News Ltd to ‘centralise’ media business, axe jobs

“There will be retrenchments”: News Ltd CEO Kim Williams. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

News Limited has announced it will shrink its divisions in eastern Australia from 19 to five as part of a restructure that will “centralise” operations in each state and cause large job losses.

The announcement came shortly after News Corp made a $1.97 billion takeover bid for Consolidated Media Holdings - with the support of fellow billionaire James Packer, who owns a controlling half stake.

Chief executive Kim Williams has declined to specify how many positions will be cut in the restructure, but some reports have speculated that between 1,000 and 1,500 staff could be affected in the next two years. The company employs about 8,000 people nationwide.

“At this stage we cannot say how many roles will be made redundant as full details will be resolved with the implementation,” Mr Williams said in a video to staff. “Although there will be retrenchments, many roles will be retired through natural attrition.”

He also confirmed that the company had acquired Australian Independent Business Media, which publishes online business opinion site Business Spectator and the investment newsletter the Eureka Report.

But Mr Williams said that Australia’s biggest media business remained committed to print for the foreseeable future, it was reported on the website for News Ltd broadsheet The Australian.

“We believe in print and are committed to print,” the site reported him as saying. “We are obviously not going to be pollyannas about that. But we still sell around 11 million newspapers a week. Advertisers still find huge value in print.”

The company’s standalone digital division, News Digital Media, will be merged into the five new divisions: News NSW, News Qld, News Victoria, The Australian and NewsLifeMedia, formerly known as News Magazines.

On Monday, News Ltd rival Fairfax Media announced it would cut 1,900 jobs and close its two main printing plants at Chullora, in Sydney, and Tullamarine, in Melbourne, in a move towards a “digital-only” future.

Terry Flew, a Professor of Media and Communications at Queensland University of Technology, said he would be surprised if there were no redundancies at the printing plants operated by News Ltd: “Digital is the future of news media. It is already predominantly a digital product. Print is in decline, and I would be very surprised if we didn’t see job losses at News printing plants, although perhaps not on the same scale as the cuts at the Fairfax plants.”

In his video to News Ltd staff, Mr Williams said that “in editorial, to meet our customer needs and to work smarter, we will adopt a one-city, one-newsroom strategy across our daily, Sunday and community products, with a focus on producing the best quality local content essential to meeting our new challenges.

"This single-newsroom concept will transform our existing metro newsrooms. … It doesn’t mean that everyone will physically move to a single location. But it does mean that we will manage our editorial operation in each state as a single news network.”

The move towards greater aggregation of news content would inevitably hurt the quality of journalism at the company’s mastheads, said Lynette Sheridan-Burns, Professor of Journalism and Head of the School of Communication Arts at the University of Western Sydney.

“They’ve already moved to centralise sub-editing processes at Holt Street, so they’ve already got a lot of aggregation happening,” Professor Sheridan-Burns said. “And that’s what you’re really talking about with the shrinking of divisions. They might maintain the different mastheads, but there’s going to be a lot more shared content. You’re going to see that with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age as well.

"You get much more generalised news coverage, because there are fewer reporters on the ground in the communities. With these changes, it’s most likely that that the journalistic workforce will be younger, with less experience. You’d think that would have a negative impact on quality. It’s very much a ‘just publish it’ approach, and fix it later.

"In sub-editing, what we’re seeing across the sector is the end of a move that began some years ago to change the role of a sub-editor from someone who actually edits and improves work to someone who’s a process worker, who really just formats and processes copy in a pre-designed template. That level of expertise that used to be applied as quality control - improving the work of reporters - has gone.”

Fiona Martin, a Senior Lecturer in Convergent and Online Media at University of Sydney, agreed that with fewer journalists left to man mastheads, editorial verification would suffer. “You don’t get as much fact-checking and the quality goes down,” she said.

“The more platforms that you publish on and the fewer journalists that you have, the more you have to recycle content. So it’s going to be press releases, wire copy - anything that anyone can put out.”

A comparison by Dr Martin of the news websites run by News Ltd and Fairfax found that the latter was publishing far more shared content and wire copy in its online platforms than News Ltd was. “Astonishingly more,” said Dr Martin, who conducted the research with a colleague, Dr Tim Dwyer, from the university’s Department of Media and Communications. “For Fairfax, in the breaking news feeds, up to 80% of the content was wire copy. A lot was original copy being shared between sites too. You’re going to start seeing a lot more of that at News Ltd now.”

The bid by News Corp for Consolidated Media Holdings, which would give the company a dominant slice of Australia’s pay TV industry, would attract close scrutiny from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Professor Flew said. “The Federal Government recently received the Convergence Review, which has various guidelines around public interest in relation to media ownership. It clearly identifies diversity in media ownership as something that Australians consider to be a major issue. The question of whether this merger, which concentrates more media ownership in fewer hands, is in the public interest is presumably something the regulatory authorities would want to have a close look at.”

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