J’Accuse Fairfax management Part III (with a breakfast tip from Fred Hilmer)

A fair while ago, I was Melbourne bureau chief of the Fin Review. It was a pretty good gig, but one downside was that it involved occasional exposure to the then Fairfax CEO, Fred Hilmer.

Hilmer was an academic and management consultant with McKinsey and Co before joining Fairfax. One time, junior managers like me were required to read a motivational bestseller called ‘Who Moved My Cheese?” before attending an internal workshop in Melbourne.

I read the book, which is a parable or business fable about how some people adapt to change, while others cannot. It describes four typical reactions by two mice and two “little people” during their daily hunt for cheese in a kind of maze. It is a very annoying book and I ended up throwing it against the wall. There is also a booklet in reply called “I Moved Your Cheese” but I don’t recommend either of them.

The moral of the Cheese story goes — change is inevitable and beyond your control, don’t waste your time wondering why things are the way they are, keep your head down and start looking for the cheese.

Come the day of the management workshop and Hilmer gives his opening address. Senior Fairfax people flew in from Sydney and Canberra. The Fredster says we have to examine our daily routines. In his case, he has stopped mixing fresh muesli every morning – instead buying pre-mixed muesli to save precious minutes every day

I recall glancing over at Michelle Grattan as Hilmer offered this time-saving breakfast tip. Gratts was notorious for becoming testy when dragged away from writing stories and questioning pollies. My memory is that Michelle glared at Hilmer through her glasses, apparently appalled at this waste of HER time.

Hilmer left Fairfax in 2005 and the company continues to get lectures from management consultants and its own executives. As I have written previously, I understand the arguments pushed by the current Fairfax chief, Greg Hywood, about the need for further change.

But I reject the idea that the Fairfax village has to be destroyed for it to be saved. One constant at Fairfax have been expensive visitations by management consultants. Firstly from McKinsey — Hilmer’s old employer — and now Bain & Co.

These consultants know the cost of things, but not their value. They’ve always objected to sub-editors, arguing that such “double handling” of copy was simply a waste. But anyone who has done a high school essay knows how easy it is to miss a literal or mistake in their own writing – partly because YOU know what you meant. If you miss it once, you can miss it twice.

To put it simply, sub-editing is vital to quality journalism. Yes, costs had to be cut and they were cut. The SMH and Age outsourced most of their subbing to Pagemasters but are now said to be bring it back in house. The Fin and some Fairfax regional papers are mostly subbed out of Auckland. (Note: I found the Kiwi subs to be very professional in my time at the Fin, although Aussie business and politics is somewhat specialised and I missed painstaking legends like Janet O’Connor, the Fin’s former check sub).

The Fairfax publications are now lean as greyhounds – you can see their ribs sticking out. Although I’ve left, I want them to success and I often marvel at how much my former colleagues produce – in both digital and print. The quality is still mostly high but it is a treadmill.

Hence, my puzzlement at the plan to axe most of Fairfax’s esteemed photographers, along with more subs. Are high quality images not part of the digital future?

The reason that HMAS Fairfax is still afloat is because of the staff, not the management (taking a long view over the last few decades). The staff have adapted to change and tried to make the best of it … they don’t need to read cheesy management books.

There has been considerable public support for the photogs, and rightly so. I’ve heard talk that the cost of axing them will save around $8 million a year – which again bamboozles me because it is trifling for a media company that is still earning around $2 billion in annual revenue.

Indeed, Hywood told a Macquarie presentation on May 9 was “significantly exceeding “ its cost cutting targets.

“Through this extraordinary transformation our people have maintained their professionalism and commitment,” Hywood said. “We have not compromised the core of what we do. Our high-quality journalism and content is stronger than ever. We run our news business on a 24/7 digital-first basis, where the production of a physical newspaper is just part of the process, not the entire process.”

Hywood is right about the commitment of Fairfax staff. But what he didn’t say that is that cost cutting does lead to compromise. Fairfax is still doing good work but it is sometimes touch and go – juggling breaking news while still finding time and effort for deeper, questioning investigative work.

 As CEO, Hywood will be reluctant to revisit the plans to cull the snappers because it was would be seen by some a “back down”. News Corp would rub in some salt, but they do that anyway.

 The future of Fairfax relies on cooperation, not top-down managerialism.The readers don’t want a bunch of yes-men and women. The recent strike in support of the photogs showed they still have guts, independence and pride in their work.What management and the board don’t seem to realise is that they need to take the remaining staff with them. If they don’t, the readers won’t hang around, either.


FOOTNOTE: An online petition in support of the Fairfax photographers can be found here :





J’Accuse Fairfax management Part II (with poke at News Corp)

My previous post on May 7 posed a rhetorical question – “FAIRFAX MANAGEMENT – WHERE’S THE POSITIVE VISION?”

At the time I was nonplused – and then angry – over the news that Fairfax Media wanted to sack about 30 photographers in Sydney and Melbourne, outsourcing much lens-work to Getty Images.

It turns out a lot of Fairfax readers felt the same way, as shown by the support and admiration expressed on social media for the work of Fairfax snappers past and present.

In my case, I recalled joining the SMH in the late 1980s. The Herald was transformed under the editorship of Eric Beecher and then John Alexander – partly through making better use of photos. At the time every snapper I ran into wanted to work for the Herald.

Then I moved to Melbourne, still working for the SMH but based in the old Age building. The photography to emerge from that brown brick dump on Spencer Street was amazing … legendary snappers like Bruce Postle and John Lamb were on the job.

In the old days, I lived close to Victoria Park, the home ground of Collingwood. I’m not a Pies supporter but I often squeezed into the ground to watch the last quarter for free. I was at the game in 1993 when St Kilda’s Nicky Winmar responded to racial taunts by pulling up his jumper and pointing at his skin.

The headline was Winmar: I’m black and proud of it”. But the pic by Wayne Ludbey spoke loudest.

That tradition has continued with the work of great Fairfax photogs like Kate Geraghty and Jason South. However, this post isn’t about the past, nostalgia for the golden age of newspapers.

What riles me about Fairfax management is that they’re so reactive, so focused on cost-cutting, so captured by high-paid management consultants like Bain & Co. What about the future?

Take the recently leaked innovation report from the New York Times. It concluded that the NYT is not transforming fast enough in the digital era.

Never mind the old line about holding the front page, the NYT reckoned the end is nigh for the internet home page. “The home page has been our main tool for presenting our journalism to readers, and millions of them flock to it each month. But like all news home pages, its impact is waning. Fewer than half of our readers even see the home page. Instead of seeking us out, more readers are expecting us to find them on places like Facebook and through email and alerts.”

 But the NYT report stressed the need for creating compelling, immersive content. That includes digital images – whether stills or video. The battle to create and hold an online audience will not be helped by generic images and stock shots.

There’s also the question of immediacy and getting out of the newsroom. Age photog Penny Stephens has noted that, with journalists becoming more deskbound, snappers are increasingly the eyes of a modern media outlet.

But there’s more. Fairfax management had been assuring staff that the business had stabilised after years of cost cutting and job losses. Then came the plan to axe the snappers (and another 35 subs and 15 lifestyle journos).

Fairfax staff reacted by going on strike, taking the view that they had to try to draw a line in the sand. Because management had just shown that nothing was sacred. Note: I’m prepared to use two clichés in one paragraph to make a point.

To be fair, Fairfax chief executive, Greg Hywood, has to juggle messages for multiple audiences. The analysts and big shareholders like cost cutting because they can understand it. The longer-term aims of Fairfax shareholder, Gina Rinehart, are unclear but important – partly because it simply a sideline for her.

The decline of print and the need to capture digital audiences means that further changes is inevitable, as shown by the NYT innovation report.

One of the doyennes of the new era, Emily Bell, recently wrote a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review which stressed that, unless NYT journalists bought into innovation/adaption, it won’t happen.

What is Fairfax management doing to get their journos to buy into innovation/adaption?

Fairfax can’t survive at the cut-price end of the market – it needs to survive on quality and digital photography is part of that.

One of Hywood’s aims is to the build new revenue streams through branded events. Ironically, one of Fairfax’s biggest successes has come through its Clique program where staffers interact with many, many thousands of amateur shutterbugs.

Will the public stick with the Clique program if most of Fairfax’s photogs get the bullet? Unlikely.

As always, News Corporation stands ready to push its own commercial interests, even though their mastheads face the same pressures and declines. One looks forward to The Australian’s media section detailing the redundancies at News Corp’s Aussie papers over, say, the last three years. How many of their snappers have already lost their jobs?

News Corp’s global chief, Robert Thomson, hosted an industry bash in Sydney this week, where he argued that print media would be around for many years. “We are proud of the print provenance not because we wish to pay homage to the past, but because we believe print will have an absolutely crucial role in a fast-moving digital world.”

Maybe so, but Thomson could hardly bag newspapers when his big boss, Rupert Murdoch, has printer’s ink running through his veins. We’ll see what happens when Murdoch senior loosens his management grip.

So, Dear Readers, the Fairfax photographers matter a great deal. As do the subs. Pass on this message to management.


On Twitter, look for #FairGoFairfax for details on Age photography slide nights.

There’s a gig in Sydney on May 29: http://walkleys.com/event/photojournalism/

Fairfax management – where’s the positive vision ?

This post is a modest call to arms for Fairfax Media readers – tell management that they can’t keep cutting job numbers

 That message has to be sent now – loud-and-clear – or there won’t be much left to save.

 I write as a journo who had two stints at Fairfax for a total of about 25 years – mostly at the Fin Review but before that at the SMH.

I took voluntary redundancy from Fairfax late last year – one of the many – and am working as a freelancer.

The last few years at Fairfax felt like being an extra in a slasher movie – you get around one plot twist and more cuts were waiting in the wings.

But today’s announcement shocked me. It’s bad enough that Fairfax plans to axe another 35 sub editing and page layout jobs, plus 15 from the lifestyle sections.

What really got my goat was that Fairfax planned to cut about 30 photographic jobs and would outsource much of the work to Getty Images. It was quickly blasted by the journalists’ union, the MEAA.

I immediately tweeted: “Fairfax management should be ashamed – their photogs are great. Time for positive steps, not just cuts “

My former Fin colleague, David Crowe, who is now at The Australian, tweeted: “I have worked with brilliant Fairfax snappers and subs over the years. Bitter news on redundancies.”

The columnist Julia Baird tweeted: “Seems to be a broad, foolish, absurd trend amongst modern publishers to think good photography is dispensable. Or, even more risible, easy.”

Editorial staff at The Age and SMH reacted by walking out on strike for 24-hours. And good luck to them.

What sort of message is Fairfax management trying to send? That striking visual images are not part of the future of journalism? That strong photographs taken with years of knowledge don’t count ?

I hope Fairfax readers will stick with the company’s publications. The remaining editorial staff are doing a sterling job – particularly when you consider that some 1900 jobs have already been cut.

Indeed, Fairfax reported an after-tax net profit of $193 million in February for the half year. Chief executive Greg Hywood said that result was a credit to staff resilience. Fairfax’s share price has crept up a little.

 Hywood has a tough job. In the recent past, he warned that Fairfax faced an “inflexion point” during a period of unprecedented chance in the media industry.

His job was made harder by one of his predecessors, Fred Hilmer, hanging around for so long and adding so little. Hilmer passed on ground floor opportunities to buy into internet advertising in crucial sectors like jobs, cars and real estate, while spending up on big printing presses in Sydney and Melbourne.

 Those printing presses are now white elephants and editorial staff know the bell might soon be tolling for them. Today’s 24-hour strike had a flavour of “enough is enough” about it. That sentiment will be lapped up by News Limited, which goes about its job cuts in a far sneakier way.

But good on the Fairfax editorial staff for taking a stand. Hywood and his management team keep talking about editorial quality, while continuing to cut away. Everybody knows what has happened to newsrooms around the world and Fairfax editorial staff have busted a gut trying to make things work.

At what point does cutting editorial resources – including photography and editing – turn from a downward spiral into a corkscrew helicopter smash?

So please, Dear Fairfax Readers … tell management that you value the work of editorial staff. The Fairfax board are a bunch of duffers when it comes to media matters, but the management might get the message.

But then again, Fairfax manager Allen Williams reacted to the strike with dark warnings about possible disciplinary action, even possible sackings if strikes continued. Instead of asking why staff had walked out.

The answer is that Fairfax editorial staff care about their jobs and they care about quality journalism.

Finally, here’s a link to a strong piece in the Guardian Aus by snapper Mike Bowers on why photography matters.


Hockey shows signs of hubris in FT interview

Joe Hockey has called for the world’s economies to go cold turkey by kicking the “morphine” of easy monetary policy.

The Federal Treasurer has warmed up for this week’s meeting of G20 finance ministers in Sydney with some free advice for his counterparts in an interview with the Financial Times. The FT noted that the criticism was “egalitarian” in being directed at developing and developed nations, including the US and Europe.

“Sooner or later the world has to get off this morphine of printing money and easing monetary policy,” he told the FT.

“I believe in freedom, enterprise and liberty – they are the things that facilitate opportunity,” he said. “I think our role as finance ministers is to facilitate ambition and lift the yoke of regulation, red tape, taxation and centralised control.”

“I have a unique goal to try to drive the world to greater growth and prosperity,” added Mr Hockey, who says his political idol is Teddy Roosevelt.

The FT accurately observes that Hockey has emerged as the “ideological backbone” of the Abbott government. But can he really claim that his goals are unique?



Australia slips in world press freedom index

Australia has fallen two spots in the annual world press freedom rankings, with Reporters Without Borders citing an increase in legal actions seeking to identity sources of stories.
The index said concerns over “surveillance and confidentiality of sources” were behind Australia’s drop to 28th spot.
“In Australia, the lack of adequate legislative protection for the confidentiality of journalists’ sources continues to expose them to the threat of imprisonment for contempt of court for refusing to reveal their sources,” it said.
‘No fewer than seven requests for disclosure of sources were submitted to the courts in 2013 alone.”
New Zealand fell one place in the index to 9th place, with the index arguing that there was growing mistrust between the Key government and the news media.
“In New Zealand, the interception of reporter Jon Stephenson’s metadata by the military, which thought his articles were overly critical, and the release of journalist Andrea Vance’s phone records to a leak investigation is indicative of growing government mistrust of the media and their watchdog role.”
The US fell by 13 places and is worth a close read. So too is the UK, with the Glenn Greenwald-Guardian exposures. New reporting restriction are afoot in Japan, and the entry on Israel-Palestine is worth a read.
Timor-Leste (77th) rose 14 places in the wake of an historic journalists’ congress in Dili last October where a code of professional conduct and the creation of a seven-member Press Council were approved. But continuing vigilance is needed. The media law currently before parliament is the next challenge for media freedom in Timor-Leste.

1300 Forge jobs cut on big WA, Qld projects

The receiver/managers of the ASX listed Forge Group cut 1300 jobs on power stations and mining projects in Western Australia and Queensland.
The move partly reflects a downturn in mining projects. One of Forge’s biggest contracts was at Gina Rinehart’s Roy Hill project in WA.
Mark Mentha of KordaMentha Restructuring said he hoped some of the employees may be able to get work with the new contractors. Forge employees would receive their entitlements from the sale of Forge assets and the Federal Government scheme that guaranteed basic entitlements.
KordaMentha said in a statement late on Wednesday the workers were retrenched today after the principals of the construction jobs exercised contractual rights they claimed on the projects.
“There is no money to pay employees and no work to perform. We are working closely with the administrators Ferrier Hodgson to do whatever we can to help the employees at this dreadful time for them and their families,’ Mr Mentha said. “We will be bringing the employees back to their home town and helping them apply for their entitlements.”
KordaMentha Restructuring was appointed receivers and managers of the engineering, procurement and construction company on Tuesday, following the Company’s decision to appoint Ferrier Hodgson as voluntary administrators.
Mr Mentha said that Forge’s international businesses in South Africa, Asia and the US would operate business as usual pending a sale of those businesses. These operations come under the Taggart and Webb Groups.
The Australian operations had to be assessed on a project-by-project basis. “Today’s moves by some of the owners of the projects forced our hand because there is no cash to carry employees,” he said. Employees were notified of the redundancies at meetings this afternoon.
The Forge Group is understood to have debts of $500 million, including an expourse of about to the ANZ bank.
The appointment of administrators and receivers follows the company reporting significant cost over-runs and profit downgrades in power construction contracts. Mr Mentha said against a backdrop of material movements in cash flow and EBITDA projections, the Company’s financiers did everything possible to give the Company time to find a solution to repair its balance sheet.
Forge previously employed 1753 staff in Australia, mostly in the construction division, with a further 814 overseas.

Toyota Australia denies Fin Review story re plant closure

Toyota Australia today issued a statement to deny a story in my old employer, The Australian Financial Review, which said that the company blamed car unions for the decision to end manufacturing.
The full text of the Toyota statement is here:

Toyota Australia denies the allegations in today’s front page Australian Financial Review story, ‘Toyota blamed union’.
Toyota Australia has never blamed the union for its decision to close its manufacturing operations by the end of 2017, neither publicly or in private discussions with any stakeholders.
As stated at the time of the announcement, there is no single reason that led to this decision.
The market and economic factors contributing to the decision include the unfavourable Australian dollar that makes exports unviable, high costs of manufacturing and low economies of scale for our vehicle production and local supplier base.
Together with one of the most open and fragmented automotive markets in the world and increased competitiveness due to current and future Free Trade Agreements, it is not viable to continue building cars in Australia.
The company will not be making any further comments on this issue.

Notwithstanding the above statement, Toyota Australia and its president Max Yasuda have been frustrated in recent years in their attempts to overhaul work practices at their Altona plant.
For example, a small group of employees, which included some AMWU shop stewards, took Federal court action to gain an injunction which prevented Toyota management from seeking workforce approval for a package of changes to cut costs and improve productivity.
The changes would not have cut base pay but would have reduced the Christmas break, delivered more rostering flexibility and the like.
On the other hand, Toyota had angered the AMWU shop floor by the manner of hundreds of forced redundancies a few years ago. And management refused to negotiate the changes with the full cast of delegates who were usually involved in enterprise bargaining.
Toyota Australia had argued that it needed to cut the cost of each car it made by $3800 in order to compete with other Toyota plants, especially in a new factory in Kentucky which is less influenced than the traditional mid-West strongholds of the United Auto Workers.
Toyota makes a coded reference to workplace matters in its statement when it refers to the high cost of manufacturing in Australia, so it is being a bit coy.
The outcome of a vote of Toyota’s 2500 manufacturing workers is now only conjectural. But it is likely that it would have been passed by a majority of workers if they realised it was a referendum on whether they wanted to keep their job.
The Abbott government, led by Treasurer Joe Hockey, now appears to be putting most of the blame on unions and the Toyota workers. Max Yasuda says otherwise. Why is it so hard to argue that the reasons for the Toyota decision were complex? Did the workers have any influence on the Australian dollar, the content of free trade agreements and changing consumer preference?
But here’s a question – Tony Abbott telephoned Yasuda-san briefly in the wake of Holden’s decision in December that it would shut its assembly plant in Adelaide.
After that phone call, did the PM ever have a serious discussion with Toyota regarding its future in Australia ?


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