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Economic logic will protect Fairfax quality


Fairfax When Fairfax Media announced the latest round of job cuts across its mastheads last week it was inevitable that howls of protest would go up about the threat to quality journalism in Australia.

Some of those making the most noise, of course, were Fairfax journalists. Last Thursday they voted to go on strike because, as Chris Warren from the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance — the journalists' union — explained, they felt that job cuts were a knee-jerk reaction by management to falling revenues.

But Warren added that Fairfax staff also felt a 'deep frustration at the failure of the company to clearly articulate the strategy it has to continue to produce quality newspapers, magazines and websites with significantly fewer staff'.

While journalists by and large do take their profession seriously — as they should — there is at least an element of self-interest in this. What better way to wrest concessions from your employer in redundancy negotiations than to cloak your case in public virtue?

And who better to define for the public where virtue lies than journalists?

Other alarms about the future of quality journalism have been expressed by readers of Fairfax publications. But these same people have been complaining about falling standards at newspapers such as The Sydney Morning Herald for at least as long as I can remember — and I started working there in 1983.

The cumulative effect of the drip, drip of Chinese water torture should not be taken for granted. But as someone who has accessed newspapers from around the world on a regular basis for years, I still regard our daily broadsheets as among the very best in terms of that old adage that a good metropolitan paper is a city talking to itself.

If our communal conversation has deteriorated over the years, why blame our newspapers?

None of that is to dismiss out of hand the concerns about this latest twist in Fairfax’s fortunes. But before we all get carried away by prophecies of doom and gloom a few realities should inform the discussion.

First, the days of individual proprietors with deep pockets funding newspapers as a hobby-horse are long gone. Aside from the ABC, all media organisations in Australia are commercial operations and that means they have to be able to survive commercially. Even Rupert Murdoch has to answer to his shareholders.

Second, and inexorably tied to the first, is the fact that newspaper circulation is falling and, more importantly, advertising revenue is in sharp decline as other, more effective, ways are being found to separate consumers from their money.

Third, technological advances have created new opportunities for economies of scale in newspaper production. Fairfax, for instance, has a swag of suburban newspapers each with its own individual subs desks: in an age when copy can be sent across town (or across the world) almost instantaneously, doesn't it make more sense to rationalise subbing and lay-out functions in a smaller, centralised and more work-intensive pool?

I believe that 'quality journalism' will still be a defining characteristic of Fairfax publications not only 12 months from now but 12 years — and several more redundancies — from now.

Why? Because the very same commercial imperatives that require periodic adjustments to market realities also demand that corporate managers do not trash the 'brand'. The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Financial Review are respected brands because they contain quality reporters and commentators. Get rid of them and you cut off your nose to spite your face. Or, in the vernacular of the trade, you lose your market edge.

But in the new commercial environment of free internet news, mobile phone downloads on demand, and 'interactive news' (or what is grandly called 'citizen journalism'), those of us who desire more quality coverage from learned and experienced journalists will have to get used to paying a realistic cover price for the production costs. (Suggest that to all those readers who complain about falling standards and you will learn what a howl of protest can truly mean!)

Part of this, and part of the harsh reality of the current commercial imperatives, means that there will be more scope for niche publications such as Eureka Street. Is that a bad thing?

But beyond this, Fairfax’s latest decision to cut jobs means that, more than ever, the standard in investigative and in-depth reporting — the test of the 'brand' — must be set by the one mass, non-commercial operator. This is the ABC.

And that, in turn, means that we as taxpayers must accept — indeed demand — adequate Federal funding for the ABC combined with guarantees of its editorial independence.

Chris McGillionChris McGillion is a former journalist, section editor and columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald. He now teaches journalism at Charles Sturt University, Bathurst.

Topic tags: Chris McGillion, Fairfax, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Financial Review, good journalism



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Existing comments

If the quality of the journalism in the SMH over the last few days (ie during the strike) is any indicator of the brave new world of the Fairfax press I will be cancelling my subscription to the Herald and sticking to The Guardian.

martini | 01 September 2008  

are you joking? If economic reality were the only factor or even the main one in industrial and commercial decisions, how do you explain the crazy decisions made by many managements in the past? In this case Fairfax management, as usual, said, in effect, "we are not going to talk to the bastards, we have made our decisions" when they know full well that they will have to talk the bastards sooner or later.

In practice, capitalist decisions are
based largely on ideology and the CEO's lunch as much as rational considerations. To suggest that class society is rational is not even funny.
It may have a rationale, but it is not based on logic.

Gerry Harant | 01 September 2008  

Remember the story about the two friends in the bush, and a lion starts chasing them? One man starts running. His friend calls that you can't out-run a lion, to which the runner replies that it's not the lion he's out-running, it's the friend.

My understanding of the effect of competition on maintenance of journalitic standards differs from that of Mr McGillion. The major competition for quality broadsheets in Australia is between SMH/Age, and Murdoch's Australian. A perusal of what passes for considered opinion in the latter (eg climate change, international affairs) shows that anything more than a knee-jerk passes as quality in Australia's mass market.

Mr McGillion might want to look at the work of UK journalist Nick Davies, who wonders how it was that the Western Press became such compliant supporters of Bush/Cheney's warmongering in 2002/3.

David Arthur | 01 September 2008  

Chris McGillion referred to "Fairfax, for instance, has a swag of suburban newspapers each with its own individual subs desks" What's he talking about? Fairfax Community Newspapers in Victoria has had one subbing desk for all its papers at Dandenong South for at least 8 years, and only experimented with a very small second desk at Airport West for the last 18 months, and that second desk really operates as part of the central desk which does the bulk of the work for 30-plus mastheads. Chris, mate, you need a good sub. David Kehoe, sub-editor, FCN Victoria subs desk, Dandenong South.

David Kehoe | 02 September 2008  

I would love to see this informed and insightful piece in a Fairfax or News Ltd paper but doubt that I will. There are 400 plus journalists at each of the SMH and the AGE (there were fewer than half this number in the great Perkin years) and these numbers are simply unsustainable. I dont know of any US dailies of this size that have half this number of journalists.

John Tidey | 02 September 2008  

Viva SMH - I hope. But the last two paras about the ABC are spot-on. How to convince the masses, who have been propagandised that Aunty is a stooge for the left? The what? where?

Pat Mahony | 02 September 2008  

Your comments on Fairfax and its economic decisions are well founded and very fair.
Your comments on requesting more funding for the ABC are also well founded and I should like to know how I can help with encouraging the Government to increase the funding of a "non commercial" organisation such as the ABC.

Mary Ann Buhagiar | 02 September 2008  

Wouldn't be more believable if the 'quality' journalism we are asked to support actually existed?

All of the newspapers (and the ABC) - without exception - have journalists who cannot distinguish between news and opinion pieces. What ever happened to journalists who reported the news in a factual way? I don't need the half baked opinions of our current flock of 'journalists' regurgitating press releases.

Is there no-one who wants to report the facts? Until this is again seen as the role of the reporter, then we can watch the progressive decay of journalism.

nherbst | 05 September 2008  

I partly agree with Chris' position. He sees that there will be more opportunities for his journalism students after the shake-out. For me, they are trying to achieve the shift that ABC Management did with the move to Ultimo in 1991, with new technology and changed work practices. But the negative is that Fairfax management are trying to extinguish corporate memory, and notions of quality that are passed down through generations of journalists.

Penny | 09 September 2008