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Politically homeless: where will the press gallery hacks go?

The Canberra press gallery is struggling to find space for media start-ups and smaller online players. Where will all the hacks go — and who will have to downsize?

When Michelle Grattan announced her decision to leave The Age two weeks ago, the search for precious office space in Parliament House’s press gallery was on. Where would the notoriously messy newspaper icon go now she had left traditional media to join start-up website The Conversation?

Despite reportedly putting in an application some time ago, The Conversation is still without a press gallery home for its Canberra staffers. Luckily for Grattan, the good samaritans at Keating Media — publisher of the Inside Canberra newsletter — agreed to take her in. Grattan’s research assistant and The Conversation’s Canberra editor are now working in there as well. The arrangement wasn’t purely altruistic: Grattan has agreed to write a regular column for Inside Canberra in exchange for a desk.

Grattan said last week the new “cubby hole” arrangement means she will have to be much more “tidy and economical” with space. “This is one of the major challenges of the new job,” she told the ABC’s Jon Faine.

Not everyone has been as lucky as Grattan. Since leaving The Australian to write on politics for Wendy Harmer’s The Hoopla, Gabrielle Chan has had to file wherever she can — often from Aussie’s cafe. The Global Mail has also been unable to secure a permanent home, despite photographer Mike Bowers and reporter Mike Seccombe visiting the capital regularly.

The issue will rear its head again when The Guardian tries to find a home in coming months for high-profile Fairfax recruits Lenore Taylor and Katharine Murphy. There’s no obvious place for them go.

I’m not aware of any vacant space at the moment,” Fairfax photographer Andrew Meares, a member of the press gallery committee, told Crikey. “We’re looking at creative options — that’s the only way we’ll be able to solve it.”

The press gallery occupies a long wing of Parliament House, bookmarked at either end by the infamous “Starlight Disco” common rooms, scenes of scandalous parties in more decadent times. The gallery is divided into offices, mostly one per media outlet. Fairfax, News Limited and the ABC occupy caverns, while newer media outfits have poky offices, are forced to share or have no space at all. Sky News has a notoriously small office for its staffers and Crikey has a modest home for Canberra correspondent Bernard Keane.

Sooner or later, Fairfax will have to give up one of their rooms.”

Complaints of a lack of space are almost as old as the press gallery itself. Canberra veterans still recall the cramped conditions at Old Parliament House, where demountables had to be put on the roof to accommodate the fourth estate.

The problem today is not so much a lack of space, as a lack of offices for the 300-odd people who work there. While the media industry is fracturing and fragmenting, the physical organisation of the press gallery continues to reflect the traditional dominance of the newspapers. It is, in the words of one gallery staffer, a “weirdly sensitive” issue in the gallery — a simultaneously collegiate and competitive place.

There’s long been a lack of space in the press gallery,” Sky News political editor and press gallery president David Speers told Crikey. “It’s becoming an increasingly difficult issue as new outlets pop up.”

Meanwhile, there are empty desks in the big Fairfax and News Limited offices. Despite increased copy-sharing and a decline in its press gallery numbers, Fairfax maintains separate offices for The Canberra Times, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review. Letting one of these offices go would have the added bonus of allowing Fairfax to save on rent.

Sooner or later, Fairfax will have to give up one of their rooms,” one recently departed press gallery veteran told Crikey.

Any changes are unlikely to happen rapidly. The press gallery committee can propose solutions and help individual reporters, but doesn’t have the power to issue edicts. Leases are negotiated between media outlets and the Department of Parliamentary Services. Restructuring the gallery — by adding new doors and walls, for example — would be time-consuming and expensive. That’s a problem given modestly-financed start-ups such as The Hoopla don’t have enough cash to pay for office space, let alone renovations.

But sticking with the status quo isn’t an option.

The change in the future is there’ll be more sole operators rather than people working for big mastheads,” Meares said. “As the media landscape changes, the press gallery will have to change.”

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  • 1
    rossmcg
    Posted Tuesday, 19 February 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    But sticking with the status quo isn’t an option.”

    Why not? the main stream media has been resisting change for decades so what makes you think they will embrace it now. Maybe the new people might find they will do better if they don’t hang around with dinosaurs. We all know what happened to them

  • 2
    spudandbeanie
    Posted Tuesday, 19 February 2013 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    I personally don’t think the CBR press should be housed in Parliament House full stop. If their employers rented office space in Canberra outside of Parliament House it might break the ‘gossip gaggle’ that exists and we may get some actual news.

  • 3
    Posted Tuesday, 19 February 2013 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    This raises a difficult issue, not very important in itself outside the press gallery, but symbolic of more general problems of resource allocation.

    I favour the department allocating space according to whatever measures it adopts, perhaps size of audience. The capitalist alternative would be to auction space, which would at least be more rational than the current mess.

  • 4
    drmick
    Posted Tuesday, 19 February 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    You are joking aren’t you?. The rubbish they generate could be phoned in; and they are all the same. A phone booth is too big and grand for the inaccurate, pre digested kaka they generate. They should all get out and good riddance.
    Nothing to see or read here; that’s for sure.

  • 5
    Posted Tuesday, 19 February 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Why can’t they use their laptops?

  • 6
    Bobalot
    Posted Tuesday, 19 February 2013 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    It will be a great day when most of the current press gallery end up at the local Centrelink office.

  • 7
    spudandbeanie
    Posted Tuesday, 19 February 2013 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Well, it’s obvious from the comments here that the press gallery are held in high esteem (ROFLOL). Totally agree with drmick above.

  • 8
    zut alors
    Posted Tuesday, 19 February 2013 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    It’s heartwarming to know Bernard Keane has some space in which to file copy.

    It’s within living memory when Crikey founder, Stephen Mayne, wasn’t even permitted to set foot inside the Budget lockup. The Smirk had an unnatural fear of him.

  • 9
    grubbidok
    Posted Wednesday, 20 February 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I’m all for space being shared and allocated in an individual meritocracy. Wouldn’t bode well for old media hacks though - and good riddance to them. I still prefer the newspaper experience, but it’s the content, not the medium, that’s meant I’ve not bought a newspaper for 2 years.

  • 10
    Andybob
    Posted Wednesday, 20 February 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    What is the rationale for space for journalists inside Parliament at all ? Who is a “journalist” and who is simply a member of the public who wants to write about the proceedings ? Why can’t news organisations inhabit offices outside Parliament ?

  • 11
    Hamis Hill
    Posted Wednesday, 20 February 2013 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    An old caravan parked out the front would do for accommodation.
    Evict them all into the equivalent of stocks in the market place and let the passing populace pelt them with the ordure they regularly produce.
    One small step for closed circle sustainability.
    They would soon find more appropriate accommodation.
    Problem solved.

  • 12
    Andrew Elder
    Posted Tuesday, 26 February 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Tablet devices were designed for this sort of non-dilemma, and I am surprised that an online-only media outlet didn’t explore that in greater detail. Drmick is right, most of that stuff could be phoned in.

    How to create more room? The Canberra Times has no business taking up space in that building, taxi vouchers should be more cost-effective than rent. Phil Coorey and Peter Hartcher should camp in Rudd’s office full time, which will free up considerable space for their egos alone.

    US media outlets don’t deposit all of their Washington journos at the Capitol or the White House: they have specialists who cover the Pentagon (Defence) and the State Department (Foreign Affairs). If you are running a media outfit that has 20 employees in the press gallery, and they are all writing the story du jour (polls? Thomson? Has the PM fallen over again?) then at least 19 of them are redundant.

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