04 May 2011

Transforming Fairfax?

I have been reading The Sydney Morning Herald regularly for thirty years, and am a regular consumer of The Australian Financial Review and The (Sunday) Age. I'm tertiary-educated. I earn an above-average income, and there is probably a correlation between my spending patterns and Fairfax advertisements. The success or failure of any transformation of the company is far more dependant on people like me than on just another CEO like Greg Hywood, who says things like:
There is no ambiguity about our vision and our mission. We will be a company that creates high-value, premium journalism and content for print, online, mobile and beyond.

We will do this by investing in quality, independent journalism that differentiates us from our competitors.

We will invest in our journalism to create markets for many different audiences. We will leverage those audiences for our customers and clients.

And we will do this better than anyone else.

Today we are announcing the operational changes that are necessary to deliver the strategy.

We must do things differently if we are to deliver on our commitment to the highest standard of quality independent journalism. Standing still is not an option ... We have no intent or interest in managing this company for decline. We want Fairfax to grow, to be strong and to be respected.

There is real possibility in such a vision, as well as the possibility for disappointment. The devil is in the details so let's go there and see what he's up to (other than welcoming Osama bin Laden).
We will increase our investment in quality journalism for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun-Herald, The Age and The Sunday Age – and The Canberra Times. This is fundamental to our strategy.

We will immediately look to recruit a number of high-quality reporters and writers. We will expand our trainee programs. We will invest in comprehensive multi-media training and equipment.

All that is long overdue. There is, however, a lot of work to be done on reallocating existing resources before you start pulling stunts (dramatic initially but low-impact over time) like getting rid of subbies.

Politics reporting is one area, and much other news falls victim to this as well. There should be a greater focus on the process of developing and analysing policy, including examining interest groups and lobbyists: they have to be registered, yet no journalists regularly explore the linkages between interests, lobbyists, staffers and politicians. There are some pieces on how policies affect us after they are announced, but precious few during the formulation process - as a democratic people we are left to accept the compromise the government hands down to us, for if we reject it there's nowhere to go but CRISIS CONFLICT DRAMA SHOCK.

Rather than running so-called "colour pieces" for their own sake, they should be linked to the policy process. When a politician comes to a school to make an announcement on helping children with disabilities, it's all very well to focus on the content of a speech/press release but there is scope to speak to people who have worked in that area about that content: how credible they find it, whether it really addresses the issues they face day to day.

If politicians have anything to say about policy and the execution thereof, it can be worked into a story that has the appropriate focus. Anything that politicians say that cannot be tied, however tenuously, into policy debates, can simply be ignored. The fantasy that splicing a couple of press releases together constitutes "high quality journalism" is should be left to the sort of media executive who broadcasts rightwing pap to mugs and dyes his hair with furniture polish.

It is no longer sufficient to focus on conflict: we don't live in some anodyne conflict-free world (if we ever did) against which conflict represented in the media is exciting and worth paying for. Conflict is all around us, we don't need to pay for it. People are prepared to pay for understanding, and if your "high-quality journalism" offers that then bring it. In the same forum where I found Hywood's piece, Peter Lewis of Essential Media Communications said:
A majority of people follow the news closely but don’t think the media does a good job of helping them understand the issues.

That's the gap in the market. Fairfax has the chance to fill the slot occupied by default by the ABC, which Channel 9 came very close to securing in Kerry Packer's final years. Murdoch will never fill it and we're tired of waiting for the O'Reilly boy to step up. Only smug-but-rattled Fairfax can fill the role of national explainer, but it's yet to be seen whether current management and staff will or can steer the company away from the cliff.

Back to Hywood:
Under this restructure it is planned that copy sub-editing of news, business and sport will be outsourced to AAP through its subsidiary Pagemasters.

Subbies not only fix journalists' apparently atrocious spelling and grammar, they have a role in determining what the story is: an outsource provider can't really do that.
As you will be aware, Pagemasters has been successfully producing many of the sections for our metro mastheads for the past three years.


Take, for example, all those articles in the health/lifestyle sections on studies repeatedly showing that a small amount of alcohol taken regularly improves digestion and has all sorts of health benefits. I used to assume those 'studies' were funded by the alcohol industry, though this was rarely disclosed, and looked on them benignly as free ads for the companies and make-work schemes for lazy journalists. Having read stories like this and that I now realise that these 'studies' should have aroused the suspicions of functioning journalists, and at least some of them in a big-time high-quality media outlet should have the skill to drill into scientific research like this (you'll need to be a subscriber) and tell you in plain language what's going on.

It may be that the subbies Fairfax employed until recently were the wrong people to make a call on an issue like that. It may be unfair to load editorial policy responsibility onto sub-editors. Certainly, it's a specific example of the type missing from well-meant but unfocused rhetoric about "high quality journalism".

A decision taken has been to end our NZ Press Association news service subscription. Instead, we are investing in our unique content with the formation of the Fairfax NZ News Service.

Questions about this include:

  • Aren't journalists taught never to write in the passive voice?

  • Why stop with NZPA? Why not axe that reverse-sewage system that provides you with Hollywood/royal gossip?

  • What is the point of Paola Totaro filing stories from Europe that can be gleaned from anywhere else?

  • Why have regional experts like David Jenkins retire with no replacements to take on their level of regional knowledge and descriptive skill?

  • If you're so keen on premium journalism, are you going to get Katharine Murphy and Brian Robins to pack their bags?

There are others.
Australian Regional Media

... The nature of local newsgathering - particularly user-generated content - provides unique local content that strengthens our already strong local franchises.

Questions arising from that include:

  • Why only in Australian Regional Franchises? Do you not think this would also be the case in big-city papers, or in NZ?

  • Will there be any career paths for people joining, say, the Woop Woop Bugle and making it all the way to The Australian Financial Review, as used to happen in the olden days?

  • When Fairfax basically reworks a press release written by someone with a barrow to push, is this "user-generated content"?

  • Doesn't "user-generated content" make a mockery of the idea that you need skilled, trained and experienced journalists to provide content? The idea that news outlets hold to such a lofty principle is the explanation I use for them not running the story proposals I have submitted to them.

  • What makes you think some warmed-over nonsense about Hollywood celebrities or European royalty in any way enhances any given Fairfax brand at all?

There are others.
I know there will be strong views about these changes – both positive and negative. We believe they are the right decisions – the only decisions that make sense – and the only decisions that will allow us to lead the way in quality independent journalism. We believe quality independent journalism is the key to the success of Fairfax.

I know there will be strong views about these changes – both positive and negative. We believe they are the right decisions – the only decisions that make sense – and the only decisions that will allow us to lead the way in quality independent journalism. We believe quality independent journalism is the key to the success of Fairfax.

Part of the challenge to those muttering over strike action over what will inevitably be called SubbieGate is to suggest what should be done, rather than simply reject Hywood's There Is No Alternative approach, given the hard-to-disagree final sentence. To borrow from Kipling: what do they know of journalism who only journalism know?

I've done my bit, but then I'm just a blogger and a consumer unschooled in rooly trooly journalism. What do I think of transforming Fairfax through a commitment to premium journalism? Like Gandhi said when asked about Western civilisation, I think it would be a good idea.


  1. Even better if they got the noxious Paul Sheehan and colourless drone Gerard to pack their bags as well. Then perhaps we could take Hywood's talk of quality journalism seriously.

    And what it is it the outsourcing of so much Op Ed space to Liberal party hacks like Ross Cameron, Peter Costello and Amanda Vanstone?

  2. Apropos your point about 'User-generated content' from the boonies. Well, I live in just such a place, as do most of us who didn't join the Sydney property merry-go-round in time to be able to afford to stay in the Inner City with the more canny amongst us, or 'Intellectual Elites' as they are jealously called, and what I have noticed around me, with the greater emphasis on community-generated power cabals, is that it is exactly those hyper-enthusiastic barrow-pushers in our local communities that are the ones who generate all this locally-sourced 'content'. Also, they are often just local offshoots of the corporate concerns centred in the capitals, which, I assume, by his expressed desire for a local angle, that Greg Hywood is trying to bypass. So, in the end, I think Mr Hywood will end up just chasing his tail there. Better, as you say, to just concentrate on drilling operations with his stable of 'quality journalists', providing more money and time for good, thorough, story-breaking research and the laying out of the facts and figures the thoughtful reader craves, but is not getting at the moment with the almost, 'Hollywood gossip' style of political reporting we are presently being served up.

  3. I agree with Andrew that the greatest service the supposedly 'quality' media could provide is to shine a light on the lobbyists and spinners and PR companies and all the other highly paid agents whose job it is to manipulate media and the policy process.

    The problem is an under-resourced media has become so dependent on those same sources to provide the fodder for the white spaces that keep the ads apart.

    The spin/PR machine supplies about 40 per cent of the content of newspapers today. The rest is wire copy and opinionators (about half of whom a professional trolls). It's the cheap option.

    Now with the scrapping of the sub-editors, it will be the chaep option.

  4. Of course the real question Gina Rinehart wants addressed is how many sub-editors will lose their job due to the carbon tax.

  5. This is a very important blog that is doing a great service in helping to unravel the cosy little club that passes itself off as journalism in this country.

    That said, citing Peter Lewis of Essential Media Communications (EMC) is particularly telling. These are spinmeisters extraodinairre. Lewis has admitted socially that he enjoys the role of puppet master - and this dates from his days with one of his early clients, John robertson's Unions NSW.

    EMC are a media 'management' company that also operates a polling arm. It's a closed loop. they can provide the polling that will back up yoyur organisation/businesses message. A list of their clients is quite revealing, and that's just the public ones.

    As their 'consultant', the former US Democrats operative Vic Fingerhut has ecplained to anyone who will listen (and pay to listen at that), polling is all in what question you ask. How a question is phrased can have a great outcome on your poll result.

    A f'rinstance: recently an EMC client, the NSW Branch of the Australian Services Union, was in the media with one of these poll driven non-stories. It concerned gay marriage (which is not the issue here, don't get lost in the McGuffin). EMC had done polling for the ASU that showed most of its membership supports gay marriage

    Now, ASU NSW Secretary Sally McManus obviously wants to run hard on this issue in internal ALP forums in the lead up to the ALP national conference later this year. Good on her, that is her right. But should she use union resources to do that? What would have been the outcome of a poll question 'Should the ASU use members funds for internal ALP campaigns?'

    Because EMC, like most lobbying firms (and as the Your Rights At Work campaign showed, they are indeed a lobbbying firm) is quite expensive. If I was a member of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (which I have been), then I would be very curious as to why my National and State offices continue to spend a large amount of money (exactly how much is not publicised to members, but it is substantial) on thsi quality advice while membership continues to decline and members interests are further from the public polity than ever.

    So, be careful what you wish for Andrew as you too can be spun, whilst thinking you are quoting an honest broker.

    As for Fairfax? Stick a fork in its arse and turn it over. It's done.

  6. Ackers: Costello is worth a run but I agree you can keep the rest. I agree that Sheehan and Henderson are past their use-bys, but we've got to have some cross-promotion with 2UE don't we? Cameron's pieces are written by John Ruddick, who should just get a graveyard shift on 2UE and be done with it.

    Victoria: well said.

    Mr D: I think Hywood is out of cheap options, he's going to have to fork out. Starting on subbies was stupid.

    Notus: Andrew Bolt got where he is today without subeditors, that is all.

  7. Anon: well, there's my ASU card in the bin.

  8. When Hywood was a journo, grammar was never his forte - I say that as someone who once had to sub his copy.