Sydney-based News Limited staff are bracing for the worst following the botched implementation of the company’s controversial NewsCentral subbing arrangements, with some staff forced to travel hundreds of kilometres to and from the central business district each week to stay employed.

The so-called sub-hubs — in which harried production staff are shifted from their local newsroom to a central location to work on a never-ending stream of stories from more than 20 suburban publications — will go live on Sunday. But all is not well with the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance pointing to a breakdown in negotiations over pay and conditions.

Subs from the Daily Telegraph, the Luke McIlveen-edited Manly Daily, the Sunday Telegraph and the North Shore Times will converge on the one floor at Holt Street, a move News heavies hope will save the company millions of dollars a year. Some content from The Australian‘s feature section will be shifted to the new setup. It follows the roll-out of other hubs in Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide, which continue to draw employees’ ire.

In a letter sent to hose down concerns last week, Cumberland and Courier Newspapers editor-in-chief Bob Osburn revealed a target date of May 17 for the permanent shift of subbing of the suburban titles to the CBD. These include employees located hundreds of kilometres away on the Central Coast Express Advocate, now forced to commute into the heart of Sydney from their Gosford and Woy Woy homes.

“We are … very aware of the concern for our subeditors at Gosford. We are working very hard to seek a solution to what is a very complex situation, and will advise the staff concerned as soon as we can,” Osburn wrote.

While other NewsCentral set-ups at Melbourne’s Southbank and Brisbane’s Bowen Hills have proceeded more smoothly, the Sydney instalment has been plagued with problems, with complaints over changes to new employment agreements, pay parity and the severing of links with the local community.

The national secretary of the MEAA, Chris Warren, told Crikey that his members had huge trouble getting News to the table to discuss pay and altered internal progression systems. While an immediate loss of cash appears unlikely, the move from grade 5 on the suburbans to grade 4 on the new metropolitan agreement has left some staff believing they’re undervalued.

“Brisbane and Adelaide have been all right, but the New South Wales consultation has been a lot more frustrating. There are some quite dramatic changes about how and where the members work and what their pay arrangements might be. The causing a lot of angst,” Warren said.

In Victoria, suburban subs were offered a permanent 4% pay rise to keep up with their metropolitan brethren and one-off payments of $2000 and $3000 to boost salary. However, the union says News’ Holt Street hierarchy has offered the 4% rise as a one-off bonus rather than an entitlement.

Another complaint across the sub-hubs is the disruption of the rhythm of the traditional subeditorial day. Under the new regime, lead-in and copy tasting, followed by a frenzy as deadline approaches and the subsequent production of a physical newspaper is replaced with what appears to be the worst elements of a Fordist production line.

Subs sit at a screen and are constantly fed seemingly random stories from across the state. There is no logical end to the shift, as the worker is replaced for the next eight hours in a changeover befitting a call centre. Robbed of continuity, workers brace for a relentless wave of depersonalisation and intensification, with rumours employees could be forced in the future to also deal with the vagaries of online copy.

(US sociologist Richard Sennett’s magisterial treatise on the subject, 2008’s The Craftsman, details mind-numbing and repetitive work that cropped up in the industrial revolution and subsumed traditional connections to a meaningful work life. This seems scarily similar to the NewsCentral arrangements).

A severing of links to the local community has also caused concern. The recent move of the Northern Territory News‘ subeditorial operation 3,000 kilometres south to Adelaide, as reported by Crikey last year, led to fears that Darwin suburbs including Humpty Doo and Fannie Bay would turn up in print with their spelling compromised. Local knowledge would also gradually go the way of the dodo.

“Naturally if you’ve got people trying to be across the key information for a whole lot of different communities then inevitably there are errors that are going to start creeping in,” the MEAA’s Warren told Crikey. News Limited did not respond to Crikey‘s requests for comment.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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