+++

I worked at
Rural Press for about 18 months as a sub-editor on its flagship publication, The Land, in the company’s North Richmond office.

During my time
there, I was appalled at the irreverence with which senior managers treated
their staff.

It seemed to
be common practice that editors/managers would start calling their
journalists
and photographers from about 6.30am. Most journalists and photographers
worked every weekend and were expected to be grateful if they ever got
a day
off. If someone got sick, they were usually made to come to work
anyway. I
remember one journalist being made to work when she had food poisoning
and was
being sick about every half an hour. Staff regularly worked until 9pm
or 10pm, and sometimes as late as 2am when there was a deadline to
meet.

Despite
signing an agreement when I started the job that said I would be working no
more than 38.5 hours a week and would be paid overtime for any hours after
that, overtime was never paid. From my very first week on the job, I was
working more than 50 or 60 hours with no extra pay and no time off. Once I
asked the editor about being paid overtime and he laughed in my face. I showed
him the agreement I had signed and the provisions in the award that said
overtime must be paid, but he told me it was not Rural Press policy to do so,
and that the provisions in the award were “optional”.

We were
regularly reminded that Australia was “in a drought” and that asking
managers to pay us overtime was unreasonable and selfish considering such harsh
conditions. Once, I remember asking for a day off after working 70 hours that
week and being told that they couldn’t afford it because they were so
understaffed – the very next day they announced a record end-of-year profit of
$87 million (up some 27% on the year before).

Bullying,
harassment and public humiliation of junior journalists or cadets occurred on a
daily basis. Those who complained were either given the “silent treatment” for
weeks on end or just bullied even more. Those who were dishing out the bullying
were praised. We were systematically lied to about our rights, pay rates and
working conditions. Young editorial staff left in tears every day – one cadet
once told me she had wanted to work for The
Land
all her life, but after being there for only three weeks, she was
depressed, anxious, exhausted and considering changing careers completely.
Another journalist was made to use her annual leave when her father died
suddenly, despite having weeks of time in lieu accrued. The editor even called
her on the day of her father’s funeral to ask when she would be back and to
remind her that her colleagues were working until midnight to cover for her while she was away.
When she did return to work, she was systematically bullied and humiliated
until she was regularly in tears. Once, the chief of staff told her, within
earshot of the entire office, “people die, get over it”. She resigned soon
after.

If senior
managers ever heard that staff members were seeking a transfer to another paper
or had been offered another job, they would call the prospective employer and
tell them the person’s current pay rate and conditions in order to eliminate
any bargaining power they might have had.

After a while,
I called in the MEAA. They organised a meeting where concerned staff
members
could come and talk about any problems they had, but the company told
us not to
“get involved” and that anybody who sided with the union had even less
chance
of getting a promotion or pay rise. Many decided not to attend as a
result. The
MEAA told the company to provide a timebook for staff to fill out, as
per the
award. A timebook appeared and a memo went around telling everyone to
fill in
their hours, but it turned out that the book only had boxes to tick
saying you
had started at 8.30am and finished at 5pm. If you wrote in different
times, you
faced the “silent treatment” or more bullying from managers. Those who
just
ticked the 8.30am and 5pm boxes (even though they had started at 6am
and finished at 10pm) were given bottles of wine or rare praise
from senior managers.

After a while,
I started getting sick. I began suffering from depression and anxiety attacks
and decided to leave. About this time, I discovered many long-standing
journalists were suffering form depression from the constant bullying and long
hours. Within a month of resigning and starting a new job, my pay had shot up
$15,000 and my sanity had returned once I returned to reasonable working hours.
My current manager recently told me that when he read my CV and saw that I had worked
at Rural Press, he thought I must have been “a trooper” and would be able to
put up with anything as a result. I applaud the editors at The Daily Liberal for refusing to put up with such treatment and
encourage others who are still there to do the same. It is appalling that a
rural publishing giant like Rural Press is not being held accountable for the
criminal treatment of their staff. While I do not hold much hope that Rural
Press management will change their ways and start respecting their staff, I hope
that Crikey’s coverage of the serious grievances at the company might spare a
few more budding journalists from going down that path.

+++

Just wanting to add my own experiences with Rural Press as someone who
worked in a country newspaper for a couple of years (fortunately, no
longer).

Number one the company’s focus is purely and simply on money. Our group of
newspapers had the board come down to visit earlier in the year, which by all
accounts is a good thing. A good thing: if you’re a salesperson. Amidst all the
back-slapping because the paper had actually made some money recently, there was
the very occasional thanks for the work the journalists did.

We were continually told by our manager not to criticise Rural Press, had
the manager continually putting his head into editorial matters and telling us
how to find stories, while inserts that would add to a paper were sometimes
criticised as costing money and therefore a bad thing. Sales could do no wrong;
editorial could do no right.

The main purposes of a newspaper should be to make some money while keeping
the populace informed and entertained. Why is it that for the most part, Rural
Press focuses so heavily on the former?

+++

I read with interest (and an overwhelming sense of de javu) about the
problems with Rural Press staffing.

My own experiences have ensured I will never work for them
again.

The company knows of its staffing and resourcing problems – at an
editorial conference I attended in Sydney this year, RPL general manager Brian
McCarthy spoke about staffing woes – he said words to the effect of “you can
never have enough staff”, telling editors the problems were issues of time
management, something that could be overcome with proper organisation of the
workplace.

At that same conference, I had dinner with an editor from NSW who had
spent the entirety of his 20 plus year career at his home town paper – an
independent swallowed by RPL late last year.

He told me that the first thing RPL did was to cut staff numbers,
something which bewildered him, because a small
independent paper could support those staffing levels but a multinational
would not. His work load had increased significantly, but it was something he
was taking on the chin – his small town paper was now part of a major company
and he saw a bright future for it.

Falsifying of time record sheets is something which was never officially
sanctioned – in that I as a manager was never directly ordered to do so – but
was an engendered culture adhered to
by our editorial staff. Generally, we
thought it was just to make the life of our site payroll officer easier. He did,
after all, have too much on his plate as well. We thought the company would look
after us when it came down to brass tacks.

Staff kept their own records of time worked
while providing false accounts on their time sheets, to balance the books with
the editor in private when it came to time in lieu issues. Many staff, including
myself, were happy to take time in lieu of overtime, but the nature of the job
meant you’d always work beyond normal hours regardless, and almost never get
your time back in full. Some of the better
resourced sites did manage this though.

When I had started with the company, one of my fellow journalists had
tried to fill out their timebook with their actual hours worked, but had it torn
up by the site manager and ordered to fill out a new one “properly”. Just one of
the many cases of managerial bullying I witnessed in my two and a half years
with RPL.

When staff did take time in lieu, it placed enormous stress on the editor
and remaining journalists, who was already working in many roles. In my time as
editor, I worked writing advertising feature copy, taking sports and news
photos, doing graphic design as well as page layout and news subbing.

The company claims it is a quality training ground, but that seems a long
way from the truth. Rural Press to my knowledge has two editorial trainers –
both of whom do an extraordinary job given their burdensome workload. In my two
and a half years, I had two, one-day sessions with these trainers, which I
shared with two other journalists.

My training when appointed to a management
role was laughable – I was presented with an airport lounge management book
called “fish” – barely more than 100 pages of rhetorical human resources piffle
with the inscription from my manager “…it’s up to you”. It was passed around the office as the in-joke for at
least a week.

Perhaps the worst I saw was in our secondary publication. We ran a second weekly
newspaper which served a market some 300 km north of our office in a small mining town. Our correspondent in that town had
no editorial training whatsoever, apart from regular phone conversations with
myself or previous editors, and were expected to generate the majority of news,
sell advertising and take all the photographs for the paper.

To do their job well, they had to work a seven day week, including
nights, and always felt as though they were sent up the proverbial creek without
a paddle. The received no overtime, no formal training and worst of all, had no
office to work from.

It became impossible to find a permanent staff member for the job,
particularly when my State Manager – who personally oversaw the growth of this paper, told me that we were
looking for someone who was prepared to work beyond the 38-hour standard week
because “they loved the newspaper life.”

When our last correspondent resigned, and another couldn’t be found, I
spent six weeks driving to and from that town each Wednesday, while my
journalists worked as hard as possible over the phones to try and get stories.
It meant at least six hours of road travel a day, on top of working throughout
the day to get stories and photos. I would often get back to the office by
10pm, at which time I would start
downloading photos and layout out the paper.

It was a marathon which eventually forced me to resign.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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