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News

Aug 9, 2016

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The end is nigh. In May, Fairfax chief executive Greg Hywood signalled the company would in the future be axing its Monday-to-Friday editions of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. “It should surprise no one, and certainly not us, that the seven-day-a-week publishing model will eventually give way to weekend-only or more targeted printing for most publishers,” he said. While Hywood said an announcement on this was “some time away”, it was “inevitable”.

Within Fairfax, the suspense is building. One theory is that a date for closing the Monday-to-Friday editions will be announced tomorrow. Fairfax has its full-year profit results briefing at 10.30am. — Myriam Robin

Ailes probed. When the Murdoch clan forced Roger Ailes to leave Fox News and 21st Century Fox (but remain as a consultant until 2018), they no doubt thought they were being their usual clever selves by greasing his exit with a US$40 million payment. But now, New York magazine is reporting that 21st Century Fox executives and auditors are finding that Ailes spent millions of dollars of the company’s money paying off women who had complained about sexual harassment, monitoring and harassing critics of Ailes, and running a so-called black ops against them. New York magazine, quoting what it said were three separate sources, said this was done without the knowledge of anyone at 21st Century Fox.

And investigations have started into another New York magazine report from late last week on how Ailes was able to use Fox News money to buy the silence of a woman who complained about him, without the deal coming to the attention of 21st Century Fox management and board, seeing the package was worth more than US$3.1 million. The woman concerned, Laurie Luhn, was a guest booker for Fox News. She claimed Ailes had sexually harassed her for 20 years. She was paid a severance package in 2011, before the Murdoch empire was split into News Corp and 21st Century Fox.

The Financial Times reported:

“‘A settlement of that size that involved a complaint against Roger Ailes would hopefully have come to the attention of senior officials of 21st Century Fox,’ says Charles Elson, director of Center for Corporate Governance, University of Delaware. ‘That it didn’t from a controls standpoint raises concerns.’ John Coffee, director of the Center on Corporate Governance at Columbia University Law School, says Fox’s auditors should have known about the payment. ‘This should have gone up to the audit committee very quickly. It should have been looked at.'”

If this story is true, Fox faces possible investigation by US corporate regulator, the Securities and Exchange Commission as to why the settlement wasn’t included in the accounts and who enabled it to be omitted and why. The claimed cover-up should be of considerable interest to the Murdochs, especially co-chair Lachlan Murdoch who is in Australia for the News Corp faux in-house Walkley Awards to company journalists. — Glenn Dyer

The numbers are in. News Corp Australia saved $40 million in operating costs over the past financial year, as well as a 5% reduction in core costs in the June half year, the company revealed at its full-year results briefing this morning. CEO Robert Thomson said News Corp Australia was looking at further cost reductions through “shared services”, but did not elaborate. The company closed seven Leader newspapers in Melbourne this year, and embarked on a redundancy round in the latter part of last year that had 55 staff shown the door.

Thomson said the company would be looking for cost and other savings if allowed to buy the APN regional dailies and other papers. He said that would improve the company’s coverage of Northern Australia (Queensland) and was looking especially for synergies with REA Group in real estate in the new areas. CFO Bedi Singh said “higher prices and digital subscriptions”offset “print falls” in Australia in the year and quarter. Both Singh and Thomson said the company is looking at getting the rest of the 5% core savings in the next few months, meaning tens of millions of dollars more in cost cuts by early 2017. Once again News did not say if the various geographic parts of the newspaper business operated at a loss or a profit in the final quarter or full year.

The cost reductions come as advertising in the group continues to fall. Revenues at News Corp Australia fell 9% in local currency, and while digital ad revenues rose modestly, they were not enough to offset the loss of print revenues. One bright spot for the journalism businesses was the growth in digital subscriber numbers. In Australia, total digital subs across all newspapers rose 20.8% to 272,700.

The company said print volumes fell globally and circulation revenues were higher because of a combination of more paywall and other digital subscribers, plus price rises for the paywalls and for the newspapers.

Both Thomson and Singh emphasised that the company’s future was in being diversified and digital.

News Corp globally reported full year total revenues of US$8.3 billion, down 3% compared with 2014-15’s US$8.5 billion. Profit from continuing operations fell to $US235 million for the 20915-16 year compared with US$367 million in 2014. — Glenn Dyer and Myriam Robin

Foxtel pooh-poohs revenue. Guess what: Foxtel, 50% owned by News Corp and managed by its appointees (Telstra has the other half, it reports its results on Thursday), is now being managed for subscription growth, according to News CEO Robert Thomson, with a solid dose of cost control. Revenue is being sacrificed to keep subscriber numbers rising for both the regular Foxtel offering and the Presto streaming-video joint venture with Seven.

Speaking during a post-results briefing, Thomson said Foxtel had a 5% rise in cable and satellite subscribers in the year to June 30, but the churn (the loss of subscribers that have to be replaced) soared to more than 14% in the year from just under 10% as people who had signed up on a no contract basis, failed to renew. Both Thomson and News CFO Bedi Singh made it clear that Foxtel was being managed to “drive subscriber numbers” and control costs.

“Foxtel will remain focused on increasing subscriptions,” Thomson told the briefing.

News said Foxtel had “more than 2.9 million” subscribers, but again there was no breakdown between cable and satellite subscribers and those subscribing to the Presto streaming video joint venture owned with Seven West Media. News said the average revenue per user (a key metric for subscription TV) fell 3% to US$89 in the year. That underlines how the pay TV operator is being run for subscriber numbers and not earnings and revenue growth. — Glenn Dyer

Video of the day. John Oliver says he’s not a journalist — but relies on the work of those who are. “The media is a food chain that would fall apart without local papers.”oliverjournalism

In May, Fairfax chief executive Greg Hywood signalled the company would in the future be axing its Monday-to-Friday editions of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. “It should surprise no one, and certainly not us, that the seven-day-a-week publishing model will eventually give way to weekend-only or more targeted printing for most publishers,” he said. While Hywood said an announcement on this was “some time away”, it was “inevitable”.

Within Fairfax, the suspense is building. One theory is that a date for closing the Monday-to-Friday editions will be announced tomorrow. Fairfax has its full-year profit results at 10.30am.

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.

Print

Mar 21, 2016

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When Fairfax’s union journalists went on a wildcat strike last Thursday, CEO Greg Hywood, who oversees an organisation that has aggressively cut journalist jobs during his tenure, said a further 120 redundancies were necessary for the business.

“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.”

But Fairfax’s CEO wasn’t always so willing to adapt to the times.

In 1980, 2124 members of the Australian Journalists’ Association went on strike for five weeks to protest against the introduction of “visual display terminals” (computers) in newsrooms.

The Australian Journalists’ Association, as it tended to do during long strikes, started a strike paper, The Journalists’ Clarion, issues of which were produced in each state. The Melbourne copies of it are notable for its bylines, the most intriguing of which is that of one Greg Hywood from the Financial Review

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Hywood appears several times in the seven issues published.

The Clarion was filled with ads of organisations in support of the strike. Its editorials extolled the strike’s virtue and provided information to readers and journalists about the latest developments.

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The journalistic articles had a heavy focus on industrial issues, particularly the negative effects of VDUs …

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Apart from Hywood, another familiar name was that of business guru and editor Alan Kohler, who wrote on Friday that the market would decide the size of Fairfax’s newsrooms. Also contributing were a heavy-hitters Robert Gottliebsen, Anne Summers, Michael Gordon, Mark Baker, Laurie Oakes, Greg Baum, Wendy Harmer, Julianne Schultz, Peter Coster, Mike Sheahan and Michael Gill, who’d go on to be a Fairfax exec. Crikey reads in the Monthly that Andrew Bolt was also on strike in 1980, though, alas, his name isn’t in the Clarion. He has been a critic of the strikes, which on the weekend he wrote were “a crazy response to an unrealistic aim”.

Companies

Mar 2, 2016

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The changes to Australia’s media ownership laws proposed by Communications Minister Mitch Fifield yesterday were, he said, the biggest in a generation. In question time, the Prime Minister called them “micro-economic reform”. Both were, shall we say, gilding the lily.

The proposals are more or less what was expected: the 75% national reach rule for television broadcasters and “two out of three” (only being able to control two of radio, print or television in a radio licence area) are to be dumped, but regional television broadcasters face higher local content requirements if they merge or change hands. That’s it. Compared to the Howard government’s 2006 package — which initially included dumping two out of three as well — it’s a decidedly minimalist package. The “four or five”rule — the number of newspaper, TV and radio groups in a radio licence area must be four in regional areas, five in capital cities — will remain, there are no changes to anti-siphoning, ownership limits remain confined to the dinosaur media of newspapers, TV and radio.

Removing the 75% reach rule is, strictly speaking, micro-economic reform — it’s an ancient rule from the television dark ages that everyone, except powerful incumbents like Kerry Stokes who want to keep their competitors shackled, believes should go. Labor proposed to get rid of it some years ago. It will enable the merger of the second-tier of commercial television broadcasters — WIN, Prime, Southern Cross — with the metropolitan broadcasters. Nine, for example, has been linked to both Southern Cross and WIN, whose owner Bruce Gordon also has a large chunk of Ten as well as 14.9% of Nine (and who seems increasingly frenetic to do some sort of deal — to the point of suing Nine over the latter’s plans to stream its live broadcast across Australia, as Seven is already doing).

Such mergers will trigger higher local content requirements in regional areas under the changes proposed by Fifield. In truth, though, local television content is a subsidiary issue in the bush — ACMA found that more than 90% of people in regional communities were satisfied with access to local content. It’s local newspapers that are a more important source of local news than broadcasters. And the reform package won’t address the biggest threat to diversity and content in regional areas: the slow implosion of print. Fairfax and APN are the two major regional print princes, followed by News Corp. Fairfax is gutting its regional media group to cut costs — with another $60 million on the menu this year. APN put its 16 dailies in regional NSW and Queensland on the market — after writing down the value by more than $50 million last week. News owns 14.9% of APN (and has lost millions in doing so), so it is the logical buyer of the APN papers but will need the approval of the competition regulator.

The regional dailies, bi and tri-weeklies and weeklies controlled by these princes of print are the prime news source for regional TV and radio newsrooms, along with the ABC. Should print decline, then regional radio and TV decline as well.

The lack of movement on anti-siphoning has already upset News Corp and Foxtel. Anti-siphoning (a set of restrictions that prevents pay-TV licensees from bidding freely for sports rights for listed events) is, to borrow Mungo MacCallum’s phrase, the unflushable turd of Australian media policy, despite the repeated efforts of communications ministers to deal with it. The anti-siphoning list still contains relics like the FA Cup Final, Wimbledon, the US Open, the Davis Cup and the US Masters on it, as well as higher-profile Australian sporting events that mean sporting rights holders are forced to deal first with commercial television broadcasters, reducing the competitive value of their content. With Foxtel under increasing pressure from competitors like Netflix and downloading, live sport remains the one guaranteed revenue driver for pay TV, making reform to the anti-siphoning list more important than ever for News Corp (which also wholly owns Fox Sports, which provides sports content to Foxtel). The government’s decision to leave any anti-siphoning changes on the back burner means yet another parliamentary term will end without any changes to the scheme, last substantially changed by Stephen Conroy when he remade the list in 2010.

As for two out of three, that will open the way to News Corp and Fairfax acquiring or merging with a television network. Both News and Fairfax currently have radio licences in the major capital city markets (News through Lachlan Murdoch’s Illyria, which owns Nova). How much value such mergers would yield, however, is a real question. The history of changes to Australian media laws is also the history of disastrous, value-destroying media mergers pursued by excited moguls and would-be moguls, right up to CVC’s purchase of Nine from James Packer following the 2006 changes. Yesterday, Seven’s Tim Worner dismissed the changes, saying they “might be great for the deal junkies out there” — Worner is only interested in cuts to television licence fees, not in seeing his competitors get more regulatory options for expansion. Labor gave the TV networks an election year licence fee cut in 2010. Don’t rule out another election-year cut in the May budget, especially with Fifield yesterday referring to the fee as a “super-profits tax” rather than a fee for making money off a public asset — spectrum.

And what is the market telling us? As Crikey pointed out earlier this week, the shares of all major media groups have fallen in the past month as this legislation has wandered through the government — bar one, Seven West Media, Kerry Stokes’ TV and print love child. And the biggest loser in the same time has been News Corp: its Australian shares have plunged 20% in the past three months, and more than 12% in the last four weeks. Being the biggest prince of print, the potentate of pay-TV and the overlord of online real estate doesn’t impress anyone in the markets these days …

Journalism

Dec 3, 2015

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Fairfax editorial director Sean Aylmer will be addressing the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newsrooms this afternoon as the company tries to halt an uprising over the forced redundancies of several journalists who work on its Drive section as a result of a new joint venture under which content will be provided by a company only 50% owned by Fairfax.

As Crikey reported yesterday, Fairfax is entering into a 50-50 joint venture with themotorreport.com.au and will license the Drive brand to the new company. Drive runs in the Fairfax metro papers on Saturdays and employs around half-a-dozen journalists who produce news, features and other content for the supplement.

But no more. Crikey is told that on Tuesday that six Drive journalists were taken aside and told their publication was being outsourced, with Fairfax making them all redundant. They could, however, apply for jobs with the new joint venture.

While editorial is being outsourced, Crikey is told ad sales for the section will continue to be housed within Fairfax. Staff are angry about what this says about the company’s priorities. The changes were a key topic of discussion at last night’s Sydney Morning Herald Christmas party.

One Fairfax staffer says journalists are “furious” that editorial copy used by Fairfax’s websites and papers will now be written by people working for a different company. The haphazard nature of the change has also drawn journalists’ ire. “It looks like the company didn’t even think twice about what this means for their ‘independent, always’ brand,” one journalist said.

Journalists also fear outsourcing of editorial content in this manner will continue throughout other parts of the papers. We asked Fairfax this morning whether this was likely, but a spokesman declined to comment beyond what was in Fairfax’s release yesterday.

Journalism

Aug 13, 2015

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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”.

crikey15

Jul 13, 2015

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In August last year, Fairfax announced it was rolling out a new, centralised publishing system that would allow it to operate its regional empire more cheaply and efficiently.

Fairfax’s release, which said it was building a “modern, stronger” regional and suburban newspaper network, received little attention at the time. But by October, when the job loss announcements started, the full impact of the model became apparent.

In a bid to shore up its balance sheet, Fairfax was cutting deep into what many journalists consider core newsroom functions. While the company initially said the cuts would focus on back-of-house, leaving more journalists than ever in the newsroom, many countered that the removal of roles like subeditors, photographers and editors would leave journalists scrambling to maintain quality.

Ignoring its critics, Fairfax continued to reduce headcount through much of 2014 and early 2015. It shows little sign of slowing down. In the 2014-15 financial year, more than 100 editorial redundancies have been reported in Fairfax’s Australian Community Media business.

These include, in October 2014, at least 13 editorial redundancies in the NSW Riverina papers. In March this year, another 62 editorial redundancies were announced in regional Victoria — the deepest cuts yet, which sliced some newsrooms in half. By May this year, another 34 editorial redundancies followed in south-east New South Wales. Storied titles like The Border Mail, The Courier (in Ballarat) and the Illawarra Mercury lost scores of reporters, editors and photographers. Add those up, and 109 journalists have been let go or are about to be.

The cuts continue. In the first three weeks of the 2015-16 financial year, Fairfax has announced 22 editorial redundancies in regional titles in South Australia, and another 37 editorial redundancies in suburban and regional titles operating out of Sydney, making a total of 59 expected editorial redundancies.

It’s now nearly a year into what was described as an 18-month process of reform across the Australian Community Media network. Tasmania and the rest of New South Wales are bracing for their restructuring announcements.

For a long time, the Australian media believed it was largely immune to the traumatic downsizing of the print press taking place in other parts of the world. While redundancy rounds were common from 2008, it took the massive cuts in 2012 to shake the media out of a sense that it had managed to avoid the worst. More than 1800 journalists took redundancy from Fairfax that year. News Corp reduced its journalistic head count by 1000 positions over the same period. The majority of the cuts came from metropolitan newspapers, with regional papers largely shielded.

La Trobe University journalism academic Dr Lawrie Zion heads the New Beats project, which since 2012 has been tracking the post-redundancy careers of Australian journalists. He says regional newsrooms were protected for a long time by the fact that their audience still largely reads the paper in print form, unlike the metropolitan papers, most of whom have far more online than print readers. “Regional papers remained relatively successful,” he told Crikey. “They had a lot of display and classified advertising, and their communities weren’t going online for the product to the same extent. Their importance to regional communities remained high.”

But the cost-cutting has come to regional Australia. And it’s what protected regional papers for so long — their readers’ heavy reliance on them for local news given a lack of alternatives — that now makes the regional cuts so costly.

“In the broad scheme of things, it’s 10 jobs here, 12 jobs here … it’s not huge numbers,” Zion said. “But the local impact is very, very high.”

Zion and his collaborating academics are about to embark on a new section of New Beats, which will investigate “the extent and impact of journalism job losses in regional Australia”. “It’s clear this is becoming a much more important part of the picture than it seemed at first,” Zion said.

Speaking anecdotally, he says there doesn’t appear to be the same post-journalism employment options for regional journalists as there are in the cities. “It appears that what happens more often is people break apart from the media entirely,” Zion said, instead of going into related roles like public relations as often happens in the cities.

It’s been estimated that since 2012, 20% of journalists in the print media industry have been made redundant.

Journalism

Jul 8, 2015

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Last week, Treasurer Joe Hockey won his defamation case against Fairfax in relation to two tweets and a poster using the eye-catching headline “Treasurer for Sale”. The articles under the headlines detailed the fundraising activities of the North Sydney Forum, whose members pay for privileged access to Hockey.

Although the tweets contained a link to the online version of the article and, in the case of the second tweet, a summary of the linked article, Federal Court Justice Richard White held that the tweets should be considered separately without reference to the articles they hyperlinked.

The decision has sparked renewed debate about the adequacy of defamation laws in Australia and concerns about whether the decision has exposed ordinary users of social media to liability. It also raises questions about whether we need reform to better protect political debate in a democratic society where we don’t have the right to freedom of speech.

This is not the first time a court has ruled that a tweet can be defamatory. In 2014, Judge Michael Elkaim of the NSW District Court awarded $105,000 to a schoolteacher who was defamed by a former student through posts on Twitter and Facebook. However, because the Hockey decision is the first time an Australian politician has successfully sued for defamation over a tweet, it is worth considering whether defamation laws might be used to halt genuine political debate on social media.

In the social media age, what was once private is now public, and what was once an idea shared with a room of people is now an idea disseminated to the world. In such an age, how can ordinary social media users participate in open political debate, through a medium designed to empower users to create and share ideas, if they can be slapped with a lawsuit from a politician?

The fallout from Hockey’s “win” will probably make editors think twice about the headlines they plaster on posters and the 140 characters they use to entice readers to click on a link, but it shouldn’t change the stakes for ordinary social media users who are freely disseminating their honest opinions.

As White explained, the general principles of defamation law require that an ordinary, reasonable reader would understand the defamatory meanings imputed by the tweets. If the publication is a serious publication, the reader may be taken to read it more cautiously and critically.

That’s not to say that individual tweets are not capable of being defamatory in their own context, but the ordinary reader would not infer the same meaning from a random tweet as she would a newspaper article supposedly reporting facts rather than opinions.

Furthermore, Twitter users may be able to rely on the defence of honest opinion, which is that they are expressing an opinion that they honestly hold, which is based on proper material.

However, this protection for ordinary Twitter users remains unclear. There are close to 2.8 million Twitter users in Australia, which means there are 2.8 million “publishers” who would benefit from clearer defamation laws. But perhaps the question is not just whether those are the laws that need reform, but also whether Parliament should focus on protecting “speech” in its many forms in this digital age.

There are 23 million Australians who would benefit by having their right to political debate and opinion protected. This protection could come in the form of narrowing rights in defamation, but it could also come from widening our implied constitutional right to political communication.

Our current defamation laws favour the rich and the litigious, yet opponents of a bill of rights or similar legislation argue that it will increase litigation by individuals.

Wouldn’t it be better to have legislation that gives individuals a right to free speech and a mechanism to defend it, instead of legislation that allows those people who can afford the legal fees the right to teach naughty newspapers a lesson in how limited our right to public debate can be?

Giri Sivaraman is a principal, and Nita Green a trainee lawyer with Maurice Blackburn Lawyers in the firm’s employment and industrial practice.

crikey15

Jun 18, 2015

5 comments

It’s been nearly a week since revelations of the government paying people smugglers first surfaced in the Fairfax press, and the Labor opposition has yet to use the information to effectively hammer the government.

Of course, by now we know why. Another scoop in the Fairfax papers found Labor also might have paid people smugglers while in government. Labor, like the Coalition, refused to confirm or deny the allegations, saying it would be illegal to comment. Illegal or not, if Labor paid off people smugglers, it would make it difficult for the opposition to harangue the government over the issue.

This leaves the media as the main avenue for applying further pressure on the government. But the media has a spotty record in forcing issues where neither side of politics is supportive. On coal-seam gas and gay marriage, for example, the media has been crucial to applying pressure on politicians of both parties to explain and defend their positions. But on other issues, such as metadata retention, consistent support from some parts of the media (and a few minor-party politicians) hasn’t translated into significant political pressure.

The issues the media raises that do gain political traction are largely the ones where a groundswell of grassroots support is also at play, says former Howard staffer Paula Matthewson.

“The problem with this issue is people don’t care how the government stops the boats, as long as they do,” she told Crikey this week. “People don’t care. They agree with Tony Abbott when he says, ‘by hook or by crook’. If they didn’t agree, they wouldn’t accept what’s going on in offshore detention centres.”

“Australians, for whatever reason, want the boats stopped. And that’s why this issue is so hard for the media to push.”

Other factors also make it a very difficult issue to keep on the agenda, says investigative journalist Wendy Bacon. It’s a national security story, involving contractors and intelligence services, and very few journalists have the capacity to investigate thoroughly, she says. “There’s only about 10 journos in Australia who have the capacity to get out there with a few days’ notice and keep that story going.”

Since last week, the people smuggler bribery story has largely disappeared from the front pages of the Fairfax and News Corp press. But it’s still prominent this morning on the ABC and Guardian websites.

Bacon cautions things still have a way to go. The Greens have ordered a production-of-documents motion in the Senate relating to the the bribery allegations, which might unearth more information. And while the Labor and Liberal parties aren’t interested in talking about it, senators like Sarah Hanson-Young are, Bacon notes.

It’s a point also made by Matthewson, who says issues need champions to stay relevant. Such champions can come from the community, but there’s no reason why they can’t come from the minor parties. The democratisation of information and publication have made it easier than ever for champions to emerge — on asylum seeker policy and coal-seam gas, grass-roots groups have helped disseminate information far more comprehensively than the mainstream media often has.

Certain media outlets and personalities have historically had a better track record at making something a political issue, whether or not the opposition is supportive. For example, Alan Jones has historically been able to draw attention to things few parties are keen to talk about, like coal-seam gas or disability care. His strength, Matthewson says, lies in his closeness, whether real or perceived, to the views of voters. Partly this is about his medium — talkback radio is arguably more democratic than many other forms of media, even if the demographics that listen to it are rather narrow. The influence of Four Corners should also not be underestimated — many of its investigations have helped build sometimes unstoppable political pressure, though, of course, episodes covering issues with no clear solutions haven’t tended to be as influential.

Social media, particularly Facebook, has also become influential in recent years, Matthewson says. Issues like climate change and same-sex marriage have been kept on the agenda despite neither party wanting to talk about them recently, largely because of the pressure of citizens through social media, which has bled though to some parts of the press, she says. Again, it’s retail politics — issues that resonate with the public manage to stay on the agenda.

“I’m not suggesting the voter is always right — clearly they’re not. But if public sentiment is there, everyone listens,” Matthewson said.

“In those situations it doesn’t matter whether or not the opposition is running with or against something. It’s about the longer-term issue of changing community views.”