Behind The Mercury building’s at deco facade, information is being monitored and suppressed. Ironically, the message that staff wish to pass up the line of News Limited command is one that is in the best interests of the group and its bottom line. It’s an opinion based on an understanding of the Tasmanian community.

An overwhelming majority of reporters, photographers and subeditors at The Mercury are seething at plans to export Tasmanian subediting jobs to Melbourne and edit the state’s major newspaper interstate.

Their Save Our Mercury campaign — utilising Facebook, Twitter and a regularly updated blog — has gained a full head of steam and garnered support from across the political spectrum.

The primary argument mounted by the concerned journalists is that the Voice of Tasmania, as The Mercury proclaims to be each day on the front page, will lose its integrity as a part of the Tasmanian community if editing goes offshore. As one local Hobart television news report put it: the voice of Tasmania will now come with a Melbourne accent.

The plans to ship subediting jobs offshore come after a dramatic two years of cutbacks and changes at The Mercury. About 40 jobs have gone from across all departments. The job shedding has affected everyone from artists to receptionists to those in classified advertising.

In 2009, 15 editorial staff left, including reporters, subeditors, clerical staff and a photographer. Sections of The Mercury have been slowly exported offshore in an incremental dismantling of the newspaper.

Escape, E-Guide, Your Money and the finance and world pages, are now produced interstate. The CarsGuide, Taste and daily sport and news are next to go offshore. The Tasmanian Country, the Gazette, the Kingborough Times, Property, Style and the Sunday section of the Sunday Tasmanian are under review, expected to go offshore if and when Melbourne NewsCentral has the capacity to take them on.

Morale in the newsroom is at an all-time low. Subeditors have worked with the sword of Damocles hanging over them for months. One journalist who has worked at The Mercury for 20 years said last week: “It’s like everything I’ve worked for, everything I’ve learnt about journalism, about being accurate and knowing your subject, is all for nothing. It’s all I have. I’m a journalist. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. But it’s no longer valued. We all know this is bad for the paper, everyone knows it, but they just don’t care. They don’t give a stuff about quality.”

Another far more senior journalist once made a very similar heartfelt plea. “A journalist is what I am, who I am, and what I’ll always be,” he said. “I learnt that journalism was an opportunity to make a difference. To be given the chance to represent people in a very significant way, especially those people who felt they had lost control of their lives.”

The name of this journalist was John Hartigan, News Limited chief executive. He made the comments during the Andrew Ollie Media Lecture in 2007. They are noble thoughts.

The people who have lost control of their lives at The Mercury are subeditors within Hartigan’s own group. These senior journalists have written and edited thousands of stories about others and their plights, but now find they are the story. They are the voice that is being ignored, oppressed and needs representation. And what is it they want to say? Simply that editing The Mercury offshore will destroy the brand the newspaper has built during 160 years of publication. It is already destroying the morale within the ranks. They want to say that specialised knowledge about Tasmania is essential to editing The Mercury. Local knowledge is king.

Overwhelmingly, The Mercury staff believe that if the Tasmanian community finds out about plans to take subediting offshore it will be outraged, insulted and resentful. So far, judging by the community support they have attracted, staff have been proven correct. There’s the rub. Their perceptive and cognisant reading of the mood of the Tasmanian public is a clear example of the power of local knowledge and the advantage of a newspaper being part of its community.

The Mercury journalists are simply doing what all good journalists should do, tell it the way it is.

*This article was first published at Tasmanian Times

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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