More news from the cost-cutting front at newspapers around the nation.

First, a most unexpected report. I hear that the idea of publishing a narrow size version of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald is again on the agenda. This one really surprised me, and I was reluctant to believe it when I first heard it a few weeks ago from a normally reliable source.

Long time newspaper watchers will remember that an intention to narrow the pages was announced two years ago and then was dropped after the Rural Press merger. I thought the idea was dead, although Fairfax never quite said so. Spokesman Bruce Wolpe said in January 2008 “There was no definite timeframe for the downsize that could be shared with anyone. The time is not right and when it is we will let [advertisers] know.” Fairfax has not returned calls asking for comment this morning.

But this week another reliable source tells me the notion is alive again and over summer was the subject of plans and feasibility studies. It is conceived as a cost cutting move, designed to save on newsprint. So far as I can make out most of the advertising industry does not seem to have been consulted, so perhaps it is still a little way off.

Meanwhile at News Limited executives already made to feel the pinch have been heading to Holt Street this week for meetings to discuss how much further they may have to cut.

Members of News Limited’s senior management team are assuring anyone who will listen that they will never do one-off big cuts, and never issue a media release about it ala Fairfax. But the cuts are there, and deep, all the same.

Senior staff in Fairfax newsrooms have been told that everything and anything is possible in the next few weeks — including the combining of sections to run in both the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and amalgamating the Canberra Press Galleries.

There have even been discussions at senior levels about sharing sub-editing with the organisation’s New Zealand titles.

In the Fairfax newsrooms the gossip is that there will be another 30 to 60 redundancies announced within a few weeks. The more sober heads seem to be putting their money on the 30 figure, rather than the one at the higher end, but nobody seems to know. I think the numbers are just speculation.

I blogged yesterday on the new strictures regarding taxi chits at The Age.

More seriously, even long standing and regular contributors at Fairfax and The Australian — including some of the most prominent names — have had their payments cut.

The Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph freelance budgets have just about disappeared and the few freelancers that are left on board have had their rates slashed.

Things aren’t much brighter at The Australian. Regular contributors there have been told to expect half or fewer the number of assignments they got last year. Which is still better than at Fairfax.

Contributors to the Fairfax broadsheets’ op ed pages have been told that only “expert” pieces are being accepted, which seems to mean those from staffers, politicians and academics who don’t expect to be paid.

Meanwhile Time magazine has all but deserted the Asia-Pacific. Bernie Newell, regional director, will step down in April, and I am told all that will be left of this once brave venture in our region will be two sales staff in Australia and one in New Zealand.

Industry watchers are already commenting on the extraordinarily light-on coverage of the bushfires by Time. As an Australian presence, it’s over.

We do have to get used to the idea, I think, that while the crisis engulfing the USA print media industry seemed a long way away only months ago, something like it is almost upon us. It is a bloody and difficult time to be in the business.

The problem, of course, is not the appetite for news and information, but the collapse of the business model. The appetite for news will not go away, and in this lies long term hope, change and recovery.

Peter Fray

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