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.