FAIRFAX’S FORGOTTEN FLOCK

Sub-editors are the sentinels of the
newspaper industry. Yet these gatekeepers appear to be invisible, taken for
granted by Fairfax management who rarely emerge from their ranks and who rarely
recognise the craft involved, promotion and career opportunities for production
workers.

A snap no names survey of subs taken last
week at the SMH, Age and Sunday Age, AFR, Sun-Herald, Newcastle Herald, and
Illawarra Mercury highlights a neglect of subeditors by Fairfax management
on all titles.

The survey reveals subs to be undervalued
and frustrated, overworked and underpaid, missing out on merit rises, upgrades
and margins, even when they take on higher duties.

They are indispensable yet there is little
or no recognition of the ability of word subs, check subs and layout subs who
combine to bring out newspapers on time, frequently against deadline. Rewording
lazy logic, checking facts, titles and spelling and then writing a catchy
headline requires a skill honed on the subs’ table. But the survey paints an
unrelenting grind from never-ending baskets of stories for the edition and
future editions.

The workload keeps subs near chained to
their desks, unable to take or ignoring company-agreed eye and meal breaks.
Once groups of subs would automatically take a break between editions, now they
sit, like battery hens,before their computers, rarely exchanging opinions,
ideas on headlines or content. The culture and practices differ between subs desks
but, in general, the survey portrays a grim existence and for some, low job
satisfaction. The winner of the 50th Walkley Award for the best
headline might expect the reward of an upgrade. A finalist in the same award
may get a margin. But other sods pedal harder and
harder on seven and a half hour shifts.

On questions on job satisfaction and career
paths, here are some comments from the titles:

Lack of production experience among senior
management means they devalue the role of subs, magnified by poor pay (Age
sub).

A more structured and transparent career
ladder. Make promotion worthwhile rather than an ordeal (SMH sub).

Morale’s low. People don’t work well when
they’re unhappy. The combative atmosphere needs to be fixed. Otherwise the
workplace goes down the hill (AFR sub).

Some appreciation is necessary, especially
from editorial executives above my line manager of what subeditors do. How a
check sub can improve copy, captions and headline. There is a pervasive feeling on
our desk that quality copy is not a priority. There is no recognition of
experience – unless you are young and a willing ‘yes’ person you appear to have
no future at Fairfax except as a content provider/processor (Sun-Herald sub).

The merit-based pay program is not
transparent. The company doesn’t take it seriously. (Newcastle Herald sub).

THE STATS

Some 135 subs were surveyed last week in a
four-page questionnaire. The results were collated last weekend and a NSW
university statistical analyst checked the data.

The average Fairfax subeditor
in November 2005 is 45.5 years old with journalistic experience of 20-25 years
but a subbing life of 8-10 years. The statistical analysis showed that those
three demographic characteristics were uniform across the six titles. This makes the other
differences both valid and noteworthy.

There were marked grade differences between
the titles. Sun-Herald subs had nine years more experience and their average
grading was higher: Sun-Herald 9.2, SMH 8, AFR 7.5, Age 7, Illawarra Mercury 5.8 and
Herald Newcastle 5.

There is a significant gap, two full
grades, between metropolitans and regionals – that’s about 35 per cent – but
there are big gaps also between the metros.

So how long does it take to progress, on average,
one grade? At the Sun-Herald 5.1 years, SMH 5.6 years, AFR 8.5 years, Age/Sunday
Age 8.8 years, Illawarra Mercury 4.8 years, Newcastle Herald 8.2 years.

Some subs simplydisappeared into a black
hole. One Age sub has been on the same grade 6 for 21 years, a SMH sub has
remained on grade 7 for 17 years after 33 years in the business. There are similar
examples at the regionals: one sub spending 15 years on a grade 5; another, 30
years a journalist, had spent 14 years between grades 5 and 6.

About five staff said they were on
fixed-term contracts. Obviously there are more. I’ve moved from casual word sub to a
production editor. I’m on a fixed-term contract but I need greater job
stability and security, wrote one.

And another:

I want a permanent position instead of a
contract. Most revealing about subs’ attitudes were two questions, graded 1-7,
on satisfaction and career prospects.

Satisfaction at the SMH was lowest: 2.6 out
of 7. Career prospects were equally dismal: 2.1 from the 42 subs surveyed. The
Age was 4.1 satisfaction and 2.9 career. Satisfaction was highest at the AFR:
5.2 and 4.1 for career prospects for the 22 subs surveyed.

Only 49 of 135 respondents said they
regularly took the specified eye breaks. This is not simply a company-agreed issue,
it is also a question of improper compliance with occupational health and safety
legislation. Whether it is a matter of management pressures or subeditors’ perceptions
of them this is concerning, both because the interests of staff health are ignored and
because this implies either management imperatives or indifference to welfare
and the law.

Forty subs reported they had not had formal
job-related training during the past two years. Training varied between mastheads
with master subbing and advanced courses available for periods. An Age sub suggested
a short course on dealing with Arab names and Islamic cultural issues.

COMMENTS

We need more subs, reporters, designers and
photographers. I am working longer hours of unpaid overtime – about four hours
a week.

?

A complete culture change at Fairfax (to
production). Subs’ hard work and work is not rewarded.

?

I’ve received no pay rise in 12 years. We
need more respect from management for the job we do.

?

Fairfax needs to value the subs and subs should be esteemed in the same
sense as reporters.

?

Allow subs to work from remote terminals –
i.e. home. Be less reliant on casual subs.

?

Problems at Fairfax have
nothing to do with the subs so why are we being made redundant? The subs desk
is already rundown.

?

We need more subs, more realistic deadlines
and less reliance on casual subs.

?

I’ve received no upgrading in 10 years.

?

Fairfax is a walking corpse.

?

For someone, somewhere to see the value of
what we do.

?

All production positions at Fairfax mastheads
should be available to all production staff instead of having separate business
units. Fairfax is restricting my career – it

is not an equal opportunity employer.
Restrictions on movement don’t apply to reporters.

?

I work full time in a post on a fixed-term
contract, but I’m refused permanent employment at my grade level.

?

It has been my ambition since I started
journalism to work at the SMH. It has proved to be a bitter disappointment. The
only thing about working at the SMH is being able to say outside: I work at the
SMH.

?

I demanded an upgrading, and, amazingly, I
was granted one.

?

It is virtually impossible to care about the
product as I once did when management clearly has zero regard on what subs do.

?

Some improvements have taken place but
there’s been a relentless rise in the workload which will only get worse after the
redundancies.

?

I think layout journalists will make way
for artists in the future.

?

Ban advertorials.

?

We need more opportunities to move from
masthead to masthead.

?

Can we nuke the HR department.

?

I’m disappointed and demoralised.

SUMMARY: The survey shows that subeditors
want recognition from management of the quality of work and important role they
perform, greater attention paid to their career opportunities and a transparent
system that shows merit pay is shared. As a company espousing corporate social
responsibilities in practice and print, Fairfax has failed
to talk to the engine room of its mastheads. It has overlooked the aspirations of subeditors, ignored their
abilities and flattened their salaries as workloads have doubled in the past 10
years. The company appears not to know or care about its forgotten flock. These
gatekeepers – the quality control experts of the titles – are overdue for recognition.