Here we go again. Another round of huge job cuts at Australia’s traditional media, this time at Fairfax, although News Corp is doing much the same. Journalists on strike at the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald say that removing a quarter of the editorial staff, or 125 full-time-equivalent jobs, will be devastating.
Not just devastating for the people who lose their jobs, but for the capacity of the media to report news their communities need. Hashtags like #fairgofairfax and #savetheage pop up – again. The media union thunders – again – about companies cutting journalism to the bone and beyond, while in the same breath insisting that “quality journalism” is their business.
What I fear most is that these big job cuts have become so routine that the crisis enveloping Australian journalism will be greeted with a sad shrug by many, and even a little glee by a few. If we’re not at a tipping point now, when we really do need to talk seriously about public interest journalism as a vital cog in a functioning democracy, then we never will be. We’re like the frog in water that has been heating up for many years, and the water is boiling now.
The journalists’ union, the MEAA, says that since 2011, more than 2,000 jobs have been lost in Australian media, or around a quarter of our journalists. That’s just the redundancies the union can keep track of – it’s not including people who have resigned and have not been replaced. At Fairfax alone, the union calculates that 474 journalists have been made redundant just at the city mastheads to date; there have been hundreds more at regional and suburban papers and elsewhere.
Last year Fairfax announced that 120 jobs would be lost, and its journalists went on strike. The company’s chief executive, Greg Hywood, said the media was in an ever-changing landscape and cost cutting was “necessary to sustain high-quality journalism”.
Fairfax lost more jobs in 2014, when it shed most of its photographers. In 2012, when I left Fairfax, the “Fairfax of the future” restructure meant 1,900 jobs went, including several hundred from editorial. Hywood insisted at the time that “our investment in quality journalism and our editorial standards will not be compromised and will continue to underpin our success”.
This is not just a Fairfax issue. News Corp, which publishes the Australian, the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun as well as many other mastheads, is less transparent, but has shed hundreds of jobs over the same period. Last month it announced major layoffs, including gutting its photography department.
The Australian media has unique features but this is a global crisis. As print advertising collapsed with advent of the internet, the revenue news websites could attract never replaced it. Redundancies were inevitable and regrettable but were always going to happen. But in recent years there has been a killer blow. Not only did advertising fragment across thousands of sites but now the giants of Google and Facebook are gobbling up digital advertising revenue, cannibalising the journalism they do not pay for. Last year those two companies alone accounted for almost 20% of the global advertising spend.
That is the problem and it’s a hellish, existential one for journalism.
I have been to too many seminars over the years when everyone tried to be optimistic – what was the point of the alternative? Citizen journalism was going to be the answer – we’d all tap away covering our local communities. There’d be startups socking it to tired “legacy media”. Philanthropy would step in, digital advertising would scale up, “native” advertising or the iPad would save journalism, or something would.
While the revenue collapse is not the fault of publishers – there have been numerous mistakes, of course – it is true that many have been seduced by the “clickbait” trap, the panicked chasing of online traffic which turned out to be a chimera after all, a false god that chipped away at credibility. If there is a “ho hum” public reaction to the latest round of deep cutbacks, the lack of trust in media will be a central reason for it.
In Australia there are many new players, including Guardian Australia, BuzzFeed and now the New York Times. There’s the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail. Locally, there’s Mamamia and old-timer Crikey and others. As much as they have added welcome new perspectives, they do not routinely cover local news. Some focus on quick opinions and rewrites. They don’t cover in-depth state politics, or council politics, or planning, or transport, or local environment stories, or the complexities of crime, or dodgy developer deals, or schools or hospitals. Big state-based newspapers and their websites have been critical if those stories, of crucial importance to citizens, are to be reported.
You can’t blame the local publishers for the global revolution in media but you can blame them for spinning the crisis as nakedly as any squirming company we cover. Back in 2013 the former Sydney Morning Herald editor Eric Beecher wrote that Australia’s newspapers “have deliberately ignored the story of their own decline, and its impact on their own readers and the health of society, instead of covering it as they would the decline of any other important industry or profession. They have shown a deep reluctance to disclose or explain that large-scale commercial journalism has become unviable, and no one has yet found a formula to subsidise ‘public trust’ journalism in the way newspaper advertising did.”
Four years on, they still haven’t come clean, they still haven’t put their own journalists on to what is a very big story. In its major restructure announcement last month, Fairfax was almost painfully confused. “We believe that by pursuing the stories that matter we play a vital role in the nation’s democracy,” it said. “Never have journalists been more important.”
Fairfax would reject “clickbait” journalism. It championed deep engagement. But “while quality content is our raison d’etre, scale remains important to our digital advertising business”. But it would publish stories that matter even if they didn’t reach a big audience because it was a “trusted, quality publisher”. It was head spinning.
If publishers don’t want to talk about this honestly and openly, nor do our politicians. The opposition leader, Bill Shorten, tweeted on Wednesday about job losses across Fairfax newsrooms.
Very sad to hear about job losses across Fairfax newsrooms today. A very hard day for Fairfax staff, and a great loss for all of us.— Bill Shorten (@billshortenmp) May 3, 2017
Yes, so sad. It was terribly sad last year, and awfully sad the year before. Back in 2012 the then opposition communications spokesman, Malcolm Turnbull, acknowledged that it was a “very challenging transition and you know the question is, as he [Hywood] tries to do this corporate surgery, will the patient survive?”
It’s a more urgent question now. Nobody – least of all journalists, rightly wary of interference – wants a government bailout, but surely it’s time for politicians to speak bluntly about the critical role public interest journalism plays and the devastating impact of mass redundancies.
A few opening suggestions. End the ideologically driven chatter about cutting ABC funding further. The national broadcaster is more crucial than ever, especially in regional towns and cities where local newspapers have been decimated. And the ABC needs to reverse its decision to cut local television current affairs as a matter of urgency.
At the same time, the ABC can’t be a monolith. At least look at Scandinavian countries such as Norway, which does modestly subsidise some news organisations in the cause of local competition. Governments could consider tax breaks for investors in online journalism, or charity status for non-profit local journalism.
At least talk about it. Acknowledge it. Open it up. Journalism is far from perfect, and is wobbling badly, but without it a democracy cannot function. That’s worth discussion, surely.