In Saturday’s SMH an article by the estimable Paul McGeough about the way Afghanistan is spiralling out of control talked of September being an “introspective month” for Americans, not least because of “the memories of September 9, 2001”. It is still there on the website as I write this, more than 48 hours later.

Who says that with online journalism you are never wrong for long?

We’ll probably never know how this blooper got into print: McGeough may have typed it in incorrectly or it may have been changed by a sub-editor with their mind fixed on the “9” of “9/11”. But it remains an egregious subbing error.

I’ve got nothing but sympathy for sub-editors. I spent a few years subbing on Fleet Street and found it an intensely stressful and thankless way to earn considerably less than my reporter colleagues. I also know what happens when subs’ desks are decimated by a management that is looking to cut costs.

It’s usually the death of 1000 cuts. First casuals who drop out to travel are not replaced, then the maternity leavers. No redundancies, mind you, but where there were once eight or nine of you, suddenly there are five. Doing the same work.

And because the reporting staff has usually been reduced as well, the copy deadlines become harder to meet and the copy gets later and later. Until you find yourself subbing the splash with five minutes to get the paper off stone — and it becomes a process of simply fitting the copy and spell-checking.

Fact checking, making legal judgements, or just simply combing the language to make a story better to read are out of the question. Just get it into the newshole and press the button.

So when I read that the number of people to be offered redundancies at The Sydney Morning Herald is likely to rise to 70, I get that sinking feeling of deja vu. You would have to have a flabbily over-staffed masthead to be able to get rid of 70 experienced journalists and maintain your quality. And I doubt that is the case with the Herald given Saturday’s blooper.

Over at the Media Guardian, Roy Greenslade is publishing excerpts from anonymous emails sent by staffers on the UK’s Daily Telegraph, which was the first British “quality” title to move to the “newsroom of the future” model. The Telegraph has been shedding staff with increasing desperation in a bid to prop up an ailing balance sheet in the face of falling ad revenues.

The Telegraph, wrote the anonymous staffer, “has become superficial, uninformative and filled with content that isn’t news and isn’t even new — witness the repeated health page items on the virtues of the Mediterranean diet.”

She went on to say: No one is going to pay the least bit of attention to a media organisation that recirculates other people’s stuff, and thus the name, the brand and the reputation are constantly undermined from within. One can even imagine a situation a few years hence when the Telegraph is no more than a news aggregator website doing no journalism of its own.”

When I visited The Telegraph’s newsroom in March, I was told by the digital director, Edward Roussel, that the Telegraph was the only quality newspaper which had to manage the huge change to an integrated masthead “while remaining a business”. The Guardian, which is owned by a trust dedicated to supporting independence and quality, can afford to lose money — and it does, while News Ltd’s quality mastheads (and this includes The Australian) tend to be cross-subsidised by Rupert Murdoch from his other properties and are not subject to the same ravages.

But the Telegraph appears to be going down the same plughole as very many newspapers in the US. Cut costs, sacrifice quality, lose readers, lose revenue, cut costs.

Why mention the Telegraph? Well, it’s as good a comparison for the SMH and Age as you’ll find at the moment. It’s a much-loved broadsheet with a devoted and loyal readership, a long history of quality and influence, and a very talented staff.

A very talented staff most of whom are increasingly disillusioned and scared for their future and that of their newspaper.

We’ll know more about Fairfax’s approach to quality journalism when it reveals the sorts of people to whom it is offering voluntary redundancy packages. My gut feeling, though, is that the job losses will be heavily concentrated in production and among those people at the top end of the pay scale who management may feel won’t take as easily to “multi-media journalism”.

We’ve already seen what happens when you cut back on production. You make mistakes — and mistakes can lose you readers and land you on the wrong side of a writ. And the people at the top end of the pay scale bring an invisible but vital added function: that of mentor.

I was at the Queensland Media Awards a couple of weeks ago and watched Tony Koch accept the gong for journalist of the year. As he did so he chose to name and boost two of his younger colleagues from The Australian’s Brisbane bureau: Michael McKenna and Paddy Murphy.

Sitting at my table was last year’s Gold Walkley winner, Hedley Thomas. All three of these fine reporters would happily cite Tony as having been a huge help and guidance in their careers.

Lose people like this and you lose more than their bylines.

Jonathan Este is director of communications with the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance. His views are not necessarily those of The Alliance.

Peter Fray

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