There are rumours that bubble away more or less constantly in the Fairfax newsrooms. Always have, always will — until one day they will come true and everyone who has been spreading them for the last two decades will be able to say “I told you so”. The question is whether that day is now upon us.
The rumours I am referring to are that key sections, particularly the Canberra Press Galleries of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, the business sections and the Book Review pages and even Sport will be merged, with all the consequent reduction in diversity and likely cuts in numbers of journalists.
We are currently experiencing a peak in these rumours. If a seismograph was linked up to my phone and email account, the needle would be off the paper. So the question is, are the rumours about to come true?
I’ve been ringing around. Here is what I know and a little of what I think.
First, there is a Fairfax Board meeting next week. The half yearly results will be released the week after that and of course they are dire, as anybody with a brain could predict.
Secondly, it is widely understood that the CEO, Brian McCarthy, will be taking restructuring and cost cutting proposals to the Board.
The one that will not come as a surprise is that the management of the online presence of the company will be integrated with the print iterations, rather than being run as its own fiefdom. The only surprise about this one is that it has taken so long. In the time of the integrated newsroom, it is crazy to have separate management structures for digital and print.
What about the other rumours of mergers of sections, including the press galleries, and cuts? If they are true, then even people at the most senior levels of editorial management have not yet been told. Sadly, this does not mean they are confident that it isn’t going to happen.
There is a view that any restructuring that is done will not be done with a trumpet blast, but quietly. Fairfax seems to have learned from News Limited’s continued softly-softly we-aren’t-really-doing-it-that-much approach to redundancies.
We do have to think about what mergers actually mean, in this new age of aggregation. Business Day, for example, is already a highly integrated cross-masthead product. More integration isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if it frees up resources for more proactive and intelligent journalism.
The very understandable worry, though, is that further moves to integration will not be about better journalism, but about cutting numbers. Fairfax staff are being encouraged to take their annual leave so as to make the balance sheet look better. Given the cuts already made to staff, many sections simply can’t do without people for the lengths of time this would imply, which means they are being encouraged to work short weeks to sop up the leave owing. Who can doubt that in this climate, mergers mean more cuts?
And more cuts mean cuts in quality. There can be no doubt about this.
Will Brian McCarthy understand that you can’t cover business without a banking writer in both capitals?
Or that you can’t properly cover books and ideas (particularly in the City of Literature) without someone who is out and about among the literati in both cities?
Even if he does understand these things, how many options does he have in the current climate?
As for Canberra, I can only wish there was more diversity and independent thought, so that one could with a full heart defend it.
I conclude that something is brewing, and I fear it is not good, but exactly what it is — only a very small group of people know.