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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

media woes « Previous | |Next »
August 27, 2008

I see that Fairfax is trimming jobs---550 employees, including about 120 Australian journalists. Presumably the policy, one of tight cost control in response to declining revenues, will reduce reporting capacity to produce ever-higher profits. As mark Day in The Australian says:

Fairfax, like many US publishers caught in a squeeze as classified rivers of gold flow towards the internet, has chosen to cut its cloth to fit its new revenue realities, rather than seek to invest in its mastheads, grow circulation and grow advertising revenues.This is the third time in the past four years that Fairfax has instituted a major editorial slim-down.

Fairfax, as The Australian notes, has increasingly turned to lifestyle journalism as the revenue stream became depleted:
As that revenue stream became depleted by the internet, the company's titles strayed in their editorial focus to lifestyle journalism.Increasingly, the sparse newsbreaking of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age has been wrapped around pre-printed, stapled supplements, with nothing to do with news but everything to do with the minutiae of home decoration, gardening, style, entertainment, food and gadgets. Such supplements are labour-intensive, drawing staff away from politics, business, sport and general news. They are far more expensive to preprint and insert than traditional newspapers are to produce.

The Australian's argument is that the core business of a newspaper in tough times is to break news that interests their readers. In so doing, they set national, state or local agendas on politics, business, social issues and sport, attracting readers and advertising clients day after day, year after year.

Update: 28 August
So where does that leave the media as watchdogs for democracy now that the commercial media (including free -to-air television)--is increasingly unwilling to support the democratic role? There is not equivalent print version of the ABC. Should there be?

Eric Beecher, the publisher of Crikey, thinks so. It is need to cover parliament business, investigative journalism and the courts. Fairfax's decision to sack staff at its flagship broadsheet newspapers would blow a hole in this country's traditional quality media that all of the new media's bloggers and websites would not be able to fill. This included the online publications he was involved in, such as Crikey and Business Spectator.

What's at risk here is the role of well researched, serious journalism to act as a check and balance in the system of democracy.Online media can replace part of it. The four websites I'm involved in employ 30 or 40 full-time journalists, which is quite a lot in independent media terms, but compared with 300 or 400 journalists on big daily newspapers it is fairly small. We can cherrypick. We can do the commentary and a little bit of investigative journalism and that kind of thing, but I can't see a business model for independent journalism funding hundreds of journalists to do the bigger things that you have to do to fulfil the democratic mission.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 6:21 AM | | Comments (19)


I used to read The Age for its commentary. But that part has declined. A lot of it is now uninteresting in its coverage of food, television and lifestyle. The Age is becoming a more regional paper focused on Victoria. Most of the stuff on water is about the politics of water in Victoria. It is no longer a Melbourne-based national newspaper.

It used to be a good newspaper but it has declined in the last year or so. It has gone lite. It has become mid -market and more youth market in its competition with the tabloid Herald Sun.

The only national newspapers we have are The Australian and the Australian Financial Review. The latter is not online.

As Crikey pointed out Fairfax CEO David Kirk only recently talked in terms of his company's creation of "a dynamic program of diversification and growth" that makes it "as well positioned as any heritage publishing company in media worldwide". Kirk also said Kirk pointed out in July, that Fairfax has learned from the mistakes made by international media naivs like the staff sloughing New York Times and the struggling Tribune group:

We are past that here. We know how to do our newspapers well and we know how to do the internet well, and we can put them together to deliver a fantastic 24-hour news product.

I stopped buying the 'Sydney Morning Herald' earlier this year because I can get all the news and commentary I want online. I stopped buying anything from the Murdoch stable 10 years ago ... because of the outrageously subjective manipulation of stories to present an ideological message.

I don't think any commercial news media quite knows what to do with itself. Completely apart from the net, their staple has always been the news habit where people automatically watch the news and buy the paper because that's just what you do. That tradition is falling away and they're left with a smaller audience who actually want news, which the commercial imperative fails to provide.

Instead you get vertical integration stories like 10 news treating Idol contestants as news, and advertorial and colour supplements in newspapers. The Australian is kidding itself if it thinks it's any different. These days 'broadsheet' just means the gossip is about political celebrities rather than Hollywood ones.

The Guardian does. It is becoming ever more successful, with readership growing especially in the US. I've given up on The Sunday Age. It has lost its ooomph as it has gone for a more lifestyle coverage.

The Sydney Morning Herald is like The Age--it is becoming increasingly regional and more focused on NSW. It too is increasingly turning to infotainment---food,lifestyle and television etc. You can talk about the "Smage", given the sharing of copy between the SMH and The Age.

What is happening here is also happening in the US with the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.

The Australian's comments are laughable considering that they only get to exist due to their master's indulgence.

On just about any sane business criteria, they would have been wound down years ago.

The Fairfax saga suggests that profits are put before journalism, the future is one of costcutting rather than growth, and that Fairfax has kissed the watchdog for democracy role goodbye.

So Fairfax SMH and Age will have the appearance of quality broadsheets with the content of infotainment.

Apparently Andrew Jaspan was one of the 550 sacked. They're looking at a complete overhaul. An extreme makeover.

Fairfax Media has probably suffered the most as the "rivers of gold" of classified advertising have dried up during the past few years. Fairfax's merger with Rural Press in 2006 has resulted in the Fairfax management adopting a low cost, low-quality approach that makes quality and influence are playing second fiddle to the financial quick fix.

Philip Meyer in The Vanishing Newspaper (2004), spelled out the general strategy adoped by newspapers: cutting costs, allowing quality to decline and losing readership, influence and, ultimately, revenue. He called it "harvesting market position", adding:

"The advantage of the squeeze scenario for present-day managers is that it has a chance of being successful in preserving their standard of living for their career lifetimes."

All the layoffs in the newspaper business are going to swell the ranks of freelance photographers and stand alone journalists.

"All the layoffs in the newspaper business are going to swell the ranks of freelance photographers and stand alone journalists."

Logically then, we could expect to see more Crikeys replacing dead tree newspapers? Or will the journos all look for jobs in hospitality and the photographers reinvent themselves as paparazzi and swell the pages of New Idea?

they need to stop the ignorant griping and figure out the self-publishing puzzle . They are knowledge workers knowledge workers who can benefit from the technologies that are threatening newspapers’ survival: No longer do we need a printing press to publish, only a personal computer, an Internet connection and an idea.

An example. Tim Porter going from journalist to First Draft to Second Draft

what will begin to change is the anger directed at the internet and the know-nothing, misspelling bloggers who are seen as the unpaid or lowly paid replacements for journalists. That's anger and resentment at change.

It happened with the textile workers and is happening now with the car workers.

What will be more difficult to achieve are the start-ups. Beecher's Business Spectator is one model. As Stephen Bartholomeusz says

The longer term future of serious journalism is almost certainly online. While the economics of the major media titles online are suspect at this point, it is a more efficient and flexible distribution channel while also being lower-cost and capital-lite.

Unless the traditional media have some really serious and compelling and unique content to offer in an environment where content is generally free, however, there would be no point in even attempting a migration into such a crowded and competitive space.

If Fairfax cut too deeply then the future of the metros will be truncated and the eventual opportunity to transition the distribution of their content from the historic formats to an online environment might be jeopardised.

Anon, their move to the online environment hasn't been spectacularly successful so far, and there's no evidence so far to suggest that it's going to get any better. It was relatively easy to sell advertising back when circulation/exposure was the selling point, but online advertising gives much better measures of actual results. That was always going to be a problem.

The more interesting thing for mine, is what 550 newspaper people are going to do with themselves now. News Ltd won't take them.

As you say, start-ups are difficult to get off the ground, but online publishing is cheap and the sacked have the required expertise in news publishing. And there are precedents for them to follow if they were so inclined.

I'm dreaming of course, but it would be good to see.

You watch. Online newspapers will no longer be free.

Can't understand why the Age journos i.e. professional writers, got their knickers twisted because Management advised them their services were no longer required by .... e-mail!

I am pro-pro-pro-pro email!

In my organisation sending an email to someone is not good enough. I need to engage in something akin to a courtship ritual (i.e. face-to-face/voice-to-voice contact) before they deign to co-operate with me!

Very time consuming.

Rodney Tiffen in The Age draws attention to a phenomeon I've noticed about the decline in the quality of the broadsheets:

Already press critics are charging that too often journalism is replaced by "churnalism", where in the name of increased journalistic productivity, media releases are reproduced uncritically, without further checking.
News media passivity does at least as much damage to the vitality of a democracy as public relations activity. And managers always find it easier to measure efficiency than effectiveness.

He adds that in the short term, reductions to news gathering capacity are not likely to adversely affect the bottom line, then observes:
Cutting back on editorial costs may boost the share price in the short term, but in the longer term is likely to feed into a downward spiral, where reduced quality leads to a loss in reader sentiment and ultimately into lower readership and reduced revenue.

Reasonable points about Fairfax.

Paul Malcolm Colless in THe Australian says that

While Fairfax trumpets its communication skills there has been, in fact, a communications vacuum between management and editorial staff inside the company for years. And this vacuum has been filled by cultural warfare between management and the journalists, which has served only to drive both sides further apart.

Hence the emails.

The OZ Media section's Brad Norrington brings an update,3/9, "Fairfax pushed to reinstate Mike Carlton", that relates a sordid reneging of a written no- recriminations agreement on crudely technical grounds as it would apply to Carlton.
It mentions in passing that Carlton's column in the Saturday Herald was replaced by (something from ) Miranda Devine.
Could we, btw, infer thus from this later intelligence, that Devine is what wool-shearers, miners, nurses and other workers have referred to in the past, as a "scab"?