What on Middle Earth is “sexy Gandalf”? And how is it going to save journalism at Australia’s most trusted broadsheets?

The story, more or less, is this: a Melbourne high school student posted pictures on artsy social network Tumblr of herself wearing a costume of Lord of the Rings‘ Gandalf, a 2000-year-old wizard, which she had embellished with heels and fishnet tights. Hence “sexy”. She was wearing the costume to her year 12 muck-up day.

If you’re oblivious to the “sexy Gandalf” story, count your blessings. It spread like wildfire through news sites around the world early last week. Outlets like BuzzFeed, Maxim, Esquire, Mashable and the Daily Mail wrote nearly identical stories on how there was a girl in Melbourne who’d worn a “quirky” outfit to her final day at school, and how people were sharing images of the outfit. In Australia, The Age jumped on the story on Tuesday.

”Sexy Gandalf is among hundreds of photos posted online by year 12 students over the past few days,” the copy reads, before a series of unidentified and unattributed pictures of other high schoolers in costume.

Strangely for The Age, the piece has no byline. Crikey is told that the two reporters who worked on it refused to have their names on it.

Journalists’ qualms aside, stories such as “sexy Gandalf” are unlikely to go away at Fairfax. Digitally-aimed stories like this one are part of what’s dubbed the “Sunrise strategy”, and reporters at both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age are being trained in how to do it. (Journalists Crikey spoke to were confused about where the title came from. Some wondered whether it had anything to do with the TV program. Another remarked that it made Fairfax sound like a cult.)

At best, the Sunrise strategy is digital training for Fairfax’s still largely print-focused workforce, teaching them how to add bells and whistles to online stories to convince people to read them. At worst, it’s training in all the things critics hate about clickbait: curiosity-gap headlines, embedded videos, loosely reported stories on what’s happening “online”. Opinions and descriptions of the new strategy differ depending on who you ask.

Reporters filing for online publication are now expected to include tweets, graphs and pictures. Fairfax describes it as an “audience-focused” strategy. While the two major metro mastheads still employ some online production workers — uploading and enhancing stories that appear online — the duties associated with this increasingly fall to journalists.

Fairfax’s commitment to this new strategy is such that it is offering those who do not want to get with the program a way out. At the end of the training, journalists are given one-on-one interviews with management about their skills and attitudes towards the new strategy. Those who are uncomfortable, unhappy or unequipped for the new strategy will be given the option of looking at retrenchment options. Of course, an offer to discuss options is no guarantee of a redundancy payout — Fairfax management has the final say on that.

Crikey has been told this is not quite a redundancy round. Fairfax has no firm numbers in mind for redundancies — if no one puts their hand up to leave, it’s possible no one will go. At least, not as a result of the Sunrise initiative.

The Sunrise training dovetails with new personalised traffic dashboards that have been rolled out to journalists at Fairfax’s metro divisions, which show them how their stories are doing online. The dashboards reveal page impressions, engagement times, video views, social media shares and comment activity on a given journalist’s articles. Some journalists fear they will be used to introduce traffic metrics around their stories, discouraging them from writing important but relatively niche stories. Fairfax group director of news and business media Sean Aylmer appeared to downplay this possibility in a statement to Crikey: “We are proud to give our reporters and editors as much information as possible about their audience, and, like comparable newsrooms around the world, using this data to help influence – but not dictate – the way in which we do our journalism.”

What both the dashboards and the Sunrise initiative demonstrate is how quickly and deliberately Fairfax is prioritising metrics such as page views and audience engagement in how it evaluates and shapes its journalism. One outcome of this has been a proliferation of trashy ‘clickbait’ stories on the online front pages of the SMH and the Age. People always complain about the websites, one Fairfax insider concedes. “But the truth of it is, it’s a deliberate strategy.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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