Jun 18, 2012

Ex-Fairfax editors on cuts: bold, brave, danger for democracy

Risky, long overdue and a threat to democracy: that's the verdict of former Fairfax editors on the dramatic overhaul of Fairfax's metropolitan newspapers announced this morning.

Matthew Knott

Former Crikey media reporter

Risky, long overdue and a threat to democracy: that's the verdict of former Fairfax editors on the dramatic overhaul of Fairfax's metropolitan newspapers announced this morning. Michael Gawenda, a former editor-in-chief of The Age, told Crikey the decisions were sad but inevitable. "None of this is good news for journalism; none of this is good news for people who believe that Fairfax has produced good papers," he said. "The old Fairfax papers and the old Fairfax media are gone. I can't imagine what the print papers will be like. It seems like an interim strategy on the way to closing down print altogether. "It's a very risky strategy but they probably didn't have a choice. The share price was falling and they had to make a decision." Gawenda said he was surprised by Fairfax's decision to adopt a tabloid format for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age: "It's too late in the day. They should have done this eight or nine years ago. Going tabloid isn't going to save newspapers." Gawenda's successor at The Age, Andrew Jaspan, was more positive, saying: "At last there is a proper radical rethinking that has been missing for the past 30 years. "Broadly speaking, I applaud what they've done. At last they're having a logical, comprehensive look at what the future for Fairfax means ... They are being bold and brave and innovative in thinking about the future." Jaspan says he expects editorial duplication to be slashed at The Age and SMH -- a development that will boost the company's bottom line but further restrict diversity in reporting and analysis. "The downside is where you had two defence or health correspondents you'll end up with just one. You're halving the number of voices in Fairfax. They'll be looking at cuts across everything: the environment, science, health, politics," he said. "In Australia, our problem is a lack of plurality of voices. [Fairfax] are reducing the number of voices and number of specialist reporters who gather and analyse news." Jaspan says he's optimistic about Fairfax's chances of succeeding with a New York Times-style paywall. He's also a big fan of the move to compact format -- a change both he and Gawenda tried to drive through during their time as editor. Broadsheet, Jaspan says, is a "shape that belongs in the past". He adds that people worried about a decline in quality should note that The Times of London, The Guardian and The Australian Financial Review are all published in compact formats. Former SMH editor Eric Beecher (chairman of Crikey's parent company Private Media) says Fairfax has failed to explain how the changes will improve the quality of its reporting. "I must have missed it in the Fairfax statement, but I didn’t see the bit about how the company would be reinventing its journalism and its publications to make them both viable and editorially excellent over the next decade," he said. "Cutting toes, fingers and limbs from an antiquated journalism model doesn't quite achieve that objective." Mike Smith, a former editor of The Age, described today's announcement as "painful": "The idea behind it is to support newspapers not to kill them. It's a shame they didn't do something like this 20 years ago." Smith says the cuts should be targeted at its lifestyle divisions. He wants resources re-directed towards investigations, news reporting and analysis. "The newspapers can survive and find a market if they stop covering so much celebrity pap and food and wine. TV and radio do that so much better. They aren't going to be able to continue the traditional role of being a watchdog unless they get rid of most of the other stuff -- all the lifestyle stuff," he said. "They're introducing a paywall but to do that they have to have a product worth paying for. It's a big ask -- so the product had better be good." Former Herald Sun and The Age editor Bruce Guthrie tweeted this morning: "Fairfax cuts painful but overdue. Time for genuine innovation and editorial excellence. Let's hope there are enough journalists to do it."

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16 thoughts on “Ex-Fairfax editors on cuts: bold, brave, danger for democracy

  1. michael r james

    Fairfax cuts 380 editorial positions and Bruce Guthrie says:
    “Time for … editorial excellence”.

    Good luck with that.

  2. mikeb

    Fairfax online paywall = bye bye from me.

  3. Pete from Sydney

    Mike enjoy reading unsubstantiated garbage then….who’s going to pay for journalism?

  4. Stuart Mackenzie

    OK. I can read the headline and the opening par, but where do any of the former editors actually say the changes are a threat to democracy? Sloppy.

  5. Ootz

    I’ll pay for news or a journalist, as long it is valid and relevant. Particularly if it gets served without supersize commercial breaks and ‘go for bust’ infotainment slop.

  6. JMNO

    The editorials in The Age are actually better than a lot of its other content. The Age also does quite well at local reportage, although Melbourne-centric. Its state political reportage is much better and more issues/policy-focussed than its Federal reportage and we get little interstate news which Fairfax should be able to do better given it has mastheads in one than one state. I agree with Mike Smith. Trendy food now appears everywhere in the paper. So many restaurant reviews. If The Age can get back to well-written, good quality reportage and investigative journalism rather than tabloid headlines and stories, they might find their stocks lifting a bit.

  7. joanjett

    SMH has been garbage for years. I stopped buying everything except the weekend edition years ago and stopped looking at its website about 2 years ago. The Gina acquisition sounded the deathknell for Saturdays, now Crikey needs to publish a larger weekender!

  8. The diving swan

    Why don’t we get to vote for the journalists who get cut? I know one football journalist father and daughter team at the Age that can be split and I’m voting for youth.

  9. Frank Campbell

    Says Mike Smith:
    “They aren’t going to be able to continue the traditional role of being a watchdog unless they get rid of most of the other stuff — all the lifestyle stuff”

    Yup. It’s one thing to dawdle through the fluffy stuff in a cafe, but would anyone pay for it online? Broadsheet lifestyle is ideal for our wood fire, but tabloid -sorry “compact”- is overdue, as Andrew Jaspan says.

    Eric Beecher’s pronouncements on the media usually suggest that the MSM is a fossil: ”Cutting toes, fingers and limbs from an antiquated journalism model doesn’t quite achieve that objective.”

    If the implication is that somehow Crikey is either economically viable or journalism, let’s be frank, shall we? Crikey is a comment site with scraps of journalism. It exists solely at the fiscal whim of Eric the Minimogul. That’s fine, but it’s really just a peripheral cut from the “antiquated” MSM. A lab mouse with an ear on its back.
    How to retain editors and journalists, that is the question.
    Media evolution is still guesswork.

  10. daly carol

    Quality and diversity in journalism in the SMH, Canberra Times; where/when????

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