Over the weekend, Fairfax journalists braced themselves for what they feared would be tough announcements. It is a sign of a lack of trust between senior management and middle management that not even editors knew what was about to happen. When secrecy abounds, rumours flourish. "Print editions to stop altogether." "Gina Rinehart to be on the board," were among the rumours.
As it turns out, tabloid editions will be trialled from March next year — but no one seems to doubt that the company’s news outlets could go completely online if circulation does not improve.
The truth behind the second rumour turned out to be even worse than expected. By midnight yesterday, Rinehart, Australia’s richest woman, mining magnate and right-wing climate skeptic was expected to get three seats on the Fairfax board. She wants an editorial say over content and choice of editors and has given no indication that she will sign a charter of independence devised in 1990 to protect journalism from commercial interference by shareholders and directors.
In announcing the dramatic cuts, Chief Executive Greg Hywood was reassuring about the company’s future commitment to journalism. As in any company or institution, he does talk frankly about problems. But as in the past, reassurances can’t be treated as more than spin.
Inside the company journalists, already weary from earlier battles, are struggling to get information. Outgoing Chair of the Media and Arts Alliance Fairfax House Committee, Marcus Strom, tweeted yesterday, "how can journos assess their stake in Fairfax if mgmt can’t answer qns. Media Alliance will push hard for answers. This has long to run".
Garry Linnell, appointed group editorial director of Metro Media six weeks ago, was asked by journalists in Sydney yesterday whether the move to tabloid with less staff would affect quantity or quality. The predictable answer, as always, was that quality would not be sacrificed. This can only mean less copy. Journalists who received a threatening email when they went on strike about job cuts several weeks ago don’t take that at face value either.
Everything is under review but some supplements are almost certain to close. Supplements were developed in the 1980s as a way of delivering readers to advertisers. At that time, they too were seen as a threat to quality journalism but a good way of raising revenue. But these days, you can get more than enough information about food, lifestyle and entertainment online.
Lots of loyal print followers toss their supplements in the bin. They use up a large amount of labour, so only the ones that are clearly profitable will survive. Many journalists working on supplements would prefer to be working on more independent journalism, but whether there will be jobs for them is unclear.
Then there’s foreign news. It’s hard to justify much of Fairfax’s regular foreign news coverage, especially when most of it is available to readers online hours prior to the newspaper coming off the press. Many Fairfax readers interested in international news read The Guardian, Al-Jazeera, the BBC and other outlets long before they get their morning newspapers.
Commentators who report on Fairfax as if it is a single entity fail to understand the tensions within the company itself. In the early days of internet resistance was strong among print journalists but for at least four years now the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance (MEAA) and a group of journalists have been working on a plan for integration of print and online, which means 7-day publication and single editorial control over both forms of publishing.
Most journalists are more than ready for integration, especially those who have been educated in the 21st century. In the last intake of Fairfax trainees, only those with video skills were encouraged to apply.
It is Fairfax management, not journalists, who have been dragging their feet on integration — so much so that the contract with subbing contractor Pagemasters which led to sackings last year is only for print editing.
For years, senior management have deliberately favoured separate development of online which nurtured a less independent commercial culture which attracts hits but does little for the reputation or promotion of the best journalism. Under this model, excellent young digital journalists, called "online producers", who could be updating stories overnight, have been restricted to posting stories online. Hopefully, this nonsense will stop at last.
Integration will happen. From a business point of view, the key question is: will enough readers pay for stories online to sustain already diminished regular reporting of national and state current affairs and investigative journalism.
News Ltd already controls 70 per cent of readership of metropolitan newspapers in Australia — one of most highly concentrated media in the Western world. Over the last 30 years, inquiries have repeatedly identified this to be a problem for democracy but no government has been prepared to do anything about it. Only two capitals, Melbourne and Sydney, have two newspapers, The Age and SMH, which also feed into national debates.
News Ltd papers are also vulnerable, especially if the crisis-ridden Murdoch empire breaks up. In an ensuing battle for survival and readers, there is no guarantee that all our current corporate news outlets will survive.
The Age and SMH publish more investigative journalism than any News Ltd paper and have a more robust and independent approach to journalism. But the word "quality" disguises other concerns about the consequences of further quietening Fairfax news and analysis.
A number of research projects at the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism have demonstrated that The Age and the SMH provide more stories than their tabloid competitors and give a greater voice to NGO and other civil society sources. Like News Ltd they do carry conservative commentators and are underpinned by corporate values, but unlike News Ltd in recent decades they have not conducted neo-liberal or conservative populist campaigns against liberal ideas and progressive movements.
The Greens, who usually get short shrift from News Ltd, are keenly aware of the consequences of a Rinehart-controlled, trimmed down Fairfax media.
NSW MP John Kaye yesterday warned yesterday that the creation of a single editorial model for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald would lead to a "lower standard of scrutiny of state politics. Fairfax has played a key role in exposing the aberrant behaviours of many NSW politicians. A move towards a national framework for The Age and the SMH, specialised for each state, will not sustain intensive levels of investigation and analysis."
One example Kaye points to is the treatment of rises in power prices. "Readers of news Ltd papers would assume that the increase in their power bills was mostly caused by the price on carbon. In fact, as readers of the Financial Review and the Sydney Morning Herald would be aware, the biggest single driver has been massive investment in wires, poles and substations. News Ltd has used its papers to promote a campaign of fear against the carbon price. The uniformity of the message suggests that it could only have originated at the highest level within the corporation."
Other examples he cites where the difference between readers of Fairfax and the Daily Telegraph might "think they are reading about two different stories include the Star Casino case, the restructure of schools to create local ‘autonomy’, marine parks and shooting in national parks."
Kaye told New Matilda "The Greens will be moving in the NSW parliament to condemn the job cuts and the loss of state focus in Fairfax."
Few commentators doubt that Rinehart would use her media power over Fairfax to pursue her views against environmental regulation, wealth redistribution and other causes that interfere with her broader corporate interests. Up until now, war weary and vulnerable Fairfax Journalists have been muted in their response to the Rinehart threat. In a low-key way they have carried reports charting her corporate interests, political views and her unflinching move on the company.
Friends of Fairfax, who campaigned for independent journalism in the 1990s would have been on the front foot in these circumstances but that organisation disappeared from view long ago (perhaps it could be revived). Ian Verrender on Fairfax-owned 2UE this morning did not mention fears of a Rinehart takeover, while senior reporter Michelle Grattan did explain on Radio National this morning that journalists regarded independence as "very, very, very important" and were insisting that Rinehart sign the charter of independence. She, like other Fairfax journalists, expects that Rinehart will try to pursue her own agenda within the company.
While it is critically important to develop alternative models of public interest journalism in Australia, in practice there is no independent online resource that can match even Fairfax’s current investment in reporting. While those outside can warn of the danger, only journalists and their union can protect their independence in practice.
If journalists and the unions want the public to understand what is at stake they need to explain how the charter works and be part of a more broadly based community campaign to support public interest journalism, both in and outside the mainstream media. The interests of journalists are not the same as corporate management.
During the Finkelstein Inquiry there were opportunities to push for some public support for investigative journalism, including for the mainstream media. Bill Birnbauer, an investigative reporter who was a senior Fairfax editor and reporter until he joined Monash University, led a group of academics who filed a submission on the need for tax deductibility and some public funding for investigative journalism.
It is worth noting that Fairfax and News Ltd executives rejected the need for that sort of support. The Finkelstein inquiry nevertheless gave the idea tentative support but in the absence of media owners’ support said it should be considered by a possible Productivity Commission inquiry into the media.
Birnbauer is still promoting this idea, but is pessimistic about Fairfax’s future prospects.
"Digital relies on hits and we all know that celebrity and junk journalism is going get more traffic than a serious piece of quality reporting. So with digital and tabloid in ascendancy, what is the financial reward for doing journalism that is time hungry, legally risky, resource sapping and may not even produce a story after months of research?" he told New Matilda yesterday.
Advertising executive John Singleton told ABC radio yesterday he was on the
Fairfax Board when Sir Zelman Cowan promoted the charter of independence and that the charter was "just one of the those things that no-one understood. Sir Zelman was very proud of [that]and the journalists didn’t know how to say no to Sir Zelman, even though they don’t know what he’s talking about."
Singleton is wrong. The journalists did know what Cowan was talking about. In fact, they developed the idea. They also know that even if Rinehart signs the charter she will not necessarily stick by it. But many reporters and editors still hope they can try to protect their independence.
With many jobs to go, it’s a tough ask of Fairfax journalists but only they can protect their publications’ independence. If they want to help, some of them at least need to speak more clearly. You can’t expect your supporters to read between the lines.
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