Death by 1,900 cuts: will quality journalism thrive under Fairfax’s new model?

Fairfax Media’s Melbourne’s printing operations in Tullamarine will be closed down under a radical restructure of the company. AAP

It was less than ten years ago that Fairfax Media’s The Age opened its shiny, new printing presses at Tullamarine.

Billed at the time as “state-of-the-art”, the then Premier Steve Bracks opened the $220 million plant with much fanfare. Back then, The Age’s share price was trending up rather than down. The company’s ten-year high was $A4.80 during a peak in the market in late 2007.

How times have changed. Next came the GFC and, by late 2010, the media stock had fallen to $1.45 — a 70% drop. That was shocking then. Now, the stock is barely above 60 cents. The company’s largest shareholder, Gina Rinehart, is knocking loudly on the boardroom door, demanding a couple of seats on the board despite no previous media publishing experience.

It is in this context that it should be of no surprise that Fairfax Media’s CEO Greg Hywood has taken decisive and dramatic action. His latest news overshadows last month’s snap announcement that 66 sub-editorial jobs were moving offshore to New Zealand.

Today, he has revealed that the major Fairfax mastheads will have online paywalls, the printed versions of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age will move to a tabloid-styled size, and that 1900 jobs will be lost in the process. These radical changes may be positive news for shareholders, but they can only be regarded as a negative for quality journalism and Australian pluralism.

Former CEO Fred Hilmer’s vision of the Tullamarine printing press, which he lavishly described in 2003 as an “idea that has become a reality”, is also about to be no more.

Fairfax Media is not only closing the doors at the architecturally award-winning Tullamarine plant, but also at Chullora in Sydney’s west, which prints the SMH, Australia’s oldest masthead. This announcement is an historical moment for Fairfax Media’s broadsheets. And it is a sad one.

The closures are expected to save the company $235 million a year by June 2015. Of the job cuts, it has been revealed today that 150 will be editorial and will be lost within months across five of the company’s major mastheads. This follows a series of redundancy rounds of editorial jobs in recent years.

There is already a noticeable difference between the tabloid-style presentation of the online versions of Fairfax’s publications, using popular crime and celebrity stories to attract ‘click-bait’ to get more viewers, so as to attract more advertisers.

Following from the examples of the online versions, it is unconvincing for Hywood to assure readers that changing the SMH and The Age to a “compact” print version will do no more than change its layout, and not its tone and style.

This announcement also shows that once again the company is expecting its journalists to do more with less. But the real sting in the tail for readers seeking quality journalism is Hywood’s statement that there will be “…greater sharing of editorial content across geographies and across platforms.” What this means is that instead of getting separate stories out of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne on the same subject from different journalists - who might each take a different perspective from one another - readers in each of these states will get one viewpoint from a single journalist.

This is not fearmongering. It is already happening with Fairfax Media consolidating and closing some of its foreign bureaus and relying on stringers or wire services to provide stories once written from a staff journalist. Fairfax has also recently created one national investigative unit, and for a few years now it has combined some editorial resources in its national political bureau.

The concerning consequence of this is that it shrinks the number and diversity of viewpoints available to Fairfax readers. Another consequence is that the power of a few journalists and editors who remain on staff becomes more concentrated in the public sphere.

Journalists with large picture bylines are becoming bigger than the mastheads they work for — this is happening abroad too. Think of Andrew Bolt or Michelle Grattan. In a departure from her methodical reporting style, Grattan in April this year called for the Prime Minister Julia Gillard to resign. Is this the role of a press gallery journalist with four decades of reporting experience? Has the pressure of digital deadlines caused journalists to develop their persona in such a way that they depart from traditional reporting in preference for more sweeping opinion pieces in order to be first and to be noticed?

Of course, it can be argued that the rise of online and social media is an important counter to this consolidation of traditional news resources and increasing lack of diversity. There is some merit here and it does not have to be a dichotomous argument. There are some terrific, considered online publications that have secure funding to ensure their survival. The Conversation is a clear case in point.

However, it is also true that the news audience (including the digital sphere) has become highly fragmented over the past two decades. This means that established media companies in Australia remain the dominant gatekeepers of opinion and news, despite dwindling print circulations. Politicians and those seeking to influence the public sphere still seek to penetrate the digital and print pages of traditional mass audience media.

The question is: if Fairfax expects its journalists to do more with less, will there be enough divergent voices to ensure diversity of viewpoints? With the almost certain rise of Rinehart to the Fairfax board, will there be guaranteed editorial independence to ensure the conservative interests of the business elite do not unduly influence the media from within the print duopoly that is Fairfax and News Limited?

It is hoped that the single mention of “quality journalism” in Greg Hywood’s statement today is not reflective of its level of priority in the company’s future.