When Michelle Grattan announced her decision to leave The Age two weeks ago, the search for precious office space in Parliament House’s press gallery was on. Where would the notoriously messy newspaper icon go now she had left traditional media to join start-up website The Conversation?
Despite reportedly putting in an application some time ago, The Conversation is still without a press gallery home for its Canberra staffers. Luckily for Grattan, the good samaritans at Keating Media — publisher of the Inside Canberra newsletter — agreed to take her in. Grattan’s research assistant and The Conversation‘s Canberra editor are now working in there as well. The arrangement wasn’t purely altruistic: Grattan has agreed to write a regular column for Inside Canberra in exchange for a desk.
Grattan said last week the new “cubby hole” arrangement means she will have to be much more “tidy and economical” with space. “This is one of the major challenges of the new job,” she told the ABC’s Jon Faine.
Not everyone has been as lucky as Grattan. Since leaving The Australian to write on politics for Wendy Harmer’s The Hoopla, Gabrielle Chan has had to file wherever she can — often from Aussie’s cafe. The Global Mail has also been unable to secure a permanent home, despite photographer Mike Bowers and reporter Mike Seccombe visiting the capital regularly.
The issue will rear its head again when The Guardian tries to find a home in coming months for high-profile Fairfax recruits Lenore Taylor and Katharine Murphy. There’s no obvious place for them go.
“I’m not aware of any vacant space at the moment,” Fairfax photographer Andrew Meares, a member of the press gallery committee, told Crikey. “We’re looking at creative options — that’s the only way we’ll be able to solve it.”
The press gallery occupies a long wing of Parliament House, bookmarked at either end by the infamous “Starlight Disco” common rooms, scenes of scandalous parties in more decadent times. The gallery is divided into offices, mostly one per media outlet. Fairfax, News Limited and the ABC occupy caverns, while newer media outfits have poky offices, are forced to share or have no space at all. Sky News has a notoriously small office for its staffers and Crikey has a modest home for Canberra correspondent Bernard Keane.
“Sooner or later, Fairfax will have to give up one of their rooms.”
Complaints of a lack of space are almost as old as the press gallery itself. Canberra veterans still recall the cramped conditions at Old Parliament House, where demountables had to be put on the roof to accommodate the fourth estate.
The problem today is not so much a lack of space, as a lack of offices for the 300-odd people who work there. While the media industry is fracturing and fragmenting, the physical organisation of the press gallery continues to reflect the traditional dominance of the newspapers. It is, in the words of one gallery staffer, a “weirdly sensitive” issue in the gallery — a simultaneously collegiate and competitive place.
“There’s long been a lack of space in the press gallery,” Sky News political editor and press gallery president David Speers told Crikey. “It’s becoming an increasingly difficult issue as new outlets pop up.”
Meanwhile, there are empty desks in the big Fairfax and News Limited offices. Despite increased copy-sharing and a decline in its press gallery numbers, Fairfax maintains separate offices for The Canberra Times, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review. Letting one of these offices go would have the added bonus of allowing Fairfax to save on rent.
“Sooner or later, Fairfax will have to give up one of their rooms,” one recently departed press gallery veteran told Crikey.
Any changes are unlikely to happen rapidly. The press gallery committee can propose solutions and help individual reporters, but doesn’t have the power to issue edicts. Leases are negotiated between media outlets and the Department of Parliamentary Services. Restructuring the gallery — by adding new doors and walls, for example — would be time-consuming and expensive. That’s a problem given modestly-financed start-ups such as The Hoopla don’t have enough cash to pay for office space, let alone renovations.
But sticking with the status quo isn’t an option.
“The change in the future is there’ll be more sole operators rather than people working for big mastheads,” Meares said. “As the media landscape changes, the press gallery will have to change.”