J’accuse Fairfax Management IV (local communities want local stories)

Time is certainly on the wing. I haven’t criticised my old employer, Fairfax Media, for eight months.

But I will have to rectify that now, having been nettled by Fairfax management again forgetting that readers are not mugs and want local stories rather than generic lifestyle pieces that can be re-used across multiple mastheads.

I urge everyone interested rural and regional journalism to sign the petition urging Fairfax not to sack more than 60 regional journalists, photographers and subs from papers like the Bendigo Advertiser, The Courier, Wimmera Mail Times, Stock and Land, The Standard, The Border Mail, The Ararat Advertiser and Stawell Times News.

The petition is available here.

I’ve written previously about Fairfax management being to focused on costs when it comes to the metropolitan mastheads, which have been cut to the bone.

Note: I was one of those Fairfax refugees, taking a voluntary redundancy after almost 19 years at the Fin Review. I want Fairfax to thrive and deliver great journalism

But I find the planned job cuts at the regional papers puzzling. In the US, newspapers/websites outside the big cities have partly bucked the trend of circulation collapse which has forced the closure of many metro titles.

In Australia, titles like the Border Mail, the Warrnambool Standard and The Courier in Ballarat are said to be still making a profit.

But now Fairfax is rolling out the “NewsNow” system which involved getting rid of local sub-editors and having that work done a regional “sub hub.”

It’s been done at the Bendigo Advertiser as well as three NSW titles – The Daily Advertiser in Wagga, the Area News and The Irrigator.

Last year, the Bendigo Advertiser tried to argue last year that the changes would benefit readers:

“We now have more journalists. We have recast our newsroom to focus less on back-office duties and more on the content that you count on. That’s more reporters and photographers in the field to deliver you news and information from across the district.”

But it the remaining regional reporters will also have to also take their own snaps, sub copy and update the website.

Crikey’s media writer, Myriam Robin, last year obtained a job description for journalists under the new model, under which the typical daily output of a reporter was expected to be “six stories a day, two leads, two down pagers and two briefs”.

Her story is available here

Reporters would also expected be able to moderate comments online and post to social media, “as directed by senior staff”, and to “ensure all images gathered during a shift are appropriately archived by the conclusion of the shift”.

To which I say, how are Fairfax managers off for shoes and socks? Would they like staff to give them a free pair?

The changes detailed by Crikey mean further networked copy for the print editions. “Reporters write directly into a space in a newspaper template and format their copy to fit the required dimensions. Layout can be easily replicated across different papers in this way — the ad sales team for the region can sell and place ads in a template of a newspaper, with the local journalists then required to fit their copy to the newspaper layout template given to them. Editors (and potentially news directors) will then look over the almost-finished product, but their role is not to give the copy the careful attention a subeditor would. A finished story is then published immediately and not held over to the print edition.”

The central problem here is that these papers are in communities with a strong sense of identity and particularism. For example, Ballarat and Bendigo have been jostling for prominence since the 1850s – Albury-Wodonga is a unique regional city on both banks of the Murray River.

The readers of these publications want their own stories told.

In 2012, The Border Mail launched a series investigating rural youth suicide and depression, providing families of lost loved ones and the community a voice.

Last year, The Courier launched an investigation into claims that state government spray-hand employees were subjected to toxic chemicals without protection for decades.

Let’s not take their readers for mugs. What happens to these publications when there is less local content, plus lower photographic and sub-editing standards?

There has already been a strong show of support from local MPs and community leaders. Yet so far, Fairfax management seems to be in need of the digital era’s version of an ear-trumpet.

The regional changes seem to be adapting strategies used at Fairfax’s community newspapers in Melbourne.

I used to read The Weekly but it has now ditched local news coverage in favour of networked lifestyle stories and generic pieces that can be run across all mastheads.

As a reader, I find this has left local coverage to News Corp’s Leader group, which I now read for suburban news and sport.

The philosophy at Fairfax’s community newspapers – under their chief Anthony Catalano – seems to be that readers are mostly attracted to the real estate ads.

Furthermore, Fairfax management seems to have concluded that local news and sport “doesn’t sell” and they will only run stories that can be “monetised”. The latter types of stories are often linked to advertised products and services or PR pitches.

To which I say, Fairfax management seems to be gripped by a modified cargo cult – the belief that consumers will continue to buy a product when there is less local content (and knowledge) that is specifically aimed at them.

Another problem is that regional media outlets have provided the vital first break for many journos and snappers who made it to the national and international stage. The loss of this nursery ground will be a wider loss for Australian journalism.

However, my prediction is that Fairfax management will discover that communities do value their local news.

Please sign this petition to support local journalism.

Memo to The Saturday Paper – less pics of pollies on Page One please

satpaper1

As a stubborn type, I still read the weekend newspapers while going through them online during the week.

This led to me discovering a pile of The Saturday Paper which revealed a telling pattern about their page one photographs.

I noticed the pattern after a reader complaint this weekend, but haven’t been able to track down who mentioned it first

Now, I should add that I buy The Saturday Paper and usually find some interesting things to read in it.

But I make this plea to the editor Erik Jensen and publisher Morry Schwartz … can you please give us readers a break from p1 photograph of a (usually male) Australian politician every week?

Fair enough, the paper is producing long reads on politics. But they can be illustrated without a mug shot of the main pollie mentioned in the text.

The visual dullness of the front page is sometimes also found on inside photos run with political stories.

Yet it’s curious because some of The Saturday Paper’s inside photos are very good – in particular those used to illustrate cooking and recipes.

satpaper2

Consider the following roll call of p1 pics which I discovered in my newspaper recycling pile:

March 14 –  Bill Shorten

March 7 – Scott Morrison

Feb 28 – Tony Abbott

Feb 21 – Cory Bernardi (intriguing story by Kate Doak on his business dealings)

Feb 14 – Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop (marginally better)

Feb 7 – Malcolm Turnbull

Jan 31 – Tony Abbott

Jan 24 – Peter Dutton

Dec 20 – Jan 23 – John Howard and Tony Abbott

The Saturday Paper is trying to build its subscription sales, but consider the casual reader who is browsing in a newsagency.

Does a weekly p1 pic of a pollie in a suit encourage purchase or does it cause hesitation or resistance?

TPP deal is nigh but flying under the radar

TPPpic

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement could be signed within weeks, according to Australian Trade Minister, Andrew Robb.

“Mid-February to mid-March: that’ll be, I think, the timeframe,” Robb told the ABC last week.

“We might have to come back again to conclude some things, but that’s the intent.”

“The final issues, as always, are the most difficult. But everyone seems to be in a mood to find some common ground so that we can get this major, major agreement off the ground.”

For the full ABC Rural story see here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-05/andrew-robb-believes-trade-agreement-could-be-weeks-away/6071672

I don’t necessarily share the conspiracy theories about the TPP, but I believe in transparency and in allowing the Australian Parliament and voters to see the detail before it is signed.

In December, I wrote a column for The New Daily arguing that the China FTA needed further exploration for its impact on economic staples, like milk and dairy products. See here: http://thenewdaily.com.au/money/2014/12/03/china-fta-milk-prices/

Before that, I wrote another column arguing for the full details of the China FTA to be released, including the small print of bringing in Chinese contractors and short-term workers. See here: : http://thenewdaily.com.au/money/2014/11/19/china-fta-isnt-cracked/

But I also have concerns about investor state dispute settlement, or ISDS. It enables foreign investors from TPP states to sue the signatory governments which act in a way that harms their interest.

For example, I believe that the Australian parliament should be able to pass legislation requiring plan packaging of cigarettes without being taken through a secretive legal process.

Greens senator David Whish-Wilson appears to have been the only politician to have commented on last week’s comments with Andrew Robb. See http://greensmps.org.au/content/media-releases/robb-rushes-tpp-deal-distract-government-woes

FOOTNOTE: A discussion of ISDS from the ABC’s Background Briefing is here: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/isds-the-devil-in-the-trade-deal/5734490

The Emperor’s new clothes only part of the Coalition’s problems

It’s a strange, symbiotic thing, the relationship and dynamics between a Prime Minister and an Opposition leader.

I’ve read that Sir Robert Menzies was very solicitous towards Arthur “Cocky” Calwell, because he recognised that the Labor leader was an electoral plus for the Liberals.

Not so the impatient Gough Whitlam, who was keen to demolish Bill Snedden and ended up with the far tougher, Malcolm Fraser.

So Bill Shorten will be hoping that Abbott survives, or at least lives to fight another day.

But this depends on whether Federal Liberal MPs listen to Abbott, or whether they listen to muttering out in the electorate.

As others have written, the original spill of Kevin Rudd was generated from within – through dissatisfaction within the Labor Cabinet and caucus. The Liberal leadership rift has come through external pressure from voter dissatisfaction, as demonstrated by the Queensland and Victorian state elections.

At one level, it’s curious, even weird, that the knighting of the Duke of Edinburgh was the catalyst for the voter unease over Abbott spreading to within the Liberal Party and the Federal party room.

But the knighthood was a moment out of the Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” – where no one dares to say that the Emperor is naked until a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

It’s hard to recover from such a naked insight into the gulf between what a leader believes and what most voters believe. Ridicule is powerful and the knighthood had an air of the ridiculous about it.

That old stager Machiavelli discussed at length whether a Prince should be loved or feared and came down on the side of the latter, as long as the Prince was not hated.

Modern democratic political leaders can’t expect to be loved by the majority, but they need to be respected, even grudgingly.

Yet it’s wrong to see that Abbott is the only problem facing the Coalition. I was moved to write this post after reading a piece by a PR expert, Anthony Tregoning, who argues that the government’s problem is communication, not policy. See here: http://www.pria.com.au/newsadvocacy/january-2015/the-governments-problem-is-communication-not-policy

Now, it’s true that the Coalition’s communication has been poor.But the Coalition’s policies and budget settings are a big part of their problems.

In my opinion, Australian voters have shown they want any government to retain certain big-picture policies – like retaining Medicare, affordable education and support for those really in need.

So, saying that you are listening without changing policies just doesn’t work.

As often occurs in Australian politics, this point was made best by a cartoonist, in this case the fab Cathy Wilcox.

Finally, I’m pondering whether Abbott was a good Opposition leader. He lost in 2010 to Julia Gillard despite Kevin Rudd lurking in the wings, pulling faces and casting shadows.

One union leader told me this week that Abbott was a one-sided debater – arguing in the negative and never in the affirmative.

Turnbull can argue in the affirmative, but we’ll have to see whether the Liberal MPs say yes to him and no to Tony Abbott.

Fresh details on timing of royal approval for Aussie knighthoods

The Government Gazette of April 17, 2014, answers some of the questions raised in my earlier post over the return of Australian Knighthoods and Dames.

A notice published in the Gazette says that Royal approval was given for the changes “Under the Great Seal of Australia and Our Court at St James’s on March 19.”

This was the same date as the Prime Minister’s chief-of-staff, Peta Credlin, sent a letter to Buckingham Palace advising them of changes being sought by her boss, Tony Abbott.

ElizabethR

Abbott publically announced the return of Aussie knights and dames on March 25.

Thanks to reader Seb Chartwell for drawing my attention to the notice published in the Government Gazette.

A link to the Gazette is here http://t.co/jtjxEHSjag

When did The Queen sign off on Australia’s return to Knights and Dames?

Peta Credlin personally advised Buckingham Palace of last year’s decision to reintroduce Australian knighthoods, according to documents released under freedom of information.

The Prime Minister’s chief-of-staff wrote a covering letter to the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Christopher Geidt, dated March 19 ahead of the decision being publically announced in Australia on March 25.

In her covering letter, Credlin says that a letter from Prime Minister Tony Abbott to the Queen was attached, which recommended amendments to the Letters Patent for the Order of Australia for the appointment of Knights and Dames.

Credlincoveringletter

On March 25, Abbott announced that, on his recommendation, the Queen “has amended” the Letters Patent constituting the Order of Australia.

“There may be up to four Knights or Dames created in any one year,” he told a press conference in Canberra. “This special recognition may be extended to Australians or extraordinary and pre-eminent achievement and merit.”

However, another letter released under FOI in August 2014 raises questions over the timing of the changes to the Letters Patent.

A letter from the chief clerk at Buckingham Palace, Christopher Sandamas, to Credlin is dated April 2, about a week after the change was announced by Abbott.

“Please find enclosed the Prime Minister’s submission and Letters Patent for the Orders of Australia for the appointment of Knights and Dames of the General Division, which has now been signed by The Queen,” the letter says.

BuckinghamPalaceletter

So when did the Queen sign the Letters Patent? Before it was announced on March 25 or afterwards?

It’s possible that Buckingham Palace indicated to the Prime Minister that the Queen would agree to the recommendation and Abbott went ahead with the announcement based on that understanding.

Furthermore, in a purely legal sense, the Queen’s agreement to the recommendation was probably just a formality once the official request was received from the Prime Minister.

This writer is no expert on royal protocol and would appreciate informed comment from readers on whether it is usual for the Prime Minister’s chief-of-staff to write a covering letter to the Queen’s private secretary.

I’m also seeking comment on what are the usual channels for correspondence between the Prime Minister and Buckingham Palace. The PM personally, the departmental secretary of PM and C, the Executive Council or perhaps the Governor-General?

I don’t know but would like to find out.

But while Credlin might have written the covering letter, Abbott has to take responsibility for the original decision and for who has been made a Knight or Dame since then, including the Duke of Edinburgh.

In my view, some of the criticism of Credlin has been sexist and I don’t want to climb on any such bandwagon. Particularly now that Rupert Murdoch has called for her to dumped.

The letters are available from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s FOI disclosure log which is here https://www.dpmc.gov.au/pmc/accountability-and-reporting/freedom-information/foi-disclosure-logs/foi-disclosure-log

FOOTNOTE: Readers might note that this is my first post since June 2014. My apologies. I got caught up on the home front and trying to make a living as a freelance journo. My blog will be updated regularly in 2015.

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 :

 

http://www.change.org/en-AU/petitions/fairfax-don-t-rip-photography-out-of-the-heart-your-journalism-give-your-staff-a-fair-go?share_id=KKMtnywkZS&utm_campaign=share_button_action_box&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=share_petition

 

 

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