The Fairfax redundancy train has come to Wollongong, with Illawarra Mercury staff told they’ll say goodbye to 24 of their colleagues in coming months.

Staff have been bracing for the bad news for months, but the scale of the redundancies — which amount to around half of the employees at the paper — were something of a shock. The Mercury covers a large area of south-eastern New South Wales, from Helensburgh down to Kiama. “We thought given the size of our population we might end up with more people than Bendigo or Ballarat,” one reporter said.

But it wasn’t to be, with the reporter describing the mood at the paper as “pretty dark”. From eight photographers, the paper will now have to make do with two and a half. Subeditors, news directors and chiefs of staff will go. And sports and news reporters will also be hard hit. A newsroom of 21 people covering news and sport will be turned into just 13 or 14. Reporters at the Mercury also stressed the importance of their photographers, referred to as “the brains trust of the operation”.

It’s the third time in four years the Mercury‘s workforce have been trimmed — cuts to the paper were first announced in 2011, and again in 2013.

The company is, as usual, holding consultations over the next two weeks to discuss the impact of the changes. But Illawarra staff are looking nervously to their Victorian cousins, where, after an extensive consultation period, only a handful of positions were saved across 13 mastheads.

The 160-year-old Illawarra Mercury has the largest newsroom in the region and will bear the brunt of the cuts. But several other titles are also affected, including its associated titles: the Wollongong Advertiser and the Lake Times (which will be combined into the one publication); the Kiama Independent; the South Coast Register (which will go from a thrice-weekly to twice-weekly publication); Shoalhaven & Nowra News; Milton Ulladulla Times; Bay Post; Moruya Examiner; Narooma News; Bega District News; Merimbula News; the Eden Magnet; and the Bombala Times. Around 50 voluntary redundancies will be offered, Fairfax says, which will include 34 full-time equivalent newsroom positions.

In an article published to the websites of all the affected mastheads, Fairfax’s Australian Community Media director John Angilley said the changes would help set up Fairfax’s regional titles for the future:

“All our mastheads in Illawarra and South-East NSW must embrace change to ensure they remain the most trusted source of news and information for years to come. We have thought our way through the challenges our business faces and developed a localised plan to strengthen and sustain the important work we do for the communities we serve. The local plan is based on the progress we have made in other regions.”

Angilley is referring to the NewsNow publishing system currently rolled out in parts of New South Wales and Victoria. Reporters are expected to perform the tasks of subeditors and photographers, and publish content straight to the web.

Wollongong won’t be the last newsroom to be cut in this manner. According to a timetable of the redundancy program leaked to The Australian, the Newcastle and Hunter newspapers will be next to be cut, followed by those in New England.

Peter Fray

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