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Fairfax staff cuts will worsen decline in corporate investigations

Fairfax Media has confirmed 25 staff from its business media unit will be made redundant as Fairfax moves toward further integrating its metropolitan mastheads. AAP/Dean Lewins

Yesterday’s announcement of another 45 jobs to go at Australia’s second largest newspaper proprietor Fairfax Media is yet another marker in the decline of Australia’s print media news sector.

In an email to staff, Fairfax’s Australian Publishing Media managing director Allen Williams told it plainly: “The current revenue environment remains challenging … we must also find cost reductions across our business.”

No one can argue that managing a newspaper in the digital era is easy. Technological, social, political and economic factors have seen newspaper revenues and circulations steadily fall from the heady days of great profits in the 1970s and early 1980s.

It’s also plain that Fairfax’s decision to cut costs by merging business reporting teams across its metropolitan mastheads and shed 25 business media staff is bad news for the Australian public. The move suggests fewer voices scrutinising corporate power when there is evidence that there are already not enough.

My research examining Australian newspapers over the seven decades from 1956 to 2011 found a conspicuous absence of corporate investigations from broadsheets in recent decades compared to times when profits were higher. As early as the 1990s the data showed the “profit controversy” was evident in Australian mainstream media business reporting.

Sydney academics Penny O'Donnell, David McKnight and Jonathan Este used this term to describe the contest between newspaper profitability and their future capability to maintain a public interest role.

My research, which focused on investigative reporting, found a troubling trend about business investigative reporting in Australia: while the number of investigative journalism stories increased over time, business investigative reports declined.

There were notable exceptions such as The Age’s Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie’s Walkley award-winning expose about corruption within Reserve Bank of Australia’s note-making subsidiaries, but generally the data showed that broadsheet newspapers had moved away from investigating abuses of corporate power.

Crime stories and local investigations are more common – local stories are cheaper (there are no great travel costs) and crime stories are voyeuristically popular.

In fact, the data showed that the Australian Financial Review was the exception to the rule. In the past decade it increased its corporate investigative journalism. While this is good news for public accountability, the reporting is in a specialist newspaper that largely speaks to a niche business-minded audience.

It is concerning that the nation’s major broadsheets, including The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian, are not investigating the business community in the general public’s interests, as perhaps they should.

One conclusion for newspapers’ move away from corporate and financial investigations could be that as profits have declined newspapers were more cautious not to upset corporate advertisers.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argued a similar point during the GFC about the US media. He said they had become captive to their sources succumbing to “strong incentives for the media not to serve as part of society’s systems of checks and balances”.

Whether or not this is the reason for the loss of Australian corporate investigative journalism, the latest Fairfax business redundancies leaves even fewer skilled journalists to scrutinise corporate power.

Business reporting will be further limited by the ABC’s decision to axe its half-hour Sunday business program Inside Business hosted by Alan Kohler.

Fairfax’s announcement also removes previous doubts about content sharing of business stories across Fairfax mastheads. Monday’s front pages of Fairfax’s Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review running the same tale about ex-News Corp Australia CEO Kim Williams leaving the Sydney Opera House board by AFR journalist Joe Aston, provides a clear example of it.

To use a chef’s analogy, sharing of content across mastheads means different restaurants but the same kitchen. In other words, story diversity is likely to suffer when mastheads pool resources to cover stories.

While the cost cutting and sharing of content might bolster Fairfax’s share price, when it comes to investigating corporate power, we are all the losers.

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