Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood has ignored union pleas to backflip on outsourcing subeditors, forging ahead with the controversial proposal and sending morale inside newsrooms at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald plummeting.

In an emailed missive to staff this morning obtained by Crikey — complete with a mess of track changes inserted by spin doctor Sue Cato — Hywood urged journos to “keep the big picture and longer term ambition for Fairfax Media in the frame”. The statement said 82 redundancies would be spread across the four major metro mastheads, a reduction of just eight full-timers on the original plan. All down-table subbing would be outsourced to controversial outfit Pagemasters by June 30.

While the CEO “appreciated” the input of staff, there were scant new roles announced — a “story editor”, “page editor” and a “readers editor” will be created in Sydney and Melbourne to address inevitable issues. He wrote:

“I know that some of these decisions are difficult — but they are necessary… Let me assure you that while [sic] Wwe [sic] are clear about our strategic vision — and that includes, really [sic] we really valuinge [sic] our staff.

“The last couple of days have once again underlined wWhat [sic] wWe [sic] can achieve a great deal when we and we [sic] value the opportunity to work together to create a flexible, vibrant newsroom culture that takes us towards an integrated, multi-skilled future.

“Today’s decisions do not mark the end of staff consultation around this project. Publishers and editors will be working with key staff members as they move into the implementation phase.

“Don’t view these changes [sic] It is important not to view these changes in isolation [sic].”

Cato, a Fairfax favourite and veteran crisis management expert, seems enamoured with adjectives and hyperbole, inserting words like “success”, “ultimately”, “intensely” and “strategic imperative” into the original text. They suggest Fairfax had made up its mind well before a meeting with union representatives and staff this morning, with the amendments made over a 15-minute window from 7.06pm to 7.21pm last night. Other changes are made by Hywood EA Lenore McCotter and company secretary Gail Hambly (view the full log of changes here).

Members of the Fairfax joint-house committee comprising Mel Ryan and Greg Baum from The Age and Stuart Washington from The Herald met at Fairfax’s Pyrmont edifice this morning alongside Louise Connor, Bede Payne and Chris Warren from the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance. Age CEO Don Churchill, Sydney HR director Greg Moses, SMH publisher Peter Fray and metro chief Jack Matthews represented Fairfax, with Hywood himself nowhere to be seen.

Deputy chair of The Age house committee and respected senior journalist Michael Bachelard slammed the decision this morning.

“Fairfax has not moved substantially from its original plan, despite five days of intensive effort from its top production staff to make them see sense,” he told Crikey. “We fear that this will substantially reduce the quality of writing that readers can expect in newspapers with a reputation for quality built up over hundreds of years.

“We welcome the small concessions they’ve made, but our experienced, highly qualified staff will be forced to apply for new jobs which will put them under immense pressure.”

Staff at The Age, he says, are “sad, angry and extremely disappointed” by what he calls management “intransigence”.

“Our readers will also feel strongly about this and we hope that if they love their newspaper they will email or write to the company to express their feelings,” he said. “We will continue fighting this in every forum with every effort to try and make management see sense.”

After days of tense negotiations involving senior subeditors after Fairfax’s initial announcement last week, two proposals were submitted to executives for their perusal.

An initial idea involving a slimmed down sub-hub within Fairfax’s Melbourne and Sydney offices was rejected by management. A second so-called “crown jewels” model would have allowed 60 redundancies but let senior “super subs” control the most important pages of the book, comprising the first few news and business pages, the op-ed area and all of sport. Both were rejected.

The MEAA issued a statement late this morning condemning the plan and highlighting the lack of clarity around the new roles: “Fairfax’s plan to cut costs by axing its in-house production staff has met with a huge groundswell of opposition both within the company and from the general public.”

It noted that staff had handed Fairfax a 1000-strong petition calling for management to rethink their plan and that a Facebook page had gathered more than 900 fans in three days.

According to an audit of experience at The Age conducted by a senior subeditor, the collective experience that will be lost by subeditors, artists and designers in Melbourne adds up to about 1500 years in journalism.

“This has been ignored by management,” the legendary figure said. “You can’t put a value on experience, but apparently the bean counters at Fairfax can.”

Sacked staff have been told they are free to apply for their old jobs with Pagemasters, for which they will apparently be given priority.

Meanwhile, a stop work meeting for Fairfax staff has been planned for 4.30pm to discuss options for a possible company-wide strike.

Peter Fray

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