With depressing regularity I return to this column to talk about cuts to precious journalism capacity in Australia, usually at Fairfax. This week it’s the equivalent of 120 editorial positions consigned to the dustbin of journalistic history, on top of the many hundreds, nay thousands, slashed at Fairfax and other news organisations in Australia in the past three years.
Former Age editor Michael Smith* appeared on ABC News Breakfast this morning to say he thought the:
… future of Fairfax as a news organisation would be decided in the next few weeks.
Would the cuts fall on what he called the “flim-flam” of Fairfax commercial properties such as Next, or where so many have already struck – at the heart of the once-proud news producer’s editorial resource?
We can perhaps guess the answer to that question based on the company’s ruthless race for profit in recent times. Nothing wrong with that, if you’re a shareholder or manager on performance-related bonuses. Too bad if you’re a journalist, or indeed a member of Fairfax’s rapidly dwindling readership.
Readers comments on the SMH coverage of the story make clear the disgust of once-loyal customers of a once-quality product, and the fatalistic realisation that it’s all over for Fairfax as a credible supplier of news in this country.
Rupert Murdoch and News must be enjoying it all hugely. With every cut to their only serious rival in the print and press journalism sector in Australia the dominance of News is enhanced. And deservedly so.
While Fairfax has let what one former senior manager described as “150 years of journalistic talent walk out the door” – and that was quite some time ago, so you can double that figure now – News continues to take its journalism seriously.
You might not agree with every anti-ABC rant you read in The Australian; you might be appalled by some of the tabloid headlines and front pages its popular mastheads deliver – but at least News believes and invests in, well, news, which is far from self-evidently the case for Fairfax’s management.
To some extent – and this is not for a moment to understate the tragedy of jobs lost and careers terminated – Fairfax’s loss has been the gain of Guardian Australia, The Conversation, Crikey and other online outlets that have recruited or benefitted from the input of ex-Fairfax staffers. And we know that the future of journalism has little to do with analogue-era newsrooms and permanent editorial positions.
Journalism in Australia will not die because Fairfax is walking away from the job. It just goes elsewhere, to those places where the digital natives live. It has already done so, if we go by declining print circulations, not just in Australia but all over the advanced capitalist world. Journalists of the old school face huge challenges in adapting to this turbulence.
For all that the digital age will bring opportunities for new kinds of journalist, and new kinds of journalism, there is real tragedy about the continuing defenestration of a once central element of the Australian public sphere. Eric Beecher’s 2013 warning of a looming “civic catastrophe” may have been dramatised for effect, but not by much.
The decline of Fairfax places even greater importance on Australian taxpayers continued support for strong public service journalism.
More than that, they must acquire and stick to the habit of paying for online journalism in the way we used to pay for newspapers. “No pay, no play” might be the takeaway from this week’s sad news.
*This attribution has been corrected. An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed this quote to former Age editor-in-chief Andrew Holden.