The AAP closure feels different to other redundancy rounds, and will affect us in a different way

The decision to close Australian Associated Press (AAP) will have long-lasting ripple effects, as Telum's David Skapinker explains. And this closure, and these redundancies, feel different and bigger.

The news that AAP is closing has been felt like a body blow not just to those immediately impacted by the business’ closure, but by the wider media ecosystem. The ramifications are going to be felt for years to come, and are not yet fully understood.

AAP has formed an integral part of the media environment for decades, for both the journalism industry, and for those communicating with Australians.

The commercial decision to close an operation employing hundreds of people will have been just that: commercial. The business model has changed. Copy can be lifted and shifted without attribution or payment. Newsrooms around the country are increasingly stretched to pay for reporting resources, even more so when the information can be found with a Google search.

In conversations and newsroom visits I have around the country, the thing that journalists keep saying is that subscription and non-advertising revenue is the focus. The realisation that digital advertising is not going to sustainably pay wages and keep shareholders happy has well and truly set in.

If your business model is increasingly focused on subscriptions, will AAP copy lead to more subscriptions, when the research shows that this type of revenue is supported mainly by exclusive content and analysis?

AAP-sized gaps in news coverage are going to be costly to cover, though. According to Karen Sweeney, the top 10 sport stories on 2 March were published over 1,500 times and the top 10 news stories on the same day were published more than 2,500 times.

When you talk to journalists who rely on AAP-copy, what you hear over and over again is that AAP does crime, court, politics and sports very well. The area that gets less attention but that will likely be felt just as hard is pictures. Newsrooms around the country have continued to cut their full-time in-house photographers, while AAP invested in this area. As news and content consumption becomes more visual, this is going to be felt keenly.

Like all businesses, though, media is cyclical. Work is done in-house, then outsourced, and then brought back in-house again. We saw that with the Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review bringing sub-editing back in-house after the Fairfax and Nine merger, having previously outsourced them to AAP’s Pagemasters business. The question all management teams ask themselves is whether work is ‘core’ or can be done more efficiently somewhere else.

The Nine metro and national papers are profitable again, and so with any luck we will see greater investment in these areas in-house.

But, AAP’s role in the media industry is so much more than just covering the news. It is a fantastic training ground for journalists, and has produced generations of news breakers, writers, editors, sub-editors and photographers.

You need only look at the Telum Media Alerts detailing moves and news in the media industry to see that AAP is a producer and feeder of talent to newsrooms around the country. I suspect that these newsrooms are going to miss having highly skilled journalists to recruit, and are going to have to invest more in training new and upcoming journalists.

There is nothing good about this many journalists facing redundancy. Nothing. AAP staff have been told there will be employment opportunities in the shareholder newsrooms (Nine, News Corp, The West Australian and Australian Community Media). So there is that silver lining. But will all 180+ editorial staff find roles in these media houses? Unlikely.

Telum has seen that after large redundancy-rounds in other media organisations, skilled media professionals go to three core places:

  • existing newsrooms (and hopefully this is in bigger numbers than previously seen, because suddenly there are going to be a lot of AAP-sized gaps in papers and online and in radio bulletins to fill);
  • startups or starting up their own new media outlets. Michael West, InQueensland and even Mamamia (which started after Mia Freedman departed Nine) are good examples of this; or
  • moving into communications or “content” production. It might not be hard news, but there has never been more demand for news and content.

Hopefully, AAP’s shareholders bringing some of their news production back in-house might mitigate some of the excellent talent leaking out of the industry altogether. But, if communications or content production is where people end up, we have seen many success stories there too. And, as others have found, there is, in fact, life after media.

But, there are two reasons that this decision feels different to the previous, large-scale redundancies we’ve seen at other media organisations.

Firstly, this isn’t death by a thousand cuts, reducing headcount bit-by-bit and gradually shrinking. This is a dramatic, wholesale closure of a major media house.

The second is that this change is structural. AAP has been there covering the news others just simply haven’t been able to for years. And for the sake of an informed Australia, media owners and the public need to vote with their wallets and put resources into supporting news that matters.

David Skapinker is region head (Australia and NZ) at Telum Media


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