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Fair go, Fairfax: the battle to save journalism

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By the Working Life Team

Monday, 21 March 2016

BY the time you read this article, hundreds of workers at Fairfax newspapers will have returned to work after this morning ending a three-day snap strike sparked by the threat of dozens of job losses.

The editorial staff at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and the The Australian Financial Review – including journalists, photographers, sub-editors, and designers in the Sydney and Melbourne newsrooms and the Canberra Press Gallery – walked off the job on Thursday afternoon following a shock announcement that management would be axing another 120 jobs to cut costs. That translates to about one in five newsroom jobs.

Within hours, Fairfax colleagues in Brisbane, Perth, Newcastle, and Wollongong also went on strike in solidarity.

They went on strike fully knowing that their action was unprotected but furious at what amounted to a betrayal from the same management that had assured them just weeks earlier that no job losses were in the pipeline.

The company was still able to produce papers with skeleton, non-union staff over the weekend, but it was a much-diminished product and a mere shadow of the reputation for quality that Fairfax has long stood for.

What’s the strike about?

While the spontaneous trigger for the strike was the threat of losing their jobs, the deeper issue is the future of quality and independent journalism in Australia.

Arguably more than any other media outlet in Australia, the three main Fairfax mastheads have always had a reputation for quality. Now published in a compact size, they still have a broadsheet personality within a tabloid body.

But a constant stream of job cuts in recent years has produced cracks in that reputation, and journalists at Fairfax fear the 120 redundancies proposed by CEO Greg Hywood would be the final straw. They say that they would be unable to carry on providing the exhaustive coverage of daily news, let alone the award-winning investigative journalism, with so fewer staff.

Other journalists agree, which is why the Fairfax strike action has seen virtually unprecedented solidarity from the industry, even extending to rivals at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, who issued a statement of support.

And it resonates with the public as well, who have jumped to add their names to a petition to Hywood begun by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

By Sunday night, more than 10,000 people had signed the petition, which calls on Hywood to reverse the cuts. “A robust democracy needs strong local media outlets; and that requires investment in quality journalism,” the petition reads in part.

The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review, and their federal Parliament bureaus, have long and proud reputations of fearless journalism – the cuts you propose will make the pursuit of important and newsworthy stories much harder.

“It defies belief that the company once again intends to go ahead with a short-sighted cost-cutting exercise that can only weaken the quality of the coverage currently being produced by journalists at the mastheads.”

Journalists are particularly concerned that the company’s focus on its websites rather than the newspapers means it sees quality journalism that costs money less important than clickbait designed to drive traffic to its websites.

Yet it was that expensive, old-style investigative journalism that keeps on winning awards, including the Graham Perkin Award for Journalist of the Year that Fairfax’s Adele Ferguson won on Friday night for her uncovering of wage fraud in the 7-Eleven convenience store chain. Ferguson said she accepted her award with “a heavy heart”.

“If there are job cuts it’s going to be harder,” she said.. “I hope we’re not going to go on cutting, cutting, cutting until there’s nothing left.”

Ferguson urged her company to work out a way to grow revenue instead of looking to cut costs – which means cutting journalism.

“When we’re talking about newsrooms getting decimated we have to take a stand,” she added.

Maserati-loving CEO

What makes the job cuts even more insulting is that they come after Fairfax recently declared a half-year profit of $27.4 million.

To make matters worse, less than a month ago, Fairfax management restructured its news operations to put its digital and online editions at the forefront and de-prioritise the printed editions.

Although journalists had some misgivings, they agreed to go along with the changes after assurances from management that there would not be any redundancies.

That’s why Thursday’s announcement by Hywood – who earned $2.5 million last year and drives a red Maserati – felt like such a betrayal.

The head of the journalists’ union, MEAA, Paul Murphy, said the cuts were “a body blow”.

“It’s the people on the newsroom floor that have driven Fairfax’s transition to digital,” he said.

“Through all the challenges, they have continued to produce high quality, award-winning, independent journalism. And this is their reward: yet another savage cut to editorial.

“We will be fighting for every job,” Murphy said.

“MEAA believes that yet another round of editorial redundancies only erodes the Fairfax business.

“MEAA calls on management to consider smarter ways of identifying business efficiencies as a way of lowering costs so that it can continue to produce the high standard of journalism its audience wants.

“Constantly cutting away swathes of the very people who create the journalism that is the reason your audience buys your product makes no sense.”

It is not only the big city mastheads that have experienced job losses at Fairfax. Last year the company axed dozens of jobs at regional newspapers in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania. News Corp, publisher of The Australian and tabloid mastheads in each capital city, cut dozens of jobs late last year, and the ABC has had to shed about 400 staff as a result of funding cuts under the Coalition government.

What now?

The journalists are now back at work, again chasing down stories and holding governments and big corporations accountable.

But the battle for the future of quality journalism – not just at Fairfax, but throughout the Australian media industry – is only just starting.

The MEAA is at the frontline of this battle, fighting to keep journalists’ jobs, maintain ethical standards, defend press freedom, and also to establish decent rights at work of the growing army of freelance media professionals, many of whom have been made redundant by big publishers and broadcasters.

The union’s immediate goal is to convince Fairfax to minimise the job cuts and find a smarter and more sustainable way to turn a profit.

Journalism is under attack from every quarter: not only greedy publishers with no clue about how to run a business, but governments gutting public broadcasting of funding, and a range of new threats to press freedom under the guise of “national security”.

With independent journalism at the very heart of robust democracy, every concerned Australian needs to get behind the MEAA and Australian journalists and say that quality matters.

Fair Go Fairfax

Sign the petition for quality journalism at Fairfax.

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Working Life is a forum to share ideas and opinions about work and life, both light-hearted and serious. The opinions presented on Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.

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