Pagemasters clearly knew for some time that the Fairfax change was coming. In March, it was running ads for “experienced production journalists” on seek.com.au, with positions available in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. The ads have been taken down now, but can still be read through Google cache.

Pagemasters was silent about what was going on, and The Sydney Morning Herald reported that News Limited and Fairfax claimed it had nothing to do with it. Well, hmmm.

It reportedly will be interviewing in Melbourne early next week although word out of the company is that there isn’t expected to be much interest at this stage from Age employees. Perhaps the reported $60k Pagelasters wage ceiling will affect that avenue of response.

But only a few months previously Pagemasters had been cutting staff, and the reasons should give us all pause.

Pagermasters had been, since 2008, subbing copy for the UK Daily Telegraph. This was done in Australia, primarily  in the Sydney office. A core team of eight would churn out more than 30 pages each day, with London dropping the copy in overnight. The Pagemasters crew would access the system the next morning and have everything back to it by the start of the next shift in London.

All that ended a few months ago. Just before Christmas, it was announced that the operation was winding up. The reason was the exchange rate. When the operation began, the Australian dollar was worth only half the pound. As it appreciated, the economic rationale for having British subbing work done in Australia disappeared. The jobs returned to the UK.

Of the team who worked here on the Tele project, one now works for the operation that replaced it in the UK (also run by Pagemasters), two are back at AAP, three are still with Pagemasters in Australia and one is with The Financial Review. One is looking for work.

The lesson is clear. While Fairfax is claiming that subbing for the SMH and The Age will be done in Sydney and Melbourne respectively, the centralisation of production means that jobs can, and probably will, move wherever the work can be done most cheaply in the long term, no matter what the contracts say now.

In the medium term that will surely mean Mumbai, or wherever, at least for things such as listings, puzzles and feature pages that can be done while Australia sleeps. We should be quite clear about this.

The Fairfax story is only one side of the coin in terms of what it means for publishing and journalism. On the other side is Pagemasters. It is owned by AAP and is in its own right a success story, providing an  international design, editorial and listings service for the newspaper and magazine industry. Pagemasters offers not only subbing but also quick and easy iPad applications and more.

Pagemasters is now a major employer in its own right, and it’s going to get bigger. Whether or not we like it, Pagemasters and operations like it represent the medium-term future of old media as they chase ways to cut costs, while continuing to do pretty much what they have always done with their core product — the journalism.

News Limited has already gone down the centralised subbing road, but has done it in house, with the News Central subbing operations that started in Brisbane and this year moved to Melbourne and Sydney. I wrote about this a few weeks ago here where I said, prophetically as it turned out, that the centralisation and outsourcing of subediting was an historic change and would spread.

I also said that while it was understandable and indeed almost imperative  given the cost pressures of old media, removing the links between subeditors and particular titles was  a mistake — one that I suspect will be wound back in the long term (assuming there IS a long term). You can read that earlier piece for my reasoning.

But even if I am right (and who can make predictions with confidence?) Pagemasters is now a vital part of our industry. So what’s it like as an employer? Several current employees got in touch with me yesterday as a result of my call out on the blog and  Twitter.

The picture that emerges is that the boss, Bruce Davidson, is a decent man who cares about quality, and who is not above rolling up his shirtsleeves and doing the subbing himself when required.

But morale in the sections that do listings for television and other services is said to be low. Other subs resent being treated like battery chooks by the remote section heads for whom they work.

Some other perspectives. I more than anyone would argue that a good subeditor is perhaps the single most important thing for newspaper credibility. But we also all know, if we are honest, that subs are often not as good as they should be. The craft has been debased over many decades, and this is the fault of newspaper managements.

Once subs were experienced reporters. For years, people who have no reporting experience have been becoming subeditors. Once, they helped train staff. Partly because they have been treated with contempt by newspaper management, and partly because too many of them are too junior, that mentoring role has largely disappeared from the subeditorial job description, and in most newsrooms is no longer expected of them.

Subs who have worked for Fairfax and Pagemasters were telling me yesterday that working a shift at Fairfax could be a fairly leisurely affair, with only five or six short stories subbed, compared to pages and pages at Pagemasters.

And as I have written previously, the papers are hardly error free at the moment. Pagemasters might actually lift standards, if it develops a culture of excellence in subediting. At least the subs are likely to value each other, and Pagemasters, knowing its core business, is likely to value them. The reverse is the case in many newsrooms, where subbies have become the lowest of the low.

I have written previously on how News Central is placing an emphasis on training, and trying to develop its own feel-good corporate culture within the larger News Limited beast.

But the subeditorial training and mentoring role is probably lost to the newsroom, and that is a great shame indeed.

After the announcement yesterday, Fairfax’s metropolitan media CEO, Jack Matthews, told staff that the service level agreements with Pagemasters would be reviewed and strengthened, with penalties for failure to meet standards.

It would be fascinating to know how performance will be measured. Who will count the errors? How many (given that the papers are already full of them) will count as failure to meet standards?

And of course the whole Pagemasters operation will be on the end of that grand old tradition of the newspaper industry.

When things go wrong, blame the sub. Some things don’t change.

Peter Fray

Save up to 50% on a year of Crikey.

This extraordinary year is almost at an end. But we know that time waits for no one, and we won’t either. This is the time to get on board with Crikey.

For a limited time only, choose what you pay for a year of Crikey.

Save up to 50% or dig deeper so we can dig deeper.

See you in 2021.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

SAVE 50%