We have a glimpse of the brave new world of newspaper publishing. Yesterday’s restructure of News Limited’s tabloid feature sections reveals the industry is reliant on centralisation, as well as further job cuts and the loss of local content, in its efforts to reinvent itself.

News Limited CEO, John Hartigan, revealed the plan, known as the National Features Initiative, yesterday. He was characteristically upbeat and promised the scheme to centralise the production of six features sections in Sydney will “deliver vast new opportunities for our audiences and advertisers.”

However he also managed to scare the staff of the feature sections in the various tabloids around the country by failing to reveal how many jobs will go or when and how that process will be managed.

Under the scheme the production of six sections will be located in Sydney, led by the national features editor, Alan Oakley and News Digital Media’s group publisher, Sigrid Kirk. The features will be Travel, Personal Finance, Food Shopping & Dining, Television & Technology, Entertainment and Lifestyle.

At a meeting at the Sydney Telegraph at 4pm yesterday, senior editors, including Garry Linnell, Alan Oakley and Michael Wilkins, described the initiative. But according to one account “no one was told much.”

There was a similar meeting at Melbourne’s Herald Sun where editors Simon Pristel, Phil Gardiner and Jill Baker met with approximately two dozen features staff. According to one Herald Sun reporter they offered no guarantees and no redundancy offer. But it was made clear that all features jobs are in a state of flux.

“Basically the sense was panic,” said the journalist.

“Everyone who walked out of the meeting was pretty clear that this could not be done without jobs going.”

As many of the reporters are on individual contracts, their positions are particularly tenuous.

The loss of local content is also causing alarm. News Limited assured the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance that its business model was reliant on maintaining local content in the national features sections and that reporters were required in the various states to give stories a local angle. But observers fear that that the ratio of national to local stories will shift so that more national stories are commissioned at the expense of local content.

MEAA branch secretary, Richard Harris believes that “in that context, the number of job losses could be significant.”

In a memo issued yesterday, News Limited promised that the editors of the various sections will report to Oakley and Kirk “from wherever they are based around the country”. But the accompanying list of editors indicates that almost all of them will be based in Sydney.

The MEAA’s Harris told Crikey “We understand the cost pressures News Limited is under. Everyone has their eyes wide open about the environment we’re working in. But obviously we don’t want to see job losses.”

He is also critical of the lack of a process for managing the job cuts. “We don’t know how many jobs will go. We don’t know when. What kind of environment is that to be working in?”

This latest form of rationalisation highlights that still more efficiencies can be found in the newspaper industry, and that many more jobs are likely to be lost. This must be causing unease at Fairfax, where sections like The Age’s Greenguide and Epicure are still relatively well resourced.

Peter Fray

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