Fairfax staff in Sydney and Melbourne have stared down Greg Hywood’s plan to sack regional subeditors and outsource them to New Zealand in boisterous rallies this morning on the steps of their gutted workplaces.
At Media House HQ in Melbourne well over 100 dissidents from The Age — the vast majority of the editorial operation — downed keyboards in a BLF-style wildcat triumph to hear rousing speeches from house committee stalwarts aggrieved at 60 production redundancies at prominent mastheads the Newcastle Herald and the Illawarra Mercury and seven other papers. And at Pyrmont, around 40 staff gathered to send a message to their boss in his cubicle above. The Canberra Times joined in the assault following a 1pm staff meeting.
The Hywood sneak attack, announced at 5.30 on Tuesday with zero consultation, sparked the 36-hour hiatus that will end at the first shift tomorrow. Around a third of staff at the Newcastle Herald will lose their jobs unless they can somehow wrangle a new position at something called “Fairfax Editorial Services” across the ditch.
Fairfax’s last grassroots movement was in 2008 when former CEO David Kirk announced 550 job cuts. But during last year’s Pagemasters outsourcing scandal staff declined to go out. After Age and Sydney Morning Herald house committees pulled the pin yesterday arvo a grassroots upsurge quickly materialised to rip the pressure valve off the festering tension.
In Melbourne, new MEAA hire Lachlan Batchelor manned the spicy sausage station as crack social media editor Adrian Lowe thundered that without an immediate intervention the tactics seen at the Herald and the Mercury could spread to Fairfax-owned Victorian regional papers in Bendigo, Ballarat and Warrnambool.
A cavalcade of Age stars including Ben Schnieders and Jason Dowling, Adrian Lowe, Tom Hyland, Farrah Tomazin, Tom Arup, Mark Hawthorne, Clay Lucas, Mel Fyfe, Miki Perkins, Richard Baker, Jason Steger, Suzanne Carbone, Jill Stark and Peter Ker and eager trainees were sighted alongside the ABC’s Melbourne afternoons host Rafael Epstein to lend moral support.
The scene outside Media House in Melbourne this morning
The unprotected industrial action could technically attract fines of $6000 if the company took a case to Fair Work Australia, which can issue injunctions and make orders that would then need to be breached by striking staff. However, City Editor Jason Dowling told his huddled comrades that nothing had been heard from the company. “This sort of behaviour won’t be tolerated,” he said in defiance.
A n equally bullish Schnieders told the media pack that “the way this company is going to change is not by ripping the heart out of local communities”.
Schneiders said that strike editions of the paper would be produced by senior editors and filled with AAP copy, while Age staff joked that unpopular editor Paul Ramadge might be compelled to reprise his stellar efforts of a few weeks ago when he contributed copy from an editors conference in Asia.
Changes announced in February to save $170 million over three years include revamping the newsroom to force journalists to embrace the continuous news cycle, especially during the 6am to midday time.
The sharp-as-a-tack Schneiders told Crikey the newsroom wasn’t opposed to embracing the digital world, “but if this is about taking costs out of the business it’s not going to work”. The IR specialist said he wanted the decision “reversed and overturned”.
Inside Parliament House in Canberra the Fairfax bureaux was a lonely place to be, with only one forlorn Australian Financial Review online reporter seen typing at his workstation. At the SMH office the lights weren’t even on.
There were no sausages in sight in Sydney at 11am but state political editor Sean Nicholls, investigative gun Linton Besser and education editor Andrew Stevenson were all in attendance to gee-up the masses. The sombre mood was only broken when deputy foreign editor Marcus Strom told the crowd that unpopular former publisher Lloyd Whish-Wilson had sent his best wishes to the MEAA.
“Is that a joke?” yelled one scribe, who hasn’t forgotten Whish-Wilson’s role in the SMH/Age subediting cuts of 2008.
“Fairfax is like a teenager that’s discovered s-x,” said Strom. “They’re always banging on about how their audience is important to them. We’ve always known that the audience is important … This [strike] is about the relationship between what we do as journos and the communities we are a part of.”
One year on, the decision to outsource 82 subbing jobs to Pagemasters still rankles. Crikey understands a major sticking point is the inability of the firm to sub online copy — a major focus of the new digital strategy — and that the current subbing contract is only for print. It’s understood there is momentum building to ditch the contract and bring metro subbing back in-house.
On Twitter, Strom told readers that political scribe Phil Coorey had been incorrectly bylined in this morning’s SMH splash on ructions in federal Parliament, having only contributed web copy earlier in the day. The Age’s was written by national editor Mark Baker. Sports columnist and house committee stalwart Greg Baum added fuel by tweeting: “Don’t believe all you read: some stories in Fairfax papers today not written by the person whose byline appears on them.”
The hashtag #fairfaxstrike came alive, with tweets and twipics flooding in from all quarters, including sports scribe Sam Lane …
Click through for more tweets and pics from the Fairfax front line
The scene last night at local Age hangout Saint & Rogue was buoyant, with the beer flowing until well after 11pm as up to 40 staffers hit the turps and revel in the collective euphoria. As the pints slipped by, the “unprotected” nature of the industrial action was the source of much mirth and suggestive innuendo. Schneiders told Crikey this morning it was not too late for the company “to reconsider its decision to change their minds”.
MEAA state secretary Louise Connor said: “This company makes the easy decision to cut costs instead of making the smart decisions. The heart of Fairfax is its editorial and when you cut and cut and cut in editorial you get to the point where staff say they’re not going to take it anymore … we won’t accept changes that cut the heart and soul out of the papers.”
In other changes pushed through yesterday, the Australian Farm Journal closed its doors mid-way through the production of its July issue. Connor said negotiations with affected staff on the regional papers will commence in the next few days.