In the 1980s, a big oil company ran a successful series of advertisements celebrating its own low profile as “the quiet achiever”. If there were such a title in Australian media, it would be bestowed on Australian Associated Press.

AAP does have a profile, but it can be as negative as it is positive. Embattled news editors use “take it off AAP” as a synonym for “unimportant”. Sniffy journalism academics see a rising tide in the use of AAP copy in newspapers as symptomatic of industry malaise.

In fact, AAP produces probably the soundest journalism in the country in the most tradesmanlike traditions, summed up in a principle drummed into every reporter: “Speed is essential but accuracy is more important.” There’s no spinning, no speculating, no s-xing up. “Egos don’t last here,” said chief executive officer Bruce Davidson. “We don’t get bylines. We’re not glorified. Very often we’re unnoticed. It’s good, hard, honest, working journalism.”

“You’re never wrong for long” runs one of the less savoury slogans of the digital news environment — essentially that cure is easier than prevention, because you can always correct anything erroneous that gets published. Not at AAP, Davidson insists: “Our guys will tell you that if we’ve got the kernel of a story and we’re not sure about it, we will take a conservative view and not put it out.  In the digital world, if you put a story out that’s not quite right, it’s gone, it’s everywhere, it’s on 20 websites and our reputation has suffered. We’re more cautious than newspapers because we have to be. They can pull a story back themselves. We have to go to our clients and get them to pull it back.”

Which is just as well, because AAP’s relative importance is also growing. By the end of the Fairfax restructuring, AAP will have newsroom resources roughly as large as The Age‘s with about 200 reporters, the greatest concentration of them in the well-lit, modern newsroom of its head office in Rhodes, Sydney. A further 150 are employed by its editorial production subsidiary Pagemasters, which services media outlets in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada.

Davidson is not about to deplore the wider use of AAP copy in metro dailies; in fact, he suspects that they should use more. “There is a different  attitude among the big news organisations,” he confirmed. “More often they’re saying: ‘Well, if AAP’s there, do we need to be also? Why are we covering the same court case or the same football match?’ But it’s not changed as much as it should. My analogy is: AAP chases the fire engines; you [the big media organisations] go find out who started the fire.

“Trouble is that they’re still chasing some of the fire engines and they’re not really finding out who started the fires either. I don’t mean to criticise the publishers because in lots of respects they are doing a good job. But why jump up and down on the same spot? Back in the heady days you could afford to do that, and it was great, you might well have come by a new angle now and then. But the percentages are not going to make a difference to you any more.”

“Newspapers enjoyed huge margins for a great many years — 30% to 40% — and they could afford to be generous … nobody can be indulged any longer — in this industry or any other.”

Davidson has to be at least a little circumspect with his remarks about big media organisations, because they also happen to be his proprietors: Fairfax and News Corporation own 90% of his 77-year-old organisation. Plus, AAP is not immune to the environment of austerity and contraction enveloping the news media. As revenues decline generally the prices its owners can afford for AAP’s services are diminishing.

Fortunately, and presciently, AAP has spent the last decade diversifying, to the extent that today about half its revenues — in the region of $80 million — come from businesses other than its traditional wire services: MediaNet (press releases), Newscentre (media monitoring), Media Research Group (media analysis) and, above all, Pagemasters, arguably the most successful print media innovation in Australia in the last two decades.

Much of that is Davidson’s handiwork. Twenty-two years ago, after the merger of Melbourne’s Herald and Sun, Davidson and his colleague Martin Thomas were in the position in which many journalists are now about to find themselves, having taken redundancy packages after long careers in editorial roles. They formed Pagemasters to pursue a variety of projects, including books and education journals, before moving into paginated form guides and television guides, first for regional newspapers then for the metro dailies, taking advantage of the development of the portable document format (pdf) and the growing ubiquity of the internet.

Pagemasters’ third-party design and subediting services originated in an agreement with Australian Provincial Newspapers. Davidson joined AAP when the partners sold out to AAP 10 years ago, and oversaw an extension of this design and subediting business to New Zealand. The rest is recent, and somewhat controversial, history. In 2008, Pagemasters established a production centre in Brisbane to design and edit most of the feature sections of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. When Fairfax decided to outsource all its subediting in the middle of last year, Pagemasters took over the lot.

For one who has played such a role in its eclipse, Davidson has a strong, sentimental attachment to the old culture of subediting: wise greybeards with years of experience drumming into young reporters the tenets of plain English, house style and factual fidelity. But, he observes, much of this was “golden age” nostalgia: subediting on big metro dailies was always patchy, often denigrated and increasingly casualised.

“By the late 1980s, the days of the veteran subs had passed,” Davidson recalls. “Towards the end of my time on The Sun, we were co-opting cadets that nobody wanted. If the chief of staff had a problem with a cadet he just threw him over the parapet to the subs desk, where he became our problem. We were a powerful group, pretty arrogant with copy, and didn’t get back to reporters anywhere near as much as we should have. Work was handled with a silo mentality that was pretty indulgent: there’d be two or three people who just worked with these editors, but for whom there was never really quite enough work.

“It was no one’s fault. Newspapers enjoyed huge margins for a great many years — 30% to 40% — and they could afford to be generous. The technology also gave you no choice. But the reality is now that nobody can be indulged any longer — in this industry or any other.”

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Peter Fray

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