Journalist numbers at Fairfax metros will likely be down to about a third of where they were a little over a decade ago, once the current cost cutting round is completed.

This means the readers of Fairfax’s metro news — the digital and print versions of the SMH, The Age and the AFR along with the Perth and Brisbane news sites — will be getting their information from a newsroom with fewer than 400 people compared to over 1200 at the start of the century.

Like all media companies, Fairfax Media is not public with firm details of its staffing decline. And so far, this year’s cuts have been expressed only in dollar terms, pending staff consultation. But the past decade has taught that, in media, “cuts” mean job losses. And now, most job losses come out of the newsroom.

As newsrooms around the world have downsized, they’ve been less and less open about just how many journalists they employ. But there are some publicly available figures that can give us some idea.

[More redundancies feared at Fairfax, as takeover rumours fly]

After the Fairfax metro journalists went on strike over last year’s redundancy round, the Fair Work Ombudsman launched an investigation into the 500 journalists who participated in what it considered “unlawful action”. (Recently, this investigation bounced back as a sort of contrapuntal basso to that falsetto harrumphing response to the comments by ACTU secretary Sally McManus on the obligation to challenge unjust laws).

Add in the editorial executives who traditionally do not take industrial action, plus those staff who worked through the strike, then take out the 120-odd who were ultimately made redundant. That leaves about 500 writers, reporters, photographers, artists and all the bits and pieces that make up the modern newsroom.

The dollar value of this year’s cuts — $30 million — seem about twice the 2016 cuts. The company is going through a consultation process before it announces the job losses, but it’s hard to see how they could be fewer than last year.

This would mean a figure somewhere under 400, less than a third of the editorial resources it had before it started it’s almost annual redundancy rounds in 2005. A total number that starts with a “3” in front of it would be in line with MEAA tracking of the decline over that period. MEAA CEO Paul Murphy says that based on company annual reports and statements, Fairfax has spent almost half a billion dollars in redundancy over the past 10 years.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. The same week that Fairfax was making its local announcement, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics released data showing that total newspaper employment (so, everybody, not just newsrooms) had dropped from 412,000 in 2001 to 172,000 in September last year.

The American Society of News Editors stopped counting journalist numbers in 2015, but their decades-long mapping suggests that there are about half as many journalists working on US papers as were at the start of the century.

Sure, that’s bad for journalists. But why should readers care? What are they going to be missing?

Well, there’s some content that’s long lost  — those supplements and inserted magazines that fattened newspapers from the 1980s without necessarily adding much to their journalistic weight.

[Now it’s News’ turn to swing redundancy axe]

But the history of large generalist newsrooms — that is, daily newspapers — suggests a strong correlation between quantity and quality. Like all newsrooms, Fairfax have been attempting to challenge that assumption. They say they’ll manage by making “smart decisions about what stories we pursue and how we cover them”. Well, that sounds easy!

The core focus will be politics (state, local, federal), business, sport. The state and local focus will be transport, education and crime. Entertainment, arts, lifestyle will be covered through their “expansive contributor network and access to global media organisations”. Or in other words: commodified syndication, already broadly available.

There’s a continued commitment to investigations, although good investigative journalism takes time. Not all investigations pan out. Sometimes even the most substantial stories don’t need a lot of bytes for their reporting.

And for style, we have the much — and justly — derided “mission statement” that accompanied the company’s statement. This reads more like an MBA first-year class assignment, than a useful tool for the newsroom. There’s something in here for everybody. And nothing much for anybody.

Initially, reports that it marked a shift to the heavily contested media right were allowed to run. Then that it was simply a re-statement of “broad church” middle-of-the road reporting. Take your pick.

The Fairfax journalists’ response was the right one: they’ll just keep doing their job.

As in, just about every other job cut since 2005, the company suggested that this was it — this would be the cut that would reset staffing to the appropriate level for the digital future. Let’s set our alarm for 12 months’ time and check in again.

 

Peter Fray

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