digital disruption, consumer behaviour has changed. Put all that in the mix and we have to change our business model.

It’s not just about cost cutting. It’s about the skills you need and the strategy you have going forward, so you need a different mix of people, and in our case we need fewer people.”

Aylmer, one of several senior managers subjected to a vote of no confidence by staff earlier this month, said “no one in the newsroom” disagrees with the need to change, adding the upheaval “has not come from leftfield”.

“When it actually effects themselves or their friends then it hits really hard but everyone understands that we have to change,” he said. “A lot of those [no confidence motions] are done in the moment, but I don’t think any individuals there disagree that we need to change the newsroom.

“Of course it’s incredibly frustrating and disappointing and I genuinely feel for the individuals who have to go. I also feel for the individuals who are managing this change, but it’s inevitable.”

Aylmer said he understood the need for unions to “vent”, but praised chief executive Greg Hywood and Allen Williams, director of Australian Publishing Media at Fairfax, who were also slammed by staff.

Greg Hywood

Hywood

“I think Greg Hywood has done a great job in getting us to where we are,” he told Mumbrella. “I know there has been a lot of cost cutting, and it’s hard, but if we had not done it we would not have a business right now, full stop.

“It’s really hard but it’s the fact of where we are at the moment. I don’t take it [vote of no confidence] personally but I think they were unfair on Allen and Greg. What they have done in the past three years has basically saved us.”

Despite the friction between the union and senior managers, and Aylmer’s own assessment that he had been “hammered” in one resolution, he said “constructive discussions” had taken place with union officials.

Turning to the future of its print titles, Aylmer reiterated Hywood’s recent remarks by agreeing change was “inevitable”.

But whether the closure of print titles happens in “18 months or five years” was down to readers and advertisers.

Their behaviour will dictate the timing, more than Fairfax, he said.

“It is inevitable that print will change. I don’t know in my time in media whether print will disappear, I don’t necessarily think that. But I certainly think the frequency will change. In the end it is not up to us to make that decision. The consumer and clients will make that decision for you.

“The most important thing in my role running editorial is to make sure our newsroom is ready for that. That could happen in 18 months but it could happen in five years.

“When consumers stop buying Monday to Friday papers or Saturday and Sunday papers, when our clients – the banks and auto companies and retailers – stop advertising, that is when it will happen.

“To my knowledge we have no predetermined timetable saying this is when it’s going to close. That would be stupid because you are either shooting yourself in the foot closing too early or running too late.”

He described the Australian Financial Review as a “different proposition” to the SMH and Age because of its “specialist nature”.

The readership is also “quite phenomenal and certainly the highest value audience of any print play in the country”, Aylmer said.

“Things like the AFR monthly magazine is a really profitable strong product and it’s because of the audience it gets to,” he continued. “I never judge the Fin in the same light as the metros because I think the Fin can probably sustain itself on a lower print base than metros.”

The director added that Fairfax is no different from any other media company in its pursuit of new revenue streams to offset the decline of print

“We are all looking for new ways to make money, and subscriptions are part of that, as is advertising,” he said.

“Both digital and print are important but in our world events are really important. How Domain operates is also really important, as is our JV with Drive and the CarSales guys. So we are actively looking at new ways to find revenue, and it’s working.

“You can’t think of us a subscription and advertising player only. There are lots of other things that are growing.”

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