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Film & TV

Jun 6, 2017

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Today in Media Files, Fairfax journalists are learning whether their applications for voluntary redundancy will be accepted, and ABC broadcaster Mark Colvin has been remembered at a service in Sydney.

Fairfax redundancies. Fairfax journalists who applied for voluntary redundancy have been finding out yesterday and today if they’d been successful, and their leaving dates will mostly be staggered over the next four Fridays to June 30, before the new financial year. A handful of applications have been knocked back. Fairfax announced it would be making 125 positions redundant from the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age last month (including 10 people who had already left), prompting a seven-day wildcat strike.

Crikey understands that close to enough applications were made, so there’s likely to only be a handful of, if any, forced redundancies to meet the target. Decisions about whether there will be forced redundancies, and where they will be, will be made over the next few days. Some applications were made at the Australian Financial Review, which was not originally included in the plan for redundancies, but the majority are from the metro papers, the SMH and Age.

Fairfax would not comment.

Remembering Mark Colvin. Friends, family, colleagues and friends of Mark Colvin gathered yesterday in Sydney for a memorial service for the broadcaster, who died last month after a long chronic illness. Leigh Sales, Tony Jones, Jenny Brockie, Michael Carey and Jess Hill all remembered their friend and colleague and kind, loving and generous. A video compilation of tributes to the long-time PM presenter from foreign correspondents remembered the high standards he held them to, with Middle East correspondent Ben Knight talking about “getting Colvined” — asked questions during live crosses you’re unprepared for. 

Mary Ellen Field, who donated a kidney to Colvin, spoke of her friend via video link, and Prince of Wales Hospital nephrologist Zoltan Endre, who knew Colvin through his treatment at the hospital, captured his sense of humour by telling of a donation Colvin wanted to make. Endre said he had been worried about the promised donation of commode chairs, which are attached to  toilets to make them more comfortable for patients. “I was assured the text he wanted inscribed on the chairs was, ‘Enjoy this comfortable crap, courtesy of Mark Colvin’.”

Wrong bearded white guy. In a brief error by the AFR yesterday, a Laura Tingle piece based on comments made by former foreign minister Gareth Evans was illustrated with an image of Professor Hugh White, from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australia National University. White is a columnist with The Age and commentator on foreign affairs, but he was not quoted in Tingle’s article.

For the record, this is Gareth Evans:

Surprise! Daily Mail‘s dog-cooking video is distressing. A grisly Daily Mail Australia article has been found to be in breach of the Australian Press Council principles. The article, under the headline, “Horrific moment a dog is BOILED ALIVE and Chinese villagers rip out its fur in clumps before incredibly it gets up and runs away”, which included a video of a dog in a steaming wok and trying to get away, and descriptions of the graphic video, was found to “substantially offensive and distressing”, despite warnings of graphic content. The council found that while there was a legitimate public interest in highlighting the inhumane elements of the dog meat trade in China, this did not outweigh the offense and distress in the article. The article was still online this morning without a link to the Press Council adjudication.

Ten’s China links. It’s not often we find that a paid lobbyist for a foreign government is a director of a major Australian media company, but that is the situation at the embattled Ten Network where Andrew Robb, the former federal Liberal Party trade minister has been a director representing Gina Rinehart (and her loss-making investment on the on TV group’s board). Robb also represents a company that Fairfax Media says is closely linked to the Chinese Communist party run government.

Robb was appointed as a non-executive board member at Ten Network Holdings as Gina Rinehart’s representative in July last year, three weeks after the election. Robb had announced his retirement last year and said he would not be re-contesting the Melbourne seat of Goldstein which he had represented since 2004.

In October the ABC reported that Robb was to become a “high-level economic consultant” with the Landbridge, the Chinese company that now operates Darwin Port. This appointment was never announced by Robb or Landbridge. Fairfax this morning has reported that Robb had been consulting to Landbridge chairman Ye Cheng before the election.

 

Robb joins Kerry Stokes, the Seven West Media and Seven group Holdings chair, as being closely interested with the Chinese government and the country’s government. Stokes’ Seven Group holdings is the Caterpillar franchise owner in north-east China, a shareholder in the China Agricultural Bank, and has had media joint ventures in Shanghai with local media groups. — Glenn Dyer

Time Out Australia acquired by global namesake. Global entertainment website Time Out has bought its Australian licensing partner, Time Out Australia. Co-founder and CEO of the Australian outfit, Michael Rodrigues, will now be Australian managing director of Time Out Digital, which now includes Time Out Australia. Time Out Global was listed in June 2016. Time Out has websites and magazines that curate food, drink, entertainment and cultural guides to cities.

Glenn Dyer’s TV Ratings. A mixed night, but not for Nine which found a success with True Story. It topped the metros, just in front of Seven’s House Rules. Ten’s Masterchef suffered, as did Ten, and the ABC had its best Monday night for more than a month. True Story managed 1.82 million viewers nationally (including 1.28 million in the metros and 545,000 in the regions which was pretty good for a new program). Seven’s House Rules did better though with 1.99 million nationally (which will rise over 2 million after the seven days viewing figures are factored in as well as a massive 772,000 in the regions). Ten’s Masterchef though could only manage 1.03 million and again had fewer viewers than Have You been Paying Attention (1.04 million). That meant Ten slipped in the rankings to fourth in the metros behind the ABC in the main channels.

Seven returned Wanted to its line up after House Rules and it failed to hold viewers — its national average was 1.17 million. Ten returned Here Comes The Habibs and it failed to hang onto much of True Story’s audience and ended on 1.14 million, with an OK 826,000 in the metros. House Rules topped the regions with 772,000, followed by Seven news with 771,000, Seven News/TT was third with 595,000, then Home and Away with 548,000 and True Story in fifth with 545,000.

The ABC’s news and current affairs line up had its best Monday night for weeks with the ABC News and 7.30 doing better — the much promoted Four Corners story on Chinese money in Australian politics managed to grab 993,000 national viewers which was OK — but behind the offerings on Seven, Ten and Nine. — Read the rest on the Crikey website

Companies

Nov 3, 2016

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As the Fairfax Media AGM rolled out at Melbourne’s Crown casino precinct this morning, it seemed that no one at the top table was particularly keen to talk about this director interest statement lodged with the ASX on August 30.

The filing showed that Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood had reached all the targets set out in his 2013 long-term incentive scheme share grant and the board had decided to settle half of his options by paying him $2.8 million in cash. This was based on 35c for each of the 8 million cancelled options, which had an exercise price of 58c against a market price at the time of 93c.

Since then Fairfax shares have fallen back to 81c last night, and today the stock tanked another 9c to a low of 72c in early trade, after the company unveiled a disappointing trading update that showed the Domain juggernaut had slowed.

Not long after starting out in journalism back in 1989, I remember being impressed with the independent journalism on display at The Australian Financial Review when it did a front-page story exposing the big executive pay packets as the company lurched towards receivership.

Almost 27 years later, it is disappointing to note that equally big rewards going to the company brass today are not being accurately reported by what is left of Fairfax’s business journalists.

The August 30 disclosure just sailed through to the keeper un-reported. It is not clear whether this was a deliberate omission or a reflection of how heavily Fairfax has slashed its editorial budgets in order to reach these large bonus payments for the executive team. However, the board’s disclosure practices are certainly not helping.

Part of the problem is new Fairfax chairman Nick Falloon, who himself was extremely well paid when chairing Ten Network Holdings, doesn’t seem to believe in comprehensive remuneration disclosure.

For starters, Fairfax only releases the statutory pay details of three executives — CEO Greg Hywood, company secretary and general counsel Gail Hambly and CFO David Housego.

Domain CEO Antony Catalano and events boss Andrew McEvoy are rumoured as Hywood’s most likely internal successors, but shareholders are told nothing about their remuneration arrangements.

Then you have the question of disclosing actual pay in addition to statutory pay.

The Australian Shareholders’ Association again pushed this point hard at today’s AGM. ASA’s Fairfax company monitor Peter Metcalf, a former Lend Lease company secretary, wrote the following in his voting intentions report:

“The company does not publish actual remuneration figures for the CEO and has told the ASA it believes that disclosure would confuse shareholders. The company refuses to meet our request for the CEO’s actuals to include in the table below. The ASA believes that the statutory disclosure of remuneration quantum by themselves are confusing for shareholders and that actual disclosures are far easier for shareholders to understand and we will continue to push for their inclusion.”

The real reason for holding back on releasing the actual huge pay deals for the Fairfax brass is that is sits uncomfortably with the $400 million-plus in redundancy payment that have been shelled out during Hywood’s brutal reign.

No one likes to see a CEO, particularly a former journalist, make more than $10 million firing thousands of staff, but that’s exactly what has happened at Fairfax.

The board did not have to give its CEO $2.8 million in cash in August as part of a deal to cancel 8 million options to buy shares at 58c.

Indeed, it looks absolutely awful now that Fairfax has today come out with a profit warning.

If Domain really did suffer from “an unusually weak July” as shareholders were told today, then why not require the CEO to exercise the options and take the equity risk himself rather than helping him directly cash out?

As it stands, Hywood currently owns 1.552 million ordinary shares worth just over $1 million, yet his gross cash payments from Fairfax are close to $10 million. Importantly, he does own a further 9.33 million options to buy shares (mainly at 58c), so fingers crossed he will soon put some serious cash back into the company and carry some decent skin in the game for the balance of his tenure.

Shareholders also approved another Hywood incentive grant worth up to $3.2 million this morning and reappointed remuneration committee chair Sandra McPhee for another three-year term. All resolutions were passed with more than 98% of shareholders in favour.

Companies are often not too clever when it comes to trading in their own shares, and Fairfax has joined that club after today’s downgrade. In hindsight, it backfired spending $111 million buying back 121 million shares in 2015 at an average price of 92.4c.

With the stock now tanking to a low of 72c this morning (it stabilised to 74.5c by 11am) and net debt down below $100 million, the board might be tempted to unveil another buyback in the near future.

 

* Stephen Mayne owns 10 Fairfax Media shares and is a volunteer director of the Australian Shareholders’ Association.

Journalism

Aug 10, 2016

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For those expecting an announcement on the future of Fairfax’s print editions, this morning’s full-year profit result from the media group was somewhat anticlimactic.

In its annual report, the company continued to lay the groundwork for an announcement, but it didn’t provide a date. In the investor briefing, CEO Greg Hywood said the company was not yet ready to move away from daily print editions.

“We’ve been pretty clear that we’ll do it … when it’s beneficial to the business and when it meets consumer demand. We’re not at that stage yet. Inevitably we will be. Our view is to maximise the cash we can get out of current operation until we get to new one.

“Having said that, we are spending time, energy focus on building out this model. It’s not something you can flick a switch to. When the time’s right for the business, that’s what we’ll do.”

Fairfax staff wait with bated breath. So do at least some investors — Alex Waislitz told The Australian last week such a move should happen “sooner rather than later and with as short a transition period as possible”.

But this morning, it was largely business as usual, with the company spruiking the massive cost reductions it has achieved in its print division and its steady transformation into a digital company. Hywood said the result was proof the strategy was working. More than 40% of earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation came from things other than print. Next year, Hywood said, the company expected this figure to rise to nearly 60%. Revenue from digital subscribers rose 17% to $38 million.

On headline figures, the company swung to a loss — its tiny profit last year of $87.2 million became a $893.5 million loss. But that’s not unexpected, given the company’s $989 million write-down in assets last week. Revenue was only down 2% to $1.8 billion. Domain was a solid contributor to the result, with revenues growing 33%. Listings were down in the first few weeks of this financial year, but Hywood attributed that to impact of the federal election.

Fairfax has taken $400 million in costs out of its publishing business in the past four years. The division that houses The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (metro media) had its publishing costs slashed by 4%, while the cost base at Fairfax’s regional division shrunk $60 million over the year, or 12%. In the release, Hywood hinted at further cost-cutting to come. “Difficult conditions continue in regional and agricultural markets. We are undertaking a review of ACM to develop initiatives and identify opportunities,” he said.

The past year was a good one financially for Hywood. While his cash earnings didn’t vary in the year to June from the base figure of $1.575 million, or just over $30,000 a week, an increase in the value of share rights granted to him, which he’ll be able to secure by hitting certain performance targets, caused his total salary to rise an inflation-busting 10% — to $2.731 million, from 2014-15’s $2.491 million. The value of those share rights jumped from $867,000 to a tasty $1.102 million. It puts Hywood among a tiny elite this year who enjoy a double-digit pay rise.

Media briefs

May 11, 2016

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The worst-kept secret in the Australian media is out. New Zealand’s two largest newspaper publishers, APN and Fairfax, confirmed this morning they were in talks about merging their Kiwi assets into a new company, to be listed on the NZ Stock Exchange from late June (assuming all goes to plan).

The merger will rely on the approval of key regulator The Commerce Commission. But today’s announcements were missing any discussion of competition issues, or of News Corp Australia, a 14.9% shareholder in APN likely to take a stake in the new company. Fairfax CEO and managing director Greg Hywood said in a statement this morning:

“This is an important opportunity for all of our shareholders to be part of the future of content and journalism in New Zealand. The merger would enhance the position the businesses are in to continue to deliver high quality, local content to audiences now and in the future.”

APN CEO Ciaran Davis added:

“Along with the other initiatives APN announced this morning, the merger of NZME and Fairfax’s NZ business provides an exciting opportunity for our shareholders, particularly our New Zealand shareholders, to participate in the creation of a leading media business for New Zealanders … The New Zealand businesses of NZME and Fairfax are, to a large extent, complementary.”

So far as both companies are concerned, it’s an upbeat outlook for print media in NZ, without a competition worry being expressed publicly.

Print

Apr 1, 2016

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Fairfax’s Canberra Times looks set to relinquish its title as Fairfax’s last daily broadsheet paper, with a move to a tabloid … sorry, “compact” format announced to staff and the media yesterday.

Also revealed was the loss of 12.6 full-time positions — one in six jobs at the Canberra paper, of which 10 are expected to be journalists. Staff at the Crimes Fyshwick office were called into a meeting with management at 2pm yesterday, where Rod Quinn — a former editor-in-chief of the paper turned Fairfax executive — outlined the changes.

Staff have been bracing for a restructure for more than a year. In 2013 The Canberra Times was made part of the Australian Community Media arm of Fairfax, which includes community and regional papers. The division has been undergoing radical changes to a new system called NewsNow, in which reporters perform roles traditionally filled by photographers and subeditors, in addition to their reporting duties. Papers operating under the model have carried far more shared copy from both the regional stable and the metro papers, weakening the distinctive reporting of the local papers. NewsNow’s rollout has also been accompanied swingeing job cuts — the one-in-six jobs going at the Crimes suggests the paper has gotten off relatively lightly compared to others.

NewsNow was expected to come to, or at least affect, the ACT eventually. But the model revealed to staff yesterday wasn’t quite NewsNow, though it has been dubbed by some as “NewsNow in disguise”. While the paper will stay on its current content management system as opposed to moving to the standardised NewsNow CMS adopted elsewhere, the cuts to professional photography have caused concern, as has the fact that journalists will now have to write to set word counts, filling space in a paper laid out earlier in the day.

Currently, Canberra Times copy is often subedited in-house by editors and producers. The paper is subbed externally, in line with what happens at other Fairfax papers. Under the proposed model, this will cease, in favour of the in-house subbing done by producers and editors (there will be seven producers under the new model handling this).

Photography will also change. Casual photographers are being terminated, and all but four full-time photographers are expected to go. Journalists will be required to take their own pictures. Also on the chopping block are admin staff in the library and reception desk.

Two weeks ago, Canberra Times staff went on strike in solidarity with their colleagues at the metro papers, who are facing 120 job cuts. Yesterday, the house committees of the SMH and The Age put out a statement expressing their “shock and dismay” at the proposal to cut their newsrooms. “We will all be lessened by these losses, which will diminish the quality journalism Fairfax staff, and our readers, hold so dear,” the statement read. It also condemned “reporters … asked to do work outside their job description — namely, to take their own photographs and sub their own stories”.

The Canberra Times was the paper with the largest circulation decline in the last round of figures. Its figures were down 18.7% in the year to December — it sells just 18,837 copies on an average day. And that figure was only the latest in a string of bad circulation results — it’s down 10,000 daily copies in the last four years. Journos point to the fact that the website’s audience is growing quickly — perhaps helped by a redesigned website now being tested on the SMH and Age — but the falling circulation in recent years has no doubt had a big effect on revenue.

The smaller size — while perhaps a disappointment to traditionalists — didn’t particularly faze the journos Crikey spoke to. Some applauded it, saying it would give the paper a marketing boost. The Sunday edition, which like the daily is printed on-site, is already a tabloid. Er, compact.

Companies

Mar 17, 2016

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MEAA CEO Paul Murphy addressing the Sydney strike

A marathon session of the Senate as it debates changes to voting laws, the Grand Prix, and anything else that happens between now and Monday will not be covered by Fairfax’s union journalists, after the vast majority of the company’s Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra journalists walked off the job yesterday afternoon, vowing not to return till Monday.

In fiery meetings in Melbourne and Sydney, the company’s union journalists voted overwhelmingly for a wildcat strike, after the company surprised them by sending an email at 11am on Thursday saying about 120 full-time journos in news and business — or their equivalent in other cost cuts — was being sought from the The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review. Some staff out the Canberra Times, Newcastle Herald, the Illawarra Mercury, Brisbane Times and WAToday have also gone on 24-hour strikes in solidarity, as have almost all the editorial staff at real estate portal Domain.

Management has responded to the strike by telling workers it will dock their pay (as it is legally obliged to). In an email sent out yesterday afternoon, editorial director Sean Aylmer said he was very disappointed that strikes had occurred so early in the consultation process:

“This strike action is unlawful. When employees take unlawful industrial action we have no choice but to dock their pay.

“No one should feel pressured to take industrial action at any time. And it’s wrong for anyone to pressure someone else to take unlawful industrial action.”

Publicly, the company said in a statement that despite the strike it would “continue to publish across print and digital as usual”. This should prove easier with the Financial Review than with the Age and SMH, as far fewer of the Fin‘s staff are unionised, particularly in Sydney (non-union members are not protected in a strike).

In the statement, CEO Greg Hywood said: “We are operating in an ever-changing highly competitive media environment which involves rapid evolution of our publishing model. The initiatives we have proposed today are part of that adaptation and are necessary to sustain high-quality journalism.”

Many staff felt betrayed by yesterday morning’s missile from Aylmer — they felt they’d been assured only a month ago a significant editorial restructure of the papers would not be accompanied by staff cuts. Many noted staff had been assured that those currently in positions that were disappearing would be able to go back to writing jobs. But it’s hard to see Fairfax finding places for people whose jobs no longer exist now. “It’s absolute chaos with the restructure and now this,” an Age staffer said.

At about 3pm today, Fairfax Media’s Sydney staff met on the front lawn outside company headquarters in Pyrmont. The meeting was fronted by house committee representatives Anne Davies and Marcus Strom, both senior journalists, and also Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance CEO Paul Murphy.

Davies, gesturing at the group of journalists, photographers and artists, said that there were about 120 people behind her. “This is the number of people who will be losing their jobs if this plan is implemented. “

Murphy from the MEAA said that “the staff here have led the charge and produced quality journalism … while the company has continued to take the easy option [with job cuts]. How do people keep on doing their jobs when the cuts are so severe?”

All speakers emphasised the complete lack of consultation by the company. The email announcing the cuts dropped into staff inboxes only an hour before Alymer addressed the staff in Sydney at noon (he told them the Fairfax metro network would be aiming to publish fewer pieces — from 9000 a day to 6000 — with fewer journalists, doing less with less).

Asked about the mood of the meeting, one senior staff member described it as “pent-up fury”. Aylmer told them that the money would be found by cutting contributors (there aren’t many), followed by voluntary redundancies and then forced redundancies.

The last time Fairfax’s Melbourne journalists went on strike, in 2014 to protest against the axing of many photography positions, they filled the lawn at Media House. Yesterday, the strikers included staff from the Financial Review, who are also on strike. But even with this, they could all fit on the steps.

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Age senior journalist Gina McColl addressing Fairfax staff at Melbourne’s Media House

As in Sydney, journalists were fuming about the announcement, which they feel has been sprung on them at a time when they were being asked to contribute and buy into a new editorial vision. Unlike their Sydney colleagues, Melbourne staff didn’t get a briefing from management beyond the email.

Addressing her colleagues, Age senior journalist Gina McColl said they had decided to walk because “we got an email at 11am this morning saying there’d be 120 redundancies.”

“In previous rounds, the company agreed that this is not a good way to get redundancies, and that a better way is to sit down with staff and talk to us, consult with us, see where efficiencies could be made without impacting on quality and without people losing their jobs. We’ve walked today to send a message to the company that not consulting with us doesn’t work.”

In Brisbane, where staff are also on strike, Brisbane Times political editor Amy Remeikis tweeted that “cuts to media, and in the numbers we are talking here … do nothing expect weaken the public discourse and mean those in power have less of a spotlight on them … For these reasons, and because I believe in the power of the collective and taking a stand for what I believe in … I stand with my colleagues to say Fair Go Fairfax.”

After all the activity yesterday, staff retired to drown their frustrations at the pub (The Savoy and Saint and Rogue in Melbourne, the Quarryman’s Hotel in Sydney).

They kicked up the protests again at 11am today. In Melbourne, plans were made to wear Fair Go Fairfax t-shirts to the Quill Awards tonight. The union ran out of the campaign shirts, and told interested staff it had more in the office. In Sydney, Strom told those gathered that popular columnists Annabel Crabb and Peter FitzSimmons weren’t filing their columns.

It was only a month ago that Fairfax reported a solid half-yearly result. On February 19 Hywood announced that group revenue was up 2.8% to $958 million:

“Our continued focus on cost reduction and efficiency in our publishing businesses drove Group publishing costs down by 6% — that’s $38 million.

“I say this at every results announcement and once again its true — our audiences have never been larger, more diverse, or hungrier for quality independent journalism, digital content and services, as well as real-life experiences.”

When Hywood, a former journalist, was appointed CEO in February 2011, the share price of the company was $1.33 — it closed this afternoon at 79.5c. According to the company’s 2015 annual report, the CEO’s total remuneration in the 2014-15 financial year was valued at $2,491,465. This figure included a base salary of $1.575 million, with the remaining $1 million-odd comprised of superannuation, long service leave, shares and other options.

A month ago, he told the market that “our strategy is to grow, transform and invest to drive long-term performance”. It’s not so obvious where the growth and investment is happening, but he was right about one thing. Fairfax Media is certainly being transformed.

Companies

Mar 17, 2016

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Fairfax Media announced this morning that it would cut the equivalent of 120 full-time jobs from its metropolitan newsrooms, a heavy toll some journalists are saying could amount to one in four positions going.

In an email sent to staff at 11am this morning, editorial director Sean Aylmer said the company was entering into negotiations with journalists’ union the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance to reduce costs across the news and business newsrooms. The cuts will affect The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review. The announcement went to staff in the newsrooms of The Canberra Times and the online-only titles WAToday and the Brisbane Times, but the cuts will apply only to the Sydney and Melbourne newsrooms.

Many Fairfax journalists have pointed out on Twitter that the cuts could add up to one in four jobs. Others disagreed with that figure. With cost reductions in other places, it’s possible the final figure of positions gone could be significantly less than 120. Fairfax will also be “tightening contributor budgets and reducing travel costs and expenses”.

Aylmer said:

“Change is a permanent part of our industry. It is a reflection of what we know about the ways our readers are consuming our stories. We must continue to evolve with them.”

Fairfax, Aylmer continued, would become “more efficient” in producing “quality journalism”, with decisions “based on our understanding of our audience and the importance of our brands”. Reporting would continue to focus on investigations, state and federal politics, justice and breaking news, sport, entertainment and business, he said.

Journalists told Crikey that as they understood the announcement, editors would be given some leeway as to how they cut costs. This means they could save some jobs by finding savings in other ways, like reducing the number of pages printed or slashing travel costs. The Age and SMH have already been heavily cut in recent years, but the AFR has been relatively more insulated.

It’s been a month to the day since Fairfax unveiled a restructure at its metro papers, further integrating the newsrooms and prioritising digital-first publication. Staff Crikey spoke to then were very relieved that the change wasn’t accompanied by redundancies, though that appears to have been short-lived. The Australian reported last November that Fairfax would slash up to 150 jobs by May — perhaps the decision was made some time ago.

Fairfax’s share price rose 4.16% in morning trading today.

Journalism

Feb 25, 2016

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The Age digital editor Michael Schlechta

The Age’s digital editor has hit back at suggestions the website publishes “clickbait”, telling staff this morning that while he’d tried to stay silent while accusations The Age was going downmarket stacked up, he could stay silent no more.

“I have had enough,” Age digital editor Michael Schlechta wrote. “Andrew Jaspan, Gay Alcorn, Jon Faine, Paul Barry, Crikey. They have all had a good shot at us. Digital, that is.”

Schlechta took aim at characterisations of “clickbait“, “trash“, and “taking the masthead downmarket“:

“During the past couple of years I have had hundreds of conversations with reporters, topic editors and the like, and I don’t remember ever asking anyone to dumb down what they do. I have never asked anyone to give us clickbait.”

The Age’s digital presence reflected The Age’s brand, he said, though, “according to the critics, it is a given that we are running a site totally separate from our print products, jumping at every opportunity to chase clicks.”

“What a load of rubbish. It just makes me absolutely furious that most of them — who live in a protected world of guaranteed funding — are happy to take on such a pompous, self-righteous tone in an area they know little to nothing about.”

(On the ‘guaranteed funding’ point, Crikey relies on your subscriptions to stay afloat.)

Everyone in the digital team, Schlechta continued, took pride in working at the Age, and understood what that meant:

“We have a very loyal audience of more than 500,000 people every weekday who come to our site, most of whom are very happy with what we offer.”

“We understand that increasingly the digital team will be the face of The Age for most people so what stories we select and how we present them matters. But we also understand the reality that for our newsroom to survive at a scale that gives us an advantage, we need to attract a very large, dedicated audience. We get that, and we work with that in mind every day.”

Under Fairfax’s new restructure, announced last week with the departure of Age editor-in-chief Andrew Holden, print editors, whose role has steadily decreased in the “digital-first” newsroom, will no longer be able to commission any journalism. Topic editors and online editors will have all the commissioning power. Fairfax’s print paper editors will no longer even report to the editors in chief of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. Instead, they’ll report to the publishing director.

The changes have been accompanied by a wave of commentary that has drawn some angry reaction from Age staff, who feel they are being lectured to by people with little understanding of how the business works. “Everyone is a bloody expert,” one staffer told Crikey this morning. “We stuck around during the hard times and do what it takes day after day. We are the experts.”

Earlier this week, former deputy editor of The Age and Sunday Age editor Gay Alcorn (now the Guardian Australia’s bureau chief) wrote a piece about the Sydneyification of The Age. The reflection was filled with sadness for what The Age had become. The piece was widely praised outside The Age, but it sparked a fierce reaction from many Age staffers on social media. Acting Age editor-in-chief Mark Forbes — seen as a leading candidate for the role when it gets assigned permanently — hit back at Alcorn on Twitter. “A hypocritical, inaccurate, self serving piece of crap from one who pushed newsroom changes,” he tweeted. “I had respect for [Alcorn], but that partisan piece mocks the best journos in Oz”.

Media

Nov 18, 2015

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Golden sunsets follow the Sunrise. The first Age journo to put his hand up and be granted redundancy as a result of Fairfax’s Sunrise training initiative is senior court reporter Steve Butcher, who told editor-in-chief Andrew Holden he wanted to go at his one-on-one meeting. Media House insiders tell Crikey at least half-a-dozen other reporters have put up their hands for redundancy, though many are still waiting to hear back from management about whether they’ll be allowed to go.

In an email to his colleagues sent yesterday, Butcher wrote:

“The big blue Fairfax bus — with driver — has pulled up to collect me and chug off into that golden sunset. My last day is November 27. Further details to follow.

“In freedom from fear, I remain, for the time being, your faithful correspondent, S.Butcher.”

On Twitter, Age journo Steve Lillebuen paid tribute to Butcher. “Sad to hear court reporting legend Steve Butcher is leaving Fairfax,” he tweeted. “So good rival journos used to tail him from courtroom to courtroom.” — Myriam Robin

Meanwhile at Holt Street … News Corp, Crikey readers would know, is facing its own redundancy round early next year. But yesterday the company was in damage control mode after Fin Rear Window scribe Joe Aston suggested in the morning’s paper that editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell’s retirement was not quite of his own volition.

Mitchell had painted the decision as entirely his in his comments to Crikey, telling us:

“As Aston was told by his source, I advised the company earlier this year of my intention to retire from this role at some point in the future. As yet there is no decision on a finish date or on my successor.”

Mitchell added that he expected to have some ongoing role in the business, which, by Tuesday morning, Aston reckoned was unlikely, as, Aston claimed, the company was keen to see the back of the long-serving editor.

“It will be interesting to see if [Mitchell’s] plan to wield power beyond the grave actually eventuates. As [former News Corp Australia head] John Hartigan … found out the hard way, once you leave, you leave, and hand back your protected species credentials when you collect your gold watch — or, in Mitchell’s case, a lovely piece of art presented to him at a Holt Street reception in August, in the least subtle nod towards the News Corp exit since Col Allan turned up in 2012 to provide ‘additional editorial leadership’ just weeks before Kim Jong-il [Aston is referring to Kim Williams] bit the dust.”

But Aston hadn’t gotten his facts quite right — as he admitted later that day, correcting the online copy. The aforementioned painting was presented to Mitchell in February at Lachlan Murdoch’s house. This wasn’t enough for Mitchell, who sent his new media editor Darren Davidson to relay his displeasure.

“Typically, Joe Aston didn’t ring anyone before writing his incorrect and defamatory item. My colleagues at the paper and News Corp know it was entirely my own decision to retire,” Mitchell said in an item posted on the Oz’s website yesterday afternoon.

Meanwhile, News Corp’s new chief executive Peter Tonagh sent an email around to the troops saying Mitchell had communicated his decision to retire in September, and expressing the company’s regret.

“While we are disappointed that he will be leaving us, we of course respect Chris’ decision to devote more time to his family after many years of dedication to News. During his time as editor-in-chief, the Oz has flourished and is now deeply ingrained as a critical part of the national discourse.”

It’s worth nothing this missive was sent out only in the voice of Tonagh, and not of News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller. The two New Corp execs were ridiculed last week for issuing a press release that listed them both as the originators of several choice quotes. — Myriam Robin

Chinese government articles, sorry, ads, in the Fairfax press. The Russian government has been buying ad space to insert news-like features into Fairfax papers for a while, so perhaps it’s no wonder other countries are getting in too.

A full-page ad on page 12 of today’s Sydney Morning Herald features news direct from the Xinhua News Agency, the official press agency of the Chinese government. The strapline above the ad describes it as a “Special Advertising Feature by Xinhua News Agency” …

specialadfeaturexinhua

Speaking on the Russia Behind The Headlines arrangement, SMH editor-in-chief Darren Goodsir told Crikey last year that the sponsored stories wouldn’t confuse readers.

“We’ve taken a very robust line in our news and opinion pages on the actions of the Russian government … We’re distributing a publication produced by Russian organisations about Russia, that in no way affects or influences the editorial independence of The Age or the Sydney Morning Herald. And I think our readers know that, and the publication is adequately labeled so that the reader is in no doubt as to the distinction of this advertising supplement. “

— Myriam Robin

Sliding doors. Fairfax’s Ben Grubb is the latest of Australia’s tech writers to recently move into PR or away from the tech writing scene. He announced yesterday he was moving to Melbourne PR and equity-raising firm Media and Capital Partners, and he’s far from the first tech writer to be gobbled up. The firm has also, in recent months, hired former Oz tech journo Fran Foo, news.com.au tech reporter Andrew Ramage, and Technology Spectator writer Harrison Polites, and is headed up in Melbourne by former Fairfax tech editor Asher Moses. Meanwhile Gizmodo editor Luke Hopewell has been hired by Twitter to curate its new “Moments” feature. In February, the Oz’s long-serving tech editor Stuart Kennedy left after no fewer than 12 years at the helm — the Oz‘s tech section has since been supplied by Tech Spec. And ZDNet’s former journo Josh Taylor has, of course, been lured away from writing about tech by Crikey. It’s something of a changing of the guard, though given the cost-cutting at many major publishers, one wouldn’t count on all being replaced. — Myriam Robin

Charlie Sheen’s pension. Memo to Channel Seven News: if you’re going to use the word “penchant” to sound all fancy, you better learn how to pronounce it correctly. Otherwise, you’ll likely do what you did last night and tell the world that the “troubled” HIV-positive actor Charlie Sheen has a “pension” for sex and drugs. Which we believe to be incorrect — or, if not, desperately unfair. — Guy Rundle

Front page of the day. A warm welcome …

thenational

Journalism

Aug 13, 2015

5 comments

Has Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood earned his Maserati?

Fairfax’s underlying net profit eased nearly 4% to $143.4 million after tax, off the back of a 5.3% drop in revenues to $1.88 billion, but those who hope Fairfax’s most prestigious papers will be around for decades to come will be heartened by today’s full-year results. They show the metropolitan media publishing division, which includes The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, has stemmed the tide of red ink. Although the division is still struggling, rising digital revenues (from its paywalls and ads) are having an impact. But tied up in that improvement is the still-surging performance of Fairfax’s Domain online and print real estate business, which is second in the market behind News Corp’s REA Group.

Metropolitan media reported a 52% increase in earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation. Metro publishing costs fell 7% for the year and 28% over the last three years, according to Hywood. In comments this morning, he credited the closure of the Tullamarine and Chullora printing sites and the adoption of “new ways of delivering our journalism and content”. On a revenue basis, the division was up 3.3% to $829.9 million — from $803.2 million last year.

According to figures provided in the investor briefing, when it comes to advertising, digital revenues for the division are drawing close to those in print. Print advertising revenues (taking into account the addition of MMP’s newspapers) fell only $1 million (or 0.5%) — from $280.7 million to $279.4 million, while digital ad revenues soared 22.6%, to $219.9 million. But digital subscriptions, while growing strongly, are still chump change in the equation. The division  grew digital subscriptions revenue by 36.2%, but it still brings in only $32.7 million. That’s with 159,000 paid digital subscribers across The Age and the SMH, as of early August. Print circulation, meanwhile, brought in 3.2% less money than it did a year ago — $197.5 million.

Adding up the the revenue from digital subscriptions and digital advertising shows digital revenue grew $54.2 million over the year — meanwhile revenues from print advertising and print circulations fell only $4.8 million. While Fairfax has been talking up the effects of its Fairfax of the Future strategic plans for some years, this year’s results show signs digital revenues in the metropolitan division are growing faster than print revenues are declining. It’s possible this rate of growth isn’t sustainable — while print advertising revenues only fell 0.5% this year, they’d have fallen 11% if not for the acquisition of Metro Media Publishing’s suburban newspapers by Domain.

Domain, housed within metropolitan media, reported full-year growth of 45%, bringing in total revenues of $223.3 million. There was a 16% increase in property listings and a 20% increase in the number of property agents who subscribed to Domain. Fairfax’s briefing states that its listings-market penetration was 85% over the year, up from 68% in June 2014, bringing it closer to total coverage of the property market. The briefing also boasts the real estate site is catching up to (majority News Corp-owned) market-leader REA — there’s now a 33% gap between the two in unique audience for their ads, according to Nielsen online rankings.

As in previous years, a great deal of detail is provided about the Domain business, including its costs of $140.3 million, which have grown at about the same rate as its revenue. Total EBITDA on the sub-division is $85.9 million, from slightly improved margins of 36% in print and 39.6% in digital. It comprises a small but quickly growing part of the total metropolitan business, helping prop up the newspapers through the fuel of the property boom.

Overall, Hywood said that — excluding closed operations and disposals — Fairfax had “reported top-line growth for continuing businesses for a full year for the first time in eight years”, with underlying revenues up 0.3% to $1.84 billion, and key to that was the 45% jump in revenue at Domain.

On the Masareti front, Fairfax’s executives didn’t get a bonus for sacking people this year. Last year, several of the company’s key executives were awarded a cumulative $2.4 million pay rise after clearing hurdles for incentive pay in Fairfax’s strategic plan, which controversially included successfully shrinking the workforce. Coming at a time the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance was being told the company couldn’t guarantee any enterprise bargaining agreement pay rises at all for the year, Hywood and several others were excoriated in the press. This year, Fairfax’s top executives’ total pay packets declined slightly. They weren’t awarded performance shares and options, as their incentive pay only vests “on satisfaction of performance conditions which are to be tested in future years”.