The group content director of Melbourne’s Fairfax-owned Metro Media Publishing says a move to lifestyle-only content was the result of extensive consultation and surveying of readers of the company’s eight suburban Weekly Review titles.

As Crikey reported on Wednesday, MMP’s journalists were told that from May they were to stop writing news stories, focusing instead on lifestyle content, instead of the mix of news and lifestyle content they currently produce. The edict was delivered to the Weekly Review newsroom on Monday and was greeted with significant dismay by the journalists there. Content director Emily Rayner declined to comment for Wednesday’s story, as meetings with staff about the changes were still continuing. But she spoke to Crikey shortly after the meetings concluded yesterday.

Rayner says when she started at MMP, she conducted extensive consultations with staff to discover the strengths, weaknesses and positioning of the Weekly Review publications.

The Weekly Review currently produces news in some of our publications, and doesn’t produce news in other publications. But looking at it as a brand proposition from launch, it has always been a lifestyle magazine — about celebrating the best of what’s in Melbourne. That internal consultation process was about finding out what our teams thought about the product, but we also do a reader survey that confirmed our readers wanted to know the best places to go for coffee where they live, they wanted to celebrate their local high street, they wanted to talk about the schools their kids go to school in and the houses they bought.”

Asked if such a move would disadvantage readers, as they would have fewer journalists holding local institutions to account, Rayner dismissed the suggestion. “We’re going to be super-serving local communities with content they want to read about. We’ll be really championing local communities, and we’re actually going to have more content than ever across our eight publications that’s devoted to things local. So I don’t think there’s going to be any kickback there.”

Rayner didn’t dispute the new editorial direction had disappointed some of her team. But she said she was confident they were equipped to meet the challenge. “There’s an understanding that this is the direction we’re going in. I feel confident that this is a great team to go forward with.” Given the Review’s journalists already write some lifestyle content, Rayner says she doesn’t feel the new direction is a radical change. “All our journalists contribute feature stories, and they enjoyed writing our more lifestyle-oriented summer editions. And they did a fantastic job.”

Crikey has reported that some journalists are concerned a shift away from writing news will limit their career progression. Rayner insists this isn’t the case. At the meetings on Monday, several journalists were given promotions, she says. “We are committed to providing development opportunities and growth for young journalists. And I think that’s exemplified by internal promotions within the team.”

But tensions undoubtedly remain, with the journalist’s union concerned about the new direction. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance yesterday planned a meeting with staff over the new editorial direction, but was locked out by management, as one of the union’s new organisers didn’t have a workplace right of entry permit. Such permits are required under the Fair Work Act and are routinely given to organisers who pass a test on their legal responsibilities when visiting workplaces. Victorian MEAA director Carolyn Dunbar told Crikey that while MMP was within its rights to refuse the union entry, Faifax had not exercised this right at other sites in recent years. “We’ve always been invited to come onto the site,” she said.

When the union was refused entry, MMP’s journalists left the offices and met with the union outside the building, in clear view of management.

The MEAA plans to write to the company about the editorial changes and says that if people’s jobs are changing significantly, they should be offered redundancies instead of merely shifted onto new roles. MMP told staff no redundancies would be offered a result of the shift on Monday.

Sources within MMP told Crikey staff were still reeling over the departure of Eileen Berry, the Weekly Review’s founding editor, who spearheaded the group’s editorial as it moved from one title to eight. Berry left in October, after falling out with some members of MMP’s senior management.

Peter Fray

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