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?