Backchat Discusses: Civic society strikes out as Fairfax journalists are bowled over

May 9th 2017

Thirty million dollars could buy you a lot of investments: 30 million Snickers bars when they’re on sale for $1 at Coles, twenty houses in Sydney’s current property market, or last and apparently least, 125 editorial jobs at Fairfax Media.

In recent years, Fairfax Media has made controversial sacrifices to remain profitable and shift its focus to a digital media platform. In 2012, the ‘Fairfax for the Future’ restructure delivered one of the most dramatic staff cuts in Australian media history, reducing 1900 jobs over three years as well as its number of print presses. In 2016 it saved a further $15 million by cutting 120 editorial staff. Earlier this year, Director of Fairfax’s Australian Metro Publishing division, Chris Janz, penned an open letter titled The Way To The Future, explaining the company will undergo “innovation” and restructuring to create savings. On World Freedom Press Day, May 3, it was revealed that among other non-staff cuts, $30 million in spending would be curbed by letting go a quarter of the editorial newsroom. In response, journalists across the company from the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Brisbane Times and WAToday began “unprotected industrial action,” walking out of their offices on a seven day strike.

How will this effect us?

A piece published by Mumbrella suggests that the strike is “act of martyrdom” and a “call for help from the media [which] reeks of upper-class sanctimony,” because journalism is a luxury not a right. The Australian Financial Review deemed it “futile” and claimed “reports of the death of Fairfax journalism are greatly exaggerated” because the fact is, over 500 staff are still employed across the three mastheads. And in it’s usual glory the Daily Telegraph titled day four of the strike: “Fairfax turns against Fairfax,” headed by a cartoon that says “unfair to idiots.”

The short term impact can already be seen. On Friday, the Sydney Morning Herald published its front page headline with a spelling error that read “Ecomomy.” The seven day strike will proceed through Tuesday, meaning Fairfax journalists will not provide coverage and analysis of the Budget for its readers. The Budget announcement is arguably the most important day for media coverage of the government in the year. In 2016 SMH was Australia’s most visited news site with a total of 6.2 million readers across both print and web. The absence of this crucial coverage will speak for itself. Staff have been also given a deadline of Tuesday afternoon for voluntary redundancy. Video Content Producer at Sydney Morning Herald, Jack Fisher, said:

“Everyone’s got something different at stake but I think everyone’s basically benefited from the impact that Fairfax papers have had on our democracy…
They know they can trust us and nurturing and serving that trust is our key point of difference, the very best way to future-proof our business.”

In a letter to the top twenty shareholders/investors, Fairfax journalists, stated:

“Fairfax Media has made an incalculable contribution to the public good, the effective functioning of our institutions and national discourse in this country.”

Honest journalism free from bias informs and advocates for the public good of civic society. Fairfax is championed for its investigative and highbrow journalism which has held those who misused their privilege or power accountable. A diversity of reporting and original content is a standard it upholds that can be lacking in more commercial or digital media outlets who are in the business of reproducing stories. Fisher says that the journalists at Fairfax are the foundation for the future of the company.

“It is home to an extrodinary wealth of institutional knowledge knowldge by journalists who know their particular rounds, sections and topics like very few others in the industry.”

The e-mail sent to staff last Wednesday morning from Editorial Director, Sean Alymer, disclosed the sections to bare the brunt of the blow would be those in “editorial management, video, presentation and section writer roles.”  Coverage of Arts & Culture will be heavily affected but it is a section reliant on independent media for the exposure and recognition. The area is heavily dominated by female journalists.

“We’re going to have a whole lot of women walk out the door at this rate and that’s really tough to watch.”

Can and/or should quality journalism have to fund itself?

It’s not you, it’s me who needs to figure it out. The break up between quality, in-depth journalism and the business model which allows it to thrive is messy. There is no denying the shift to digital platforms has resulted in competition for advertising revenue and a decline in print circulation. A report released by Morgan Stanley in 2016 shows that between 35 to 40 per cent of Australia’s total $14 billion ad revenue is claimed by global internet organisations such as Google and Facebook. By 2020, Morgan Stanley forecasts this portion will have risen to 55 per cent. An article in the New York Times shows print newspaper circulation in Australia had fallen by 45% since 2011, a greater decline than in countries like France, the United States, Canada or Britain.

Fisher acknowledges that everyone in the industry accepts the reality that there’s no simple solution.

“Journalism has never ever funded itself. For a long time it’s been the classifieds in the newspapers that kept that really, really improtant public good going.”

Government intervention could be part of the solution. In France this need has been met by government, who provide both direct subsidies of 540 million dollars, according to the Neimann Report, to newspapers and media outlets and one billion dollars of indirect funding by providing incentives for investors as well as “reduced sales tax for publications and income tax breaks for all 37,000 French journalists with an official press card.”

Last week, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, stated that the government will revisit ruling out the current “two out of three” media ownership laws in the Senate on Monday. He stated that it is “vital” for media companies across Australia to be able to compete in the current media landscape by not limiting their audience reach to just 75 per cent. In light of this, Fairfax could be pushed under the private ownership of TPG who have expressed interest in a take over. TPG would purchase all of Fairfax except its New Zealand & regional based operations, 2GB radio and Stan. streaming service.

Listen to the audio story below at 13mins



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