Executive Perks In Sight As Fairfax Journos Strike

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Fairfax has come a long way from the heady days of the late 80s and early 90s, when young Warwick Fairfax junior tried to privatise his family’s media company, and ended up damn near wrecking the joint.

And when I say "long way", cynics might suggest that’s really just 2.5 kilometres, which is roughly the distance from the old Jones Street headquarters in Ultimo to the new waterfront surrounds at Pyrmont.

As history now records, the boy’s own adventure resulted in the collapse of Fairfax in late 1990, when the administrators were called in.

The Fairfax of the 21st century, of course, is quite a different beast. But the never-ending war on costs — and the ever-present threat of collapse — remains, amid a turbulent era of change for media around the world.

Yesterday, Fairfax announced it was shedding a further 80 jobs from its Sydney and Melbourne newsrooms. It follows the 2012 mass culling of subs (more than 300 staff in total), with most of the work farmed out to Pagemasters. Photographers and production staff are in the sights this time.

Managing Director of Australian Publishing Media, Allen Williams, told staff in an email: "Our photographic needs across all platforms continue to be commissioned by editorial; however, most assignments will be facilitated by Getty photographers for our publications."

"Fairfax retains the copyright in the photos and they will be for Fairfax's exclusive use.”

That last line is a curious inclusion. Williams seems to think the primary concern of staff is to ensure Fairfax’s copyright is protected, as opposed to the preservation of their fellow workers’ rights, not to mention jobs.

Editorial staff in Sydney, Melbourne and Newcastle responded late yesterday by calling a snap 24-hour strike, and downing tools. Staff at the brisbanetimes.com.au also joined, refusing to file on any stories that weren’t for use exclusively in Queensland.

Stuart Washington, the Fairfax house committee chair, described the cuts — and in particular the way they announced — as “devastating”.

“The delivery of this message was poorly handled and unfeeling,” Washington told New Matilda.

“People are emotionally devastated when they’re presented with organisational charts which show no clear picture of them being represented inside a company, after working with that company for 30 years.

“We’re calling on the company to engage productively and genuinely in talking about what a future newsroom looks like.

“We did that in 2012, and delivered a fantastic new business model which has been replicated across the country in other newsrooms.

“So the idea that we can’t be trusted or we can’t handle tough information is just hogwash.

“We want the company and the managers to understand that we should be part of this, not just delivered messages 20 minutes after a meeting is called to tell people they haven’t got a future with this company.”

For their part, Fairfax management described the staff walk-out as “illegal”, and explained the cuts were necessary in order to ensure a world-class model of news delivery.

"The changes we are proposing are similar to the more progressive and efficient models being used by other media organisations around the world," Williams told staff. He also mentioned that the cuts were about the "continuing transformation of the business".

Washington is unsure whether that means more cuts to come, although he doesn’t deny the need for change.

“In my view we are on this amazing transformation from a traditional print medium to a multi-platform digital business. I don’t think anybody thinks any different,” Washington said.

“So yes, there is a transformation, but it should not be used as an excuse for ill-thought out and, frankly, some pretty stupid cost cutting drives, which is what I think some of these cuts fall into.”

Washington says editorial and production staff are unaware of what, if any, sacrifices will be expected from other sections of Fairfax.

“There was no information yesterday about how other parts of the company are sharing this burden. We do know the whole company is being re-organised and re-shaped.

“To be fair, I think they have cleaned out a fair bit of middle management, and the whole business feels a lot leaner and a lot smarter than perhaps it was.

“We’re certainly not saying pain hasn’t been felt throughout the business but there’s always other rocks you can look under.”

On that front, ironically, Warwick junior’s model, notwithstanding its eventual collapse, might provide some direction. Back in the day, he used to arrive to work in a red Toyota Camry, while his executives rolled up in Beemers and Mercs.

Will the bean-counters at Fairfax next turn their gaze to executive salaries and perks? Staff in Sydney may have a chance to put that question directly to the boss at 2.30pm today, when they meet before their return to work at 3pm.

Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood has been invited to address staff. He hasn’t yet confirmed his attendance, although if he does front up, he’d be well-advised to keep his mode of transport humble.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. Chris has won a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards for his reporting. He lives in Brisbane and splits his time between Stradbroke Island, where New Matilda is based, and the mainland.

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