Fairfax sacks its editors

Fairfax sacked three senior members of its editorial team today. In Melbourne, Age editor Paul Ramadge “announced his intention to stand down” while at the Sydney Morning Herald publisher and editor-in-chief Peter Fray and editor, Amanda Wilson announced “they are leaving the company”. The trio were sacked a week after CEO Greg Hyland’s restructure. Frey said he said it was an exciting opportunity to see what he could achieve in the profession he loved but “he didn’t have another job to go to” while Ramadge spoke of “divided feelings”.

Their departure clears the way for Fairfax to move to a new management structure. In Hyland’s memo to all staff last Monday called “Fairfax of the Future”, he announced the three objectives of his cull of 1900 staff: Move to a digital-only platform, reduce costs and make profits. Hyland said his “Metro Media Business” (the Age and SMH) has grown 30% audience in the last five years. Online visitors now outnumber print by over three to one. But the business costs are predominately in the legacy space. To fix this, they will move to regional printing plants, charge for digital access from next month, reduce the size of their papers and sell a stake in NZ auction site Trade Me.

Hyland said they were committed to a multi-platform strategy. Fairfax Media will become a “digital news media and transactions” company with horizontal media convergence across four platforms: legacy (print/radio), online, mobiles and tablets, and IPTV. Audiences would be “monetised through the day” through subscriptions, advertising, digital transactions and events. There is no role for an editor-in-chief in this model. The Australian thinks there will be five geographical editors-in-chief in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Canberra — and a handful of “national news editors”. The Australian believes there will be 19 “topic” editors, replacing the rounds system. “Some topics will be national, such as federal politics, some local, such as crime, and some hybrid,” they said. “There will also be five ‘platform’ editors: one each for print, social media, tablet, mobile and computer.”

Meade and Jackson note the massive restructure in their own organisation News Ltd with job losses expected to exceed 1000. Its 19 divisions will be reduced to five publishing houses in a “one city one newsroom” strategy similar to Fairfax. News is closing two divisions: News Digital Media, founded in 2006, and News Corp’s internal wire service Newscore formed three years ago.

While Australia’s two biggest media companies haemorrhage staff, The Guardian is worried about losing a plurality of voices. It notes Gina Rinehart is circling Fairfax for a board seat and editorial influence. The Guardian’s comment she would “hamper Australia’s once-vibrant journalistic culture” is a bit Pollyanna-ish about the country’s journalistic culture. Right-winger Gerard Henderson calls the Age Guardian-on-the-Yarra but the Australian paper is not as good as its British counterpart.

Whether it will be a choice “between Murdoch and Murdoch on steroid,” as the Guardian claims, Fairfax were never independent of their owners regardless of their “Charter of Editorial Independence”. Even in Graham Perkin’s glory days, he was rapped over the knuckles for supporting Gough Whitlam in 1972 and had to backtrack in 1974 when the board vetoed his decision to support Labor. Rinehart’s refusal to sign it will have little bearing on the content the new entity provides.

The threat is not political interference but business. The new arrangements will further hasten the collapse of the walls between editorial and commercial departments. Terry Flew notes the big question for Fairfax is what online content to put out. Flew said their websites are “a confusing blancmange of investigative stories, fashion photos, sex tips, celebrity gossip, local news, opinion pieces, sports results, and updates on reality TV shows”. These sites challenge Fairfax’s claim to deliver quality journalism and most of it is readily available elsewhere. Flew said Fairfax has priorities for its online sites: “uncluttering its content pages and deciding what it won’t be reporting on, and identifying more clearly who its paying readership are likely to be and what they are uniquely seeking from Fairfax sites.”

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