Torrents of anger continue to course through Fairfax newsrooms in Melbourne and Sydney after chief executive Greg Hywood told staff he would trigger forced redundancies if subeditors in the firing line refused to sack themselves.

At an impromptu meeting late last night after dispatching The Age‘s first edition, senior subs gathered around “the donut” — the circular, central production desk at The Age‘s Media House HQ — to air their concerns and start planning for a showdown with Hywood in Sydney on Monday over the decision to outsource their jobs to AAP-run subbing machine Pagemasters.

The gathering, led by respected night editor Michael Schlechta, resolved that a senior delegation of subeditors, working alongside the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, would confront Fairfax at the last-ditch talks and pitch concrete alternatives to the sackings to keep production in-house and save their masthead’s credibility.

On Tuesday, the freshly-minted Hywood — once thought of as a journalists’ champion — wielded the axe, announcing he would sack 300 Fairfax staff, including around 90 subeditors in Sydney and Melbourne. Work on The Age, The Sunday Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald would be taken over by Pagemasters to save $15 million annually.

One senior Age sub at last night’s gathering told Crikey the Pagemasters proposal “lacked common sense and would not work in the hurly burly of late breaking stories, deadlines, egos and late copy”.

Schlechta raised the nightmare scenario of having to tweak words, captions, headlines and precedes by calling Pagemasters as opposed to the usual practice of walking five metres to the down-table area.

One senior Age subeditor told Crikey this morning: “Will deadlines change? Will there be only one edition of The Age? Who will stay and who will go? Who will decide who will be retained? Will those who will be retained have to apply for their jobs? What will be the criteria in the selection process? Will we need check subs, down-table subs? Will only those with layout skills be retained? Who knows?

“Ask any sections editor or reporter at The Age about the standard of Pagemasters’ work and you will get a response bordering on incredulity. They’ve killed the product. They’re burying the product and now they’re tipping sand into the grave.”

There remains mass confusion at the extent of the changes, with contradictory statements issued yesterday by Hywood and the MEAA. While Hywood inferred the move was non-negotiable, the union maintained it was merely a “proposal”.

A MEAA statement issued last night said its members were trying to find ways of making the savings in-house, perhaps through subediting hubs at existing Fairfax premises in Sydney and Melbourne.

Hywood, by contrast, reiterated his commitment to the Pagemasters proposal and threatened compulsory redundancies if targets couldn’t be met. But he said Fairfax had “agreed to continue to talk and consult on this issue”, with a final decision to be made on Monday.

While Fairfax has stayed mum on specifics, Crikey understands 210 non-subeditorial redundancies will be cleaved from pre-press, production, advertising and sales staff across Fairfax’s Australian and New Zealand businesses. Both the MEAA and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union are now preparing for full-scale industrial action, including go-slows and strikes, if their demands are ignored.

At an earlier stop work meeting, staff in Melbourne and Sydney passed a fiery resolution that “condemned the company’s plans to outsource its subediting work to Pagemasters and its failure to consult staff on the issue”.

Age journos were told that of the $15 million in annual savings, just $3 million would be re-invested into reporting across metro mastheads. Crikey revealed on Tuesday the Herald would gain just 15 fresh scribes, with The Age expected to hire a similar amount.

The net savings of $12 million represent a minuscule 2% of the company’s $600 million in annual earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation. Age staff say if the company is serious about investing in quality journalism it could easily find the money elsewhere, perhaps through a reduction in bonuses paid to board members and senior executives.

In 2010, according to last year’s Fairfax annual report, directors received $4.3 million in bonus payments, with key executives walking away with an extra $2.5 million on top of their base salaries. The number of new multi-tiered editorial appointments were also highlighted, with staff questioning the wisdom of hiring a separate editor for the weekday Age, in addition to the Saturday edition and the Sunday paper.

“What are they doing wrong in a company this size if they can’t justify an extra $3 million to spend on journalists, rather than go through this ridiculous restructure?” asked one senior Age journalist.

Reporters have also expressed grave fears their scoops would be harvested by News Limited moles, given their bitter rival’s 45% stake in AAP, of which Pagemasters is a subsidiary.

Crikey understands the storied Age Independence Committee has money left over from previous campaigns and there is talk of rallying high-profile Melburnians to “save the subs”, based on the successful campaign run by the Mercury in Tasmania.

Nevertheless, it appears the wheels are already in motion. Pagemasters will commence interviews next week for the new roles, with numerous subs already submitting expressions of interest to the Brisbane-based Peter Atkinson, who is overseeing the poaching process.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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