Margo Kingston should be writing this story. However, she’s out of reach for the next ten days, so I will do my best – this is such an important matter that Richard Tonkin and I agreed to get something up on the site quickly.
On Tuesday morning, staff at Fairfax received an email from the CEO David Kirk and his deputy, Brian McCarthy. It read, in part:
We are announcing today a major restructure of corporate and group services and significant initiatives to improve the overall productivity and performance of many of our businesses.
Media markets continue to change rapidly but, notwithstanding our positive performance in adapting to these changes in our industry, to continue to succeed we need to continue to change.
These initiatives are a logical next step in the way we manage our business in response to the structural changes going on around us. This is a far-reaching program, designed to comprehensively restructure and reposition the business for years to come. We wanted to make a major change today across the company in order to accelerate our building of a strong and dynamic integrated media business.
The chief element of the restructure comprises 550-odd redundancies – 5% of Fairfax’s full-time staff. The first scalp – a major one – was that of Andrew Jaspan, editor-in-chief of the Age for the past four years. Apparently Mr Jaspan was told of his sacking only a few minutes before its public announcement.
Not surprisingly, Fairfax journalists have called a strike until next Monday:
The MEAA's Chris Warren says the journalists are angry at management.
"The anger behind the strike is all driven by not just the jobs cuts, but the clear view that there's no strategy behind the job cuts," he said.
He says the journalists are concerned about two major issues.
"The first is the ongoing collective agreement to discuss the failure of the company to make a decent offer on that," he said.
"And secondly, it's driven by this really 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."
More than 200 staff at The Age newspaper walked off the job this afternoon.
Eric Beecher, publisher of Crikey (and a former editor of the Sydney Morning Herald) wrote yesterday:
Once you de-code the mangled spin, the real significance of yesterday's announcement is that for the first time in its history, Fairfax has made a public declaration that profits come ahead of journalism [emphasis added]. That its role as a major custodian of Australian quality editorial is secondary to its responsibility of maximising the financial outcome.
At one level this is neither surprising nor wrong. Fairfax is a public company whose primary duty is to shareholders who have invested in the company with purely financial motives.
Until yesterday, Fairfax had maintained the pretence that the two aspirations -- profits and public trust journalism -- could coexist. Until yesterday, Fairfax CEO David Kirk perpetuated that charade with his absurd rhetoric about Fairfax newspapers being different to others afflicted by the problems of the collapsing newspaper industry.
Yesterday Fairfax came clean. If you're looking for custodians of high-resourced fourth estate journalism in Australia, they effectively said, don't look here. We're businessmen and our overriding responsibility is to the pockets of our shareholders. Find someone else to deal with the societal responsibility stuff.
At least that's clear. Now the question is: can the quality, well-funded journalism that constitutes a pivotal plank of Australian democracy survive?
The time has come for governments, politicians and other public policy makers who genuinely believe in the place of quality journalism within the infrastructure of Australian democracy to understand that if they leave its future entirely to the marketplace, and to News Corporation, it will almost certainly be gone within a decade.
What will be left will be celebrity/sport/human interest pap journalism and relatively small independent outfits (like Crikey) whose revenues will never allow them to replicate the resources that have made newspapers like the Herald and The Age indispensable partners in the ecosystem of democracy for more than 150 years.
Does anybody else think that this matters?