Redundancies herald a new age

This article was published by 2012.

Like so many in Melbourne’s media, Seven News reporter Kate Osborn was shocked when people she’d admired and worked alongside began snapping up redundancies. The loss of experience was impossible to fathom. So, a few months on, how has the industry fared? And what hope remains for the future and those of us left?

They’d been inflicting death by a thousand cuts for years, but, in 2012, newspaper bosses swapped their scalpels for samurai swords, and started swinging. Reporters, photographers, designers, editors – the heart and soul of the sector – were all lopped, leaving remaining colleagues at The Age (Fairfax) and the Herald Sun (News Ltd) questioning how their organisations could possibly survive such a body blow.

With the blood-letting now largely complete, we can stop and examine the effect the recent rash of redundancies has had on journalists, and journalism in general. Too many have gone to name them individually (Crikey has tried). Suffice to say, the scale of the loss is unprecedented. In an AFL town, it’s the equivalent of teams shedding the bulk of their best and fairest, and still expecting to win premierships. Of the scores of journalists who left the industry in August/September, many were All-Australians. Veterans. Their loss equates to hundreds, if not thousands, of years of experience.

Those who accepted redundancies had varying definitions of ‘voluntary.’ Some people were only too willing to bow out. Others would have liked to have stayed, but found the redundancy package too tempting to pass up. And then there were those who didn’t want to go, but feared if they didn’t jump this time, they’d be pushed on the next occasion, without the generous payout to cushion the fall.

Herald Sun court reporter Norrie Ross was one who regarded his redundancy package as a gift. After 23 years at the paper, and 37 in journalism, he admits he was ‘over it.’

“I’m not sorry I’ve gone,” he says. “I don’t miss it at all.”

Since finishing up, he’s happily committed himself to lunches and home improvements, with job-hunting off the agenda until January at the earliest. “I said I’d give myself a break,” he says. Even then, he can’t see himself going back to full-time reporting, particularly when there are journalists in need of jobs who are younger and not burdened by a memory of how things used to be.

At 30, former Age state political reporter Reid Sexton is at the other end of the age spectrum to Ross, but he too felt his time had come.

“I tossed and turned about it and I put my application in on the last day, in the last hour or so. I’d been thinking about trying something new for a while,” he says. “You don’t do this job for the cash, you don’t do it for the hours. I used to think it was the best job in the world, but I just wasn’t getting a buzz out of it anymore.”

After five weeks out of work, Sexton found a job as a media advisor for Beyond Blue. He believes he’s ‘hit the ground running,’ and while he won’t rule out a return to journalism one day, he’s happy to have a long and much-needed break on the other side of the fence.

Some reporters, however, found their departure from the newspaper business was only temporary. Veteran Age journalist Gary Tippet was one of the first to take a redundancy. “It was an amount of money not to be sneezed at,” he says. “There was some concern about the future of The Age, where this may be the last round of redundancies that might be available to people.”

He hit the job ads and LinkedIn looking for a fresh opportunity and, after two months, an opportunity found him. Tippet and his equally esteemed colleague Ian Munro – who also took a redundancy – were asked to edit five suburban papers for MMP-Fairfax Community News. Dandenong is a change of scenery from Fairfax’s Media House, but Tippet is relishing the challenge, since despite a long and illustrious career, he’s never edited before. He does miss The Age though.

“You sometimes think you still work there. I loved being there up till the end. I had a fantastic time.”

Long-serving Herald Sun photographer Trevor Pinder also loved his job. But unlike Tippet, he’s no longer involved with news, and has found being disconnected from the media almost impossible to accept. He’s bought new camera gear in the hope of finding photography work, but the weeks since his September departure have been tough.

“It just blew me away not to be working in news, it absolutely gutted me. I just miss terribly being involved in news events,” he laments. He also misses the camaraderie that exists between photographers, camera crews and journalists on the road.

Pinder’s picture-taking legacy extends from his grandfather, who used emulsion on clear glass plates, to his father, who shot on negatives, to his two brothers, both newspaper photographers, and his sons, both television cameramen. He’d have happily died on the job as an old man, but amid sweeping changes to News Ltd’s photographic department, he felt he should make the decision to leave before it was made for him.

“I was just stunned. First The Age started crumbling. When the cards started to fall [at the Herald Sun], I just couldn’t believe that it was happening. I guess it’s progress.”

Whether that progress is positive is up for debate.

Monash University journalism lecturer, and former Age reporter Peter Gregory believes staffing cuts are already taking their toll. He says his classes have started collating the grammatical and typographical errors which now routinely pop up in the metropolitan dailies. He stresses the need for his students to be ‘ready to go’ once they reach a newsroom, because there may not be enough experienced older hands to provide checks and balances.

“They don’t have to be major things, but the idea with credibility in journalism is you get the little things right, because then you’ll get the big things right.”

The lack of mentors is also worrying.

“Experienced people are really good when you’re young to ask questions. People who’ve done it before have their own informal pathways, and that’s what you lose. It takes time to get that experience back.”

Trevor Pinder believes the ‘immense pressure to cover everything’ means important stories will now go untold. In 2005, he took the photograph which proved Mr Baldy was living secretly in suburbia, and led to the sex pervert being taken off the streets. But he fears a reduction in photographers will mean similarly time-consuming jobs will become a luxury of the past. On the road, Pinder was legendary for digging up stories by taking time to befriend people at crime scenes or natural disaster hotspots. He would often leave a job having donated his personal tarpaulin to someone with a hole in their roof or winched someone out of a bog – things a photographer can’t do if he’s being hurried from a flood, to court, then a police press conference.

Reid Sexton says the same goes for journalists.

“No one can stand there and say we will do more with fewer reporters. I can’t see how the standard of journalism we’ve enjoyed in the past can continue. If there are fewer reporters, getting paid less money, then the quality of journalism will be lost, and that’s a tragedy.”

He cites the success of Age investigative team Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker as an example of what can be achieved when reporters aren’t being run ragged.

“I’m afraid there will be a time when no one can afford to pay someone to not produce a story for a month,” he says.

Norrie Ross believes a push towards nationalisation has also contributed to a decline in standards.

“There’s an awful lot that looks to me like padding in the papers these days,” he says. And he’s disappointed that readers don’t revolt.

“I can’t think of any business, making cars or computers, that you’re asking the public to buy a product that’s inferior to the one on sale ten years ago.”

Gary Tippet believes quality has been sacrificed as the focus has shifted from the papers to the internet.

“One of the worries is as they go online, they go for a hits-based method and quality falls. I don’t think The Age website has reflected the masthead for years.”

Peter Gregory is concerned that as websites become even more hungry for content, there’ll be limited opportunities for online reporters to get out of the office. That means fewer opportunities to get a feel for a story, to mix with rival reporters, and to make contacts. Norrie Ross says being desk-bound will also lead to faster burnout.

“It used to be a great job. But a lot of the benefits there used to be in journalism are going, and a lot of the downsides are still there, which is a shame.

“Unless someone thinks they’re going to be an absolute star, I wouldn’t be advising anyone to be a journalist.”

So, with the perks of journalism quickly disappearing, will anyone want to do the job in the future? Will today’s young reporters remain in the game as long as the many veterans fillings the redundancy ranks?

Gary Tippet is optimistic, although with a son aspiring to enter the industry, he admits he has to be.

“It’s going to be harder,” he concedes. But adds: “It’s a fantastic life and I think people will want to stick around.”

He believes newspapers will be forced to continue their investment in investigative reporters like Baker and McKenzie.

“They’re marquee journalists and they sell journalism in whatever form it comes.”

Reid Sexton agrees. “I still think there’ll always be room for people who can break yarns,” he says. “The industry will never be the same again. I hope it will recover, though, and the young reporters will stick around.”

As for the jobs to which they stick, Peter Gregory expects the industry will continue to adapt. He’s already churning out student journalists who accept that rather than devoting their working life to one media outlet, their careers will be spread across a variety of large and small organisations, in a range of formats. He predicts larger operations will continue to keep governments to account, but with fewer resources to dedicate to general news gathering, niche publications will be able to pick up the slack and break stories.

As for audiences, Norrie Ross doesn’t believe they’re helping in the push to maintain standards.

“I do think that fewer people are interested in news than used to be. Across society, from richest to poorest, a lot of people used to buy a newspaper every day. With all the distractions, like Facebook and Twitter, I think people now are less interested in what’s going on in the world. I think that’s depressing that people don’t actually care.”

Gary Tippet is more hopeful.

“People want stories told, they want to know what’s going on,” he says. And it’s in their interests to campaign for quality: “You never miss your water till the well runs dry.”

If you ask newspaper executives, they’ll deny the well is drying up, although they may concede it’s being filled with a different type of water.

The sentiments contained in this article are no doubt what News Ltd CEO Kim Williams was referring to when he said there was too much ‘declinism’ in the industry. “The loss of hope. The lack of will to participate in necessary change.”

Williams told a recent gathering of the Melbourne Press Club there was more cause for hope than pessimism.

“Journalism of the future is going to be different, but it is still recognisably going to be journalism, and it is going to create jobs for those who approach it with a positive attitude and are prepared to make a place for themselves in it.”

Contrary to the views of some of those at the grassroots of his organisation, the News chief insists standards haven’t dropped. He cites the work of journalists like Peter van Onselen, Jessica Irvine, Mike Sheahan and Mark Robinson, who work across a range of media platforms and find new ways to tell stories.

“What these people are doing is proving that quality journalism is not dying – it is simply evolving into something different and I would suggest possibly better.”

Of course, it could be argued that those journalists are stars who aren’t required to spread themselves thin covering the news of the day, as the younger, or less exceptional, workhorse reporters generally are.

The Age editor Andrew Holden echoes Williams when he says reduced staffing levels haven’t harmed his newspaper.

“I don’t believe we have suffered any loss of quality in our journalism. The quality of reporting and storytelling remains as strong as ever.

“The more important change in our newsroom is not the number of staff but, in fact, the newsroom restructure that we’ve been planning for some months . We’re able to put to much better use the outstanding skills of our editorial staff to cover a broad range of news.”

Holden goes so far as to say morale on the newsroom floor has improved under the new editorial leadership team and after the structural changes. One would hope so, after the crushing lows of the peak redundancy period, when more than one reporter likened the mood in the newsroom to that of a wake.

A straw poll of Age journalists suggests they are at least getting used to the new way of doing things, even if some are yet to enjoy it. Their descriptions of morale range from ‘it’s ok’ to ‘still shocking.’

Holden says the new structure includes a greater focus on digital media. That News Ltd is also looking in that direction is no surprise, considering the grim outlook for printed newspapers worldwide.

Kim Williams believes the extinction of print media ‘is not a given': “When it invented the iPad, Apple did not un-invent the paper.”

But he concedes technology is the way of the future. “People are now consuming more news across more devices than ever before in human history. Consumption is up and up dramatically.”

Williams believes news content should be dictated by readers. “Ultimately, it is about putting consumers at the absolute centre of what we do. In ways that are commercially sustainable,” he says.

“These consumer preferences are obviously going to have profound implications as to how we in the media organise resources and construct and manage our infrastructure for sustainable financial outcomes.”

This notion is, of course, alarming to reporters on the coal face who deal with the general public, or to anyone who follows @heraldsunreader on Twitter and has read AKTIFMAG’s Top 20 Famous Thinkers Quoting Herald Sun Readers.

Those consumers are obviously extreme examples. But one need only look at daily lists of most-read online articles to see a trend towards overtly tabloid, entertainment, or sex-related stories. Kim Williams insists this does not imply a ‘dumbing down’ of the profession.

“The challenge, of course, is to adjust, get product offerings right, get cost structures right, attract new customers and create revenue streams that can sustain great journalism.”

As for attracting people to the industry to create that great journalism, Williams doesn’t share the scepticism of Norrie Ross and Reid Sexton.

“My advice to the aspiring journalist would have been the opposite: ‘Have a go, because there’s plenty of energetic life in the media industry yet.’

“Sure, the media and journalism will look different. But that doesn’t mean it will be worse. Every generation sees a golden age in decline, when the real story is a new golden era coming into being.”

Whether we’ll be left with a golden egg or just a goose, only time will tell.

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