So it has happened. For at least 10 years, this has exercised management at Fairfax. For the seven years that I was Editor of The Age, the proposal was put on the table. Sometimes it was put on the table as an edict which had to be implemented. It didn’t happen basically because the editors of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age — no doubt in part because they were aware that journalists would mount a campaign against it — managed to frighten management about the consequences of such a move. Readers would be outraged. Politicians would complain. The journalists would go on strike. So it was that separate Canberra staffs survived and not only were they separate, but there was no story sharing between the papers.
Now it has happened and there has hardly been any public reaction to what I think is a momentous move by Fairfax: merging the Canberra staff of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald into one bureau. As far as I can tell, no readers have complained about this decision and nor has there been anything from the political class in Canberra. I don’t know whether journalists at the two papers are particularly exercised about it, though I hear that some journalists have received the news with resignation. They knew it was coming and they knew there was nothing they could do about it. The past, when I was an editor, just five years ago, is now ancient history. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was, compared to today, a golden age for the Fairfax broadsheets. For newspapers in general.
The public announcement of the merger was made not by the editors of the two papers, but by publishers which in my view, is another sign of the diminished status and decision-making power of editors. This was, on the face of it, a decision about journalism and I would have thought one that needed to be publicly explained by editors. Not so it seems. And indeed, that’s probably right: this is a decision that is all about cost savings. This is so despite the fact that the announcement by the publishers said that the total number of journalists working for the papers in Canberra would not be cut and that the decision was all about enhancing quality journalism. On numbers, let’s see what the situation is a year from now. On enhancing quality, this is just management nonsense. And every journalist on the papers knows it.
I know that each paper will have four “exclusive” reporters. This means that some of the journalists so closely identified with the papers –Michelle Grattan and Tim Colebatch from The Age, Peter Hartcher and Phil Coorey from the SMH for instance — will remain Age and SMH “brands” — awful word, I know, but that’s where we are in newspapers.
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But how exclusive is exclusive? Will the stories and commentary from these journalists the available to their sister papers? If not, how will that work, given the new online product — The National Times — that will be launched next week? The site will publish all the political commentary and analysis from The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. On top of that, with most of the Canberra coverage for both papers to come from a Fairfax Bureau, how exactly will “exclusivity” be maintained? It won’t. And I fear that pretty quickly, there will be no “exclusive journalists” for either paper.
Apart from the fact that this merger represents a further reduction in the number of “voices” covering national politics — I assume that sooner or later, when, say the prime minister travels overseas, only one Fairfax journalist will be sent to cover the trip — it will have serious consequences for the papers, especially for The Age. Over the years, The Age has always been in danger of becoming the Victorian edition of The Sydney Morning Herald. Were it to be seen as such by its readers, that would be the death of the paper, for Age reader are — or were once — incredibly sensitive about the suggestion that their paper was being run out of Sydney.
This merger threatens one of the strengths of The Age, that Age readers have been remarkably loyal to the paper and have felt that they “owned” it — all the research I saw on this question was clear and powerful and suggested that this sense of ownership was stronger and more clear-cut for The Age than for most other papers in Australia.
Now it may be that all this has changed, that reader loyalty no longer matters, that readers no longer feel a sense of ownership of The Age, that in the digital age, such loyalty is anachronistic. Certainly The Age website, I am sure, is not designed to attract those readers who have had a deep relationship with the paper, but rather, I would guess, a younger, web-surfing audience for whom loyalty and ownership is meaningless. I think this a terrible mistake that The Age web masters are making — run cr-p and they will come — but perhaps, I concede, that I was a journalist and editor in a media world that has now vanished. Perhaps — as I understand it, all political analysis and commentary from The Age and the SMH will be run on the National Times website and none on The Age or SMH sites — dumbing down The Age and SMH websites makes commercial sense.
But I believe that for newspapers, reader loyalty and reader “ownership” remains important — no, critical. This is especially true for The Age. If the journalists on the paper come to feel that they have become a branch office of the SMH, that’s one thing, sad as it would be. But if the readers feel that as well — and there are subtle ways in which the journalists will inevitably convey that sense to readers — the paper will be in trouble. That’s why this merger is momentous and why I am puzzled and, I suppose, disappointed by the fact that it has caused hardly a ripple of comment from politicians, from readers and from journalists.