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Journalism

Jun 7, 2017

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Popular Fairfax columnist Alan Stokes has written his last column for The Sydney Morning Herald, as one of the victims of the latest round of cuts at Fairfax Media.

Stokes, who had written for the The Australian Financial Review before moving back to the Herald, where he’d also previously worked, wrote movingly about his battle with his mental health earlier this year — one of more than 400 columns — and wrote his final column as a “love letter” to his readers:

“A newspaper is at its core a community of readers who share a trust that what they read will be honest, open and fair; that issues will be treated on their merits, not passed through some biased filter.

“The community of Herald readers is constantly being replenished. Their loyalty astounds me. Members age and move on, while technology brings in new ones.

“I believe as long as the Herald holds true to its proud history of listening to its community, it will survive in some form. But that growth and change will occur without me.”

Cartoonist Alan Moir has been hit by the cuts, tweeting this morning that he will now only appear in the paper on Saturdays. Moir has been an editorial cartoonist for the Herald since 1984, and is a two-time Walkley Award winner.

Among the many decades of experience walking out the doors of Fairfax over the next few weeks will be Sydney Morning Herald court reporter Louise Hall, who has been working for the Herald for more than 12 years.

AFL reporter at The Age Rohan Connolly also took a redundancy, and will finish at the end of the month. He tweeted yesterday that he would continue to work in radio for 1116 SEN, on the Marngrook Footy Show and some writing:

The Age has been a massive part of my life from the time I was 22. I have loved what the place has stood for, the quality it has pursued, and the people I have worked with. But we all know these are perilous times for newspapers, and the simple facts are that after that long, this is an opportunity which I literally can’t afford not to pursue.”

Veteran music writer Bernard Zuel will be leaving Fairfax after 25 years, where most recently he’s been the senior music writer and reviewer.

Herald digital editor Stephen Hutcheon is leaving too. Hutcheon was the founding editor of the Herald‘s tablet app, and is a previous Beijing correspondent for the Herald and The Age.

Sydney Morning Herald senior journalist Kelsey Munro will be leaving this week. She has been editor of News Review, acting education editor and reported on state politics.

Adam Morton, a senior writer for The Age, also finishes up this week after 12 years, tweeting that he had enjoyed his relationship with readers, and suggesting readers subscribe.

As expected, the national video desk will be cut, with national editor Simon Morris announcing he will be leaving at the end of the week. Morris said he was “happy and sad” to be leaving.

Deputy production editor Peter Harrison will also be leaving.

Over the next few days, Fairfax management will be assessing whether they need to make any forced redundancies or redeploy staff in order to meet their targets. Fairfax announced in May it would cut 125 positions to help meet $30 million in savings, as well as reviewing columnists’ and other contributors’ contracts. The cuts will reduce the metropolitan newsrooms by a quarter, and prompted a seven-day wildcat strike by staff.

Fairfax did not have any comment on the departures.

UPDATE, JUNE 8, 2017: Deputy news director Liam Phillips and journalist Kim Arlington have already left the Sydney Morning Herald. SMH tablet editor Connie Levett, who did a stint as the south-east Asia correspondent and has done various editing roles for the paper, has also taken a voluntary redundancy. National social media editor Georgia Waters will be leaving tomorrow after 10 years, and Herald urban affairs reporter Leesha McKenny also finishes up tomorrow. The Australian Financial Review‘s Fleur Anderson announced on Facebook she had also taken a redundancy, saying that after 20 years as a journalist she would be moving on to something new.

UPDATE, JUNE 9, 2017: At The Age, picture editor Leigh Henningham finishes up today, and with photographer Penny Stephens, who has worked for the paper since 1996, will be leaving at the end of the month. Former editor and senior writer for The Age Clare Kermond is going, and The Age‘s state political correspondent Josh Gordon and court reporter Jane Lee have also announced they will be leaving. and senior correspondent Daniel Flitton leaves this week.

In Sydney, Sydney Morning Herald photographer Peter Rae has also taken a voluntary redundancy, and senior writer for the Herald and Good Weekend Stephanie Wood is also going, as is Fairfax weekend editor Mary-Anne Toy, who is also a previous China correspondent. The Sun-Herald‘s investigative reporter Eamonn Duff will also be leaving. Federal political correspondent Heath Aston will leave next week.

UPDATE, JUNE 13, 2017: The Age columnist Martin Flanagan is yet another of the writers to be leaving Fairfax in the latest round of cuts. Writing his last reflection published over the weekend, he paid tribute to his brother Tim, and reflected on his 32-year career in his final sports column. Walkley-award winning health journalist Julia Medew is also leaving, as is The Age‘s science editor Bridie Smith and political editor Michael Gordon.

UPDATE, JUNE 15, 2017: Sydney Morning Herald managing editor Stuart Washington is among the latest confirmed to be leaving Fairfax in the latest round of cuts. Washington is a former business writer and is the media federal director of the journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. Beau Donnelly will be leaving The Age this week after seven years, The Age‘s homepage editor Dan Harrison finishes up today, and digital journalist Richard McLeish has already finished, as has reporter Deborah Gough after 30 years. The Age‘s health reporter Rania Spooner will have her last day tomorrow.

UPDATE, JULY 4, 2017: With the end of financial year now past, the majority of those who took voluntary redundancy in Fairfax’s most recent round of cost-cutting have now left the company. Adding to the list, The Sydney Morning Herald’s science editor Marcus Strom will finish at the end of this week. Fellow Herald journalists Jacqui Taffel, Melanie Mahoney, Inga Ting, Leigh Tonkin, Natalie Hambly and Sarah Thomas have left the company. The Age’s Stathi Paxinos and Linda Pearce have also gone, as has Brisbane Times video producer Scott Beveridge and national digital editor Carlos Monteiro.

Journalism

May 9, 2017

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When Fairfax journalists walked out last week on their wildcat strike, boss Greg Hywood declared that the papers and websites would continue to publish as usual. And they have — sorta. 

Despite some clangers, like the front-page headline spelling mistake we saw in The Sydney Morning Herald on Friday (“economy”) and a mealy-mouthed apology in Saturday’s Age and Sydney Morning Herald informing readers that some usual features would be missing, every edition has been printed.

There are some well-worn strategies for filling the pages when staff go on strike, after the pre-filed copy runs out. Fairfax editorial managers have some experience. Journalists went on strike on in March last year for three days due to a plan to cut 120 jobs. In 2014, journalists and photographers went on strike for 24 hours to protest against cuts to photographers.

Step One: Put the editors to work.

Managers, section editors and international correspondents are exempt from the strike action, and they have still been working. So instead of editing the paper and their sections, they have been pulled back into action writing yarns.

Senior editor Mark Hawthorne and BusinessDay editor Mathew Dunckley have been prolific in filling the gaps, as have correspondents Jewel Topsfield, Lindsay Murdoch and Paul McGeough.

Step Two: Bring out the holders.

Every newspaper has stories in the queue for slow news days. Stories filed before the strike started on Wednesday afternoon have been trotted out all week. Neelima Choahan’s front-page story on Friday was one such yarn:

Step Three: Step up the syndicated and wire copy.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have well and truly got their money’s worth for their subscription to wire service AAP this week, even if just for the sports coverage. The Saturday Age almost entirely ran wire copy in its sports section this week, using half as many pages as the previous week.

All five stories on pages 4 and 5 of yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, including the front-page spill, were from AAP, as were all but one story on the same pages today.

And while syndicated copy from international papers has been become more common over the past few years, it’s really come into its own in the papers this week. Stories from The Telegraph in London, The Washington Post and The New York Times have all featured in early news pages as well as the world section. 

Step Four: Consolidate.

Even if it might not usually meet your usual news values, run it anyway. Stories from Fairfax’s regional and suburban papers have been given a good run this week in the metro mastheads. It’s only the metro journalists on strike, and Fairfax papers are allowed to use content from their regional and suburban partners.

There are fewer journalists at the Australian Financial Review on strike, and the SMH and Age are also using bylined copy from Fin writers to fill the pages. 

On Saturday, The Age ran a local story from suburban paper Star Weekly about Wyndham City Council on page 2.

Step Five: Scrape the very bottom of the barrel.

When all else fails, republish old articles and drafts. 

Yesterday’s My Small business section of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald published two stories by the editor of the section, Cara Waters, who is on strike with her colleagues.

One of the stories, about the downward trend in selling small businesses, was first published online back on April 27, and it appeared as the section lead yesterday in both papers.

Below it ran what Waters said she had only written as a draft — a budget wish list for some small business owners.

The same holds for cartoons. David Pope, also on strike, tweeted that his (dated) cartoon from budget time last year ran in the Canberra Times on Sunday to fill a gap left by the strike:

Today is the last day of the strike, with staff returning to work tomorrow.

Companies

May 8, 2017

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If TPG and its mysterious consortium mates can get to the starting line with its confusing partial offer for Fairfax Media, the $2.2 billion it is said to be offering for the Domain property business, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Financial Review (plus associated events and digital assets) will be the largest amount paid in the final round of ownership changes triggered by the Murdoch, sorry, Turnbull government’s proposed media law changes.

All other deals that would be possible if the media law changes clear Parliament — Nine Entertainment, Seven West media, Southern Cross, Prime Media, Ten network, WIN, Macquarie Media, Austereo, APN, and even News Corp Australia’s papers, plus its stakes in Fox Sports and half of Foxtel — would not go anywhere near the valuation TPG and its unknown supporters claim to want to pay for Fairfax’s properties. 

Such has been the collapse in the business models for newspapers, radio, TV (free to air and Pay) in recent years that each owner’s value is falling rapidly — but not the jewels in Fairfax in the shape of Domain, or REA Group, 61% owned by News Corp.

And the $2.2 billion (which is more than Fairfax was worth a year ago, when it was trading at 84 cents, with a market value of just under $2.1 billion) isn’t being “offered” because the business being bought is a stunning legacy media operation, but because the Domain property business is the only important online asset left in Australian hands, along with the news websites of the SMH and The Age. And with the likes of Amazon approaching Australia, a website with high visibility and earnings has more value than just a property/media business.

And in structuring its offer to Fairfax management in the way it has, TPG has acknowledged what Crikey pointed out earlier this year and in 2016 — that Domain needs the trio of papers as marketing tools for the online listings. And because of that, the AFR needs the production operations of the SMH and The Age to stay alive as a daily paper. Without those (as Fairfax realised late last year), the AFR is too expensive to produce and would lose a cost-effective print distribution system as well.

That is an understanding News Corp managers have been slow to realise with its 61%-owned online giant in REA Group. News is now moving quickly to more closely tie the links to its vast spread of papers to REA Group much in the way Fairfax has inserted Domain into the pages and websites of the SMH, Age and AFR. And News Corp managers know that without the daily tabloid operations in the major cities, the heavy loss-making operation that is the overstaffed Australian would have to close. It is being subsidised, like the AFR, but the production and distribution teams for the tabloids.

Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood was called into meetings with senior executives at the company’s Pyrmont headquarters on Sunday (driving into the building in his now legendary blue Maserati). After those talks he issued a memo to staff.

“Appropriately, the Fairfax board is reviewing the indicative proposal,” he said in his memo.”There is no certainty that the indicative proposal will result in an offer for Fairfax, what the terms of any offer would be, or whether there will be a recommendation by the Fairfax board. There is also no certainty that the indicative proposal is capable of being implemented given the complexity involved in splitting the businesses.”

News of the TPG approach should cause the Fairfax share price to rise this morning, but not by much because at Friday’s close of $1.06 (down 2.3%) the company was valued at $2.44 billion. The assets not wanted by TPG would not add very much to that valuation. The latest move from TPG follows up reported interest in April when it was revealed TPG had bought a 4.7% stake in Fairfax.

A rather silly editorial in the Weekend AFR attacked Fairfax’s striking journalists. Coming hours before the emergence of the latest TPG offer, the editorial was a model of ignorance of the realities of corporate life at Fairfax. There is only one worthwhile asset left on the books: not the trio of print mastheads, but Domain. Had it not been the core business left in Fairfax Media, the price would not have been anywhere near the suggested $2.2 billion (or 95 cents a share in cash) — in fact it would not have been made at all.

Yes, the Fairfax metro papers eke out a small profit (which is falling rapidly) on an EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation) basis, but that is an accounting fudge when the assets involved are not making an actual profit after the payment of costs such as interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation that more normal businesses have to provide for in their accounts.

The AFR editorialist wrote: “Amid all this, the Financial Review suggests there is a commercial model for quality journalism. Our print and digital readership is growing more quickly than any other national or metro masthead.”

The reality is that print sales are falling and Fairfax has stopped releasing digital subscription data to the the independent Audit Bureau, preferring to give publishers figures that could be as rubbery as Fairfax’s idea of profit. The rising readership of the print edition, as sales fall, is also a triumph of creative figuring. We can believe those assertions when full transparency is restored to all circulation and readership data, not just the ones massaged by management to look good.

Companies

May 8, 2017

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Fairfax Media CEO Greg Hywood

Things moved quickly on Saturday. By 6.30 in the evening, Fairfax Media chief executive Greg Hywood had confirmed a $2.2 billion takeover bid by US leveraged buyout group TPG Capital. The crew from TPG are asset traders — they are not there for the journalism.

In 2006, TPG bought Myer for $1.4 billion (their input was $450 million), sold the flagship Melbourne store for $425 million, stripped out the cash, loaded Myer up with debt, floated it on the sharemarket and turned $450 million into $2 billion in three years. The piece de resistance? When the Australian Tax Office came after them for $678 million and tried to freeze TPG’s accounts it was too late; they had siphoned it offshore.

TPG’s bid for Fairfax is complex and conditional. Yet the historic Australian media house is now “in play”. Its investment bankers will be running about, trying to tee up a rival offer, get an auction going. Meanwhile, striking journalists at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age — and a few from The Australian Financial Review — are unprotected. Fairfax is playing chicken. It has not taken them to the Fair Work Commission.

This is now a deadly game of bluff between management and journalists risking their redundancy packages, their financial futures, on a matter of principle. They are fighting the decision by management to sack 125 journalists and they are angry that Fairfax bosses have been enjoying pay rises while workers are being shown the door.

[Editorial bloodbath: Fairfax cuts run deep, staff walk off the job]

And they will not be happy about this: the top four executives of Fairfax Media were secretly given $6.7 million in share options in a transaction that the company failed to disclose in its annual report. The sneaky pay deal involved half of a $13.4 million options package awarded by the board.

The company’s last redundancy round was in April 2016 in which 120 employees either left or were fired. Two months later, at the end of June, a large tranche of executive options vested and Fairfax “cash-settled” them for chief executive Greg Hywood, general counsel Gail Hambly and chief financial officer David Housego.

Only 15.25 million share options were disclosed, however. Another 15.25 million “rights to options” were also cash-settled in favour of Hywood, Hambly and Housego, but these were not disclosed in the annual report.

Another executive, Allen Williams, formerly managing director of the Australian Metro Publishing business, was also a beneficiary. Sharemarket sources told michaelwest.com.au the secret options deal was “underhanded”.

Further, executives had “no skin in the game” in relation to the options as they never took equity in the company but the “notional” options, whose exercise hinged on the discretion of the board, were settled for cash.

Chairman Nick Falloon was asked for comment but was unavailable. A spokesman for the company denied on Friday there was a failure of disclosure and responded by email that the deal was “in the best interests of shareholders” (full questions and answers are at the bottom of the story).

On August 30 last year, a change of director’s interest notice was filed with the ASX for chief executive Greg Hywood. It revealed that Fairfax cash-settled 8 million options but did not include the other 8 million notional options. Cash proceeds were $5.6 million.

Including Fairfax exec Allen Williams’ entitlements, the options deal for the top four Fairfax executives was worth $13.4 million of which $6.7 million was not disclosed.

When it comes to sly remuneration practices, Fairfax management has form. A few years ago, while working at Fairfax, we wrote a story exposing the board for paying its executives dividends on unvested stock. Along with executives in a handful of other companies, Fairfax managers were effectively benefiting from remuneration they had not earned.

Striking journalists have expressed concern that, in sacking more journalists and reducing staff in the metro news division from 500 to 375, management was further abandoning its professed commitment to quality journalism.

The aim of the latest redundancy round is to cut $30 million from a metro media cost base of $130 million. At the interim results in March, Fairfax disclosed it was cash-flow positive (cash-flow for the half was $1 billion), was sitting on $118 million in cash and $147 million in long-term debt on a net asset base of $1 billion. It is not in bad shape, though if the weekday newspapers are closed the fall in ad revenue will entail further cost cuts.

[Fairfax shares spike after rumoured TPG takeover]

If fresh capital is raised in the partial spin-off of real estate classifieds business, Domain, it will bolster the group’s cash position (though an official decision on the sale is yet to be struck and guidance is for a pro-rata allocation to existing shareholders).

Last year, despite the sackings, chairman Nick Falloon and the company’s non-executive directors enjoyed a collective pay rise from $1.48 million to $1.64 million while disclosed pay for the top three executives rose from $4.8 million to $5.2 million.

As for the secret options, they were neither disclosed nor expensed. The cash cost to shareholders of the 2014 allocation was $10.7 million.

QUESTIONS TO FAIRFAX CHAIRMAN NICK FALLOON AND EMAIL RESPONSE BY A SPOKESMAN

1. Is it true that only half the options for Fairfax executives from financial years 2014, 2015 and 2016 were disclosed and expensed?

Spokesman: No

2. Why is it that only half of the 35.6m options held by three Fairfax executives from 2015 and 2016 appear in the company’s financial statements?

Spokesman: See above.

3. Why did the board elect to cash-settle the 15.25m options which vested after June 30, 2016, and also allow the 15.25 million notional options which were never issued to be cash-settled for $10.7 million?

Spokesman: It was in the best interests of shareholders.

4. Do you agree that this amounts to a “secret pay package”? If not, why not?

Spokesman: No. See answers 1, 2, 3.

5. Please explain how, in the present environment, Fairfax staff should not be upset at the rising pay of executives while deep staff cuts are taking place? Is the behaviour of the board and executive of Fairfax appropriate?

Spokesman: No comment.

All details relating to your questions were properly disclosed in the relevant remuneration reports to shareholders.

*Disclosure: this journalist was fired by Fairfax last year but does not deem himself to be a disaffected former employee.

*This article was originally published at Michael West

Companies

May 5, 2017

5 comments

In the wake of this week’s announcement the company will be slashing 125 editorial jobs, Fairfax has released* this statement to subscribers, assuring them that “quality journalism” won’t suffer as a result of the cuts:

Dear Fairfax Subscriber,

We’d like to take this opportunity to welcome you to the new-look Fairfax Media Group and unveil our brand-new, all-improved model for the future of modern media. As a valued Fairfax reader, you can look forward to enjoying exciting new features such as:

  • The Daily All-Liftouts Liftout. Stay up to date on the latest products and services from Fairfax’s corporate partners with this innovative new approach to advertorial. Every day in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, readers can enjoy sponsored content without the inconvenience of having to search for their favourite catalogue — every ad liftout will be combined into a single liftout of liftouts. Fifty advertising sections in one, to make navigating the modern world easier for YOU.
  • Guess The Story. Under the new model, Fairfax will make online news more exciting and agile by implementing its Guess The Story system for headline generation. With this system in place, editors will ensure that no headline provides any clue as to the content of the story. Enjoy the thrill of cryptic clues like “You Won’t Believe How This Government Department Solved Its Problems With One Weird Trick”, and “This Man Held A Press Conference In Canberra. What Happened Next Will Shock You”. The wait for a story to load becomes an adventure!
  • All Outrage, All The Time. Fairfax’s Opinion section has been restructured to better service today’s time-poor, entertainment-hungry readership. We promise the nation’s premier lineup of unreasonably angry columnists with poorer impulse control than any other media business in the country. Every day will provide eight more pages of non-stop apoplectic invective to get the blood pumping.
  • Lifestyle Plus. An expansion of Fairfax’s Lifestyle sections will complement the All-Liftouts Liftout with long-read features on Great New Holiday Destinations On A Junior Executive’s Budget, Latest Trends In Activewear, How To Get The Most Out Of Your Thermomix, Hairstyles To Ask For A Raise With, Renovating Your Church The Paleo Way, and many more.
  • Journo Corner. Informative new weekly column in which Fairfax’s resident journalist writes about the day-to-day escapades of life in the news trade. Learn all about what it’s really like to “follow a lead”, “get a scoop”, and “rewrite a press release”. There will also be one page every week dedicated to any stories that our journalist might come up with.
  • Reader-Selected Front Pages. Every day, readers can SMS ($0.45 per msg) to vote for the front page they want to see published the following morning. A new frontier in interactive publishing.
  • Streamlining of the Fairfax business model won’t mean any reduction in our world-class coverage of local and international sport — our new sports section will contain all the latest odds and special offers from every major bookmaker and, when space allows, scores.
  • Autoplay videos. Don’t worry, we’ll still have them!

*Via satirist Ben Pobjie

Journalism

Apr 18, 2017

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Grinding out an Easter editorial is perhaps the most tiresome chore for leader writers. What can there possibly be that’s new to say? Every year we’re bowled up the same lame stuff about the challenges and consolations of faith. “Now, more than ever”, “in these troubled times”, “the pressures of modern life”, “this special time of reflection”, “the power of love”, blah blah blah.

There’s no deadline pressure because the task of writing these annual doses of drivel can be tackled well ahead of publication. The content only needs to be timely, not topical. The odds of all those plodding paragraphs suddenly being rendered redundant by the Second Coming are pretty slim. Likewise, the arrival of Armageddon. The end of the world would also be the end of The Word.

Yet, like cows mindlessly milling about waiting to be milked, our newspapers insist on trotting out their lofty Easter editorials, each as banal and formulaic as the next. Roll the cliche-spinning arm over, bung a drippy heading on it and forget about the whole boring ritual until next year. Nobody cares.

Which is why this petulant par in The Weekend Australian’s effort was so surprising:   

“For light relief, in a season that challenges people to lift their thoughts above the prosaic, it would be hard to go past the mundaneness of The Sydney Morning Herald’s Easter editorial. While neglecting to mention Jesus Christ it took as its inspiration American satirist James Thurber’s downbeat assessment that ‘the only progress of any kind he had detected was in the deportment of dogs’. According to the article, that was it: there was nothing more edifying, more monumental or more heroic to mention.”

Say what? Murdoch’s minions taking serious umbrage at their crosstown Fairfax colleagues indulging in a moment of gentle, discursive irreverence? No mention of Jesus Christ! On Good Friday! (When, by the way, The Australian doesn’t publish a paper at all because circulation is low, the advertisers aren’t interested in buying space and Rupert can save a hefty swag on penalty payments.)

At first glance this swipe at the Herald reads like just another outburst of News Corp’s infantile competitive paranoia (as if anyone cares what the Oz leader-writers think of their counterparts at the SMH). But there was an extraordinary amount of other Easter-based material in that edition that sang off the same hymn sheet. The common theme was encapsulated in the editorial’s sub-head: “Christianity is under fire.”

Yes folks, it’s the reverse victimology so deftly explained by Comrade Rundle in a recent Crikey essay. Everywhere, it seems, decent god-fearing conservatives are being unfairly attacked by the inner-city, politically correct, green/left elite. And all these poor, humble citizens have to defend themselves with is the federal government and the Murdoch media.

Exaggeration? Consider this list of items in that one edition of The Weekend Australian:

  • On page 5, an “exclusive” piece from Dennis Shanahan reporting the Archbishop of Hobart’s bizarre complaint about what he imagines is the “corporate bullying of Christians”;
  •  On page 15, around 2000 tedious words from Paul Kelly moaning endlessly about how left/liberal morality is pushing out Christian “values”;
  • On page 18, 12 pars of the aforementioned Hobart Archbishop’s opinion, on which the Shanahan piece was based;
  • On page 20, Gerard Henderson has his weekly bottom-of-the-page bleat, claiming “Christianity is on [under] attack on many fronts”; and
  • On page 21, the Easter leader parrots Hendo’s theme, asserting “Christianity is under fire from Islamists and secularists”.

Sure, it’s Easter, and the News Corp commentariat ranks aren’t short of Christian soldiers, but it is not difficult to discern in all this wordy sludge a distinct note of Abbott/Bernardi populism playing to the white lower-middle class. Unpleasant stuff.

And the editors at Holt Street who aided and abetted this overkill might do well to ponder the statistics of religion in Australia. The proportion of our population who describe themselves as “Christian” (whether practising or not) has been in steady decline since 1954.

Media

Mar 10, 2017

5 comments

Cass Knowlton, editor

Buried Alive: stories from inside solitary confinement” by Nathaniel Penn in GQ

“It is brutal. It is torture by definition. It destroys the mind, body, and soul, making rehabilitation next to impossible. It is also outrageously expensive, and it doesn’t work. Yet at the end of the Obama era, and the dawn of Trump’s, isolation is as widely used as ever in the American penal system. And this is what it feels like.”

Sally Whyte, deputy editor

Hidden figures. Women manage money better” by Peter Martin in The Sydney Morning Herald

“My mother was a ‘computer’, back in the days when the term applied to people. Plucked from high school because of her prowess at maths, she was put to work at the Weapons Research Establishment at Salisbury in South Australia, performing the calculations that enabled the rockets fired from Woomera to go where they should. She had dozens of colleagues, all of them women: rows and rows of women, doing calculations for men before the invention of calculators.”

Dan Wood, subeditor

Circulate now, mobilize later” by Maximillian Alvarez in The Baffler

“[F]or too long, we’ve collectively and individually allowed leftism to become a loose cluster of critical positions orbiting around a general sense of intellectual and consumeristic self-satisfaction as opposed to pressure-cooking it down to a core of concerted political actions and commitments. The market for leftist ideas and criticism is something akin to a concentrated mist: refreshing in the moment, but ungraspable, and perhaps hazardous over the longer term.”

Josh Taylor, journalist

The underground railroad for refugees” by Jake Halpern in The New Yorker

“Vive has become the penultimate stop on a modern variant of the Underground Railroad. Vive was founded, in 1984, by nuns, though most of the staff is now secular. More than a hundred thousand refugees, from about a hundred countries, have passed through. Nearly all of them continued on to Canada. Niagara Falls, twenty miles away, was once a major hub on the original Underground Railroad. During the nineteenth century, many fugitive slaves came through the area on the way to sneaking into Canada and winning their freedom.”

Bernard Keane, politics editor

Is consciousness an illusion?” by Thomas Nagel in The New York Review of Books

“For fifty years the philosopher Daniel Dennett has been engaged in a grand project of disenchantment of the human world, using science to free us from what he deems illusions — illusions that are difficult to dislodge because they are so natural. In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, his eighteenth book (thirteenth as sole author), Dennett presents a valuable and typically lucid synthesis of his worldview. Though it is supported by reams of scientific data, he acknowledges that much of what he says is conjectural rather than proven, either empirically or philosophically.”

Charlie Lewis, journalist

Polarized punks” by Matthew Trammell in The New Yorker

“If a song wants to be smart, it’s also got to be a little dumb. Whittle down the big idea, ratchet it up a notch, and repeat to a beat—fight the power, and imagine all the people living life in peace, because God is a d.j. Such sleight of hand can make even the most implausible causes stick. Eddie Kendricks had downtown New York’s nascent disco queens dancing to a Not All Men anthem in the middle of second-wave feminism … Music moves us, physically and mentally, by outwitting our impulse to stay in the same place.”

Media

Feb 14, 2017

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With the huge shake-up announced at the Fairfax mastheads — Darren Goodsir leaving his role as editor-in-chief of The Sydney Morning Herald, James Chessell becoming national editor with responsibility for federal politics, business and world coverage for both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Lisa Davies becoming editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and Alex Lavelle becoming editor of The Age — the fate of the company’s non-newspaper outlets has been somewhat lost.

In an email to Fairfax staff this morning, CEO Greg Hywood described the recent tumult as “a business success story”. He described Chris Janz’s promotion to managing director of Australian metro publishing as a step that would “secure our journalism, not for a year or two, but for the foreseeable future”. 

But notably absent from Hywood’s email was any mention of the online-only outlets WAToday and The Brisbane Times, for which Goodsir, whose editor-in-chief role is being entirely abolished, had responsibility. Fairfax confirmed this morning that those publications will report to editorial director Sean Aylmer, as would Davies, Chessell and Lavelle.

As ever, it raises questions about Fairfax’s priorities for its publications. While the restructure abolishes the EIC position for both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, while The Australian Financial Review, the smallest of the three print publications, retains Michael Stutchbury in that role. Further, Chessell, a former Fin writer, is seen a big winner from the changes. He will be in charge of all of Fairfax’s national coverage, including the key areas of federal politics, business and world coverage, but he is not taking over responsibility for WAToday and The Brisbane Times

[Fairfax definitely (probably) (maybe) (who knows) not killing print]

Hywood’s email also confirmed that “the model we have developed involves continuing to print our publications daily for some years yet”. As Crikey reported in January, Fairfax has long been wanting to cease printing the weekday editions of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age altogether, while maintain the AFR as its only daily paper. However, as Crikey‘s Glenn Dyer wrote:

“… any reduction in the printing schedules of the SMH and Age could have dire implications for the Fin. Its paper circulation is effectively subsidised by the production and distribution of the two metro papers. Without that underwriting, the AFR’s profitability is far reduced. With Fairfax said to want to keep weekend editions of The Age and the SMH, it would be cheaper for the company to close the Monday-to-Friday editions of the AFR and continue with the loss-making weekend edition, which would still have most of its production and distribution costs covered. Internal estimates suggest the distribution costs account for 30% to 40% of the AFR’s daily production costs on a standalone basis. Without the internal subsidy, the AFR could have to be closed, or sold.” 

Goodsir was a popular figure, and following his 20 years at various Fairfax papers, his decision to leave the EIC position after three-and-a-half years surprised some Fairfax journalists. This continues the high turnover of editorial staff that has occurred over the past few years at Fairfax. Judith Whelan, who acted as Goodsir’s second in command for much of his tenure, went to Radio National last year. At The Age, the scandal-plagued exit of Mark Forbes shortly followed Andrew Holden’s departure for Cricket Australia.

While Hywood’s message to staff seems to indicate the abolishing of the EIC role will not affect the Fairfax print editions for the foreseeable future, there are, as ever, questions as to what the reduction in editorial oversight does to the quality of journalism.

“I wish Darren Goodsir well, I wish Fairfax well with their new structure, but the question is, and always will be — how will this affect the content?” Former Sydney Morning Herald editor Peter Fray told Crikey. “I, and I think everyone in the media, wants to see a diversity of voices, publications where journos can get jobs. But I would implore publishers to never forget that we need strong journalism now more than ever.”

Media

Feb 7, 2017

5 comments

It’s as predictable as an Australian middle-order batting collapse. In the week that most of the mainstream ABC TV programs make their new season return to the prime-time schedule, the usual critics trundle out all their standard bleats.

Why was the summer lay-off so long? Where are the bold, innovative shows we should expect from our national broadcaster? What’s the new MD doing about Aunty’s legendary levels of waste, duplication and extravagance?

Well, blah, blah, blah (to borrow the title of one of Andrew Denton’s better shows before he decided to incorporate and become a bespectacled Michael Parkinson).

We’ve heard it all before.

There are plenty of useful criticisms that could be made about the output and management of the ABC, yet the press prefers to recycle their same old guff. Most of this is based on ignorance of the way the electronic media operate, and a parallel assumption that newspapers offer the only practical model of how a major media outlet should do its job.

As usual, Chris Mitchell leads the charge. In the media section of yesterday’s Australian, that paper’s former editor-in-chief waffles on and on about how the summer break for Q&A, Lateline and Four Corners meant that a few stories “are not covered as well as they would otherwise be”.

No suggestion from Mitchell, though, that the ABC’s funding should be increased by the amount it would take to keep those three programs in full production. (In fact, he’s usually the first to suggest the Aunty’s budget should be cut.)

[Rundle: how (and why) to save the ABC]

Mitchell then ignorantly suggests that during the vote count of the US presidential election ABC News Radio should have ditched their broadcast of Parliament and switched to a relay of ABC News 24.

It has obviously escaped his knowledge of the media that the ABC is required to broadcast the proceedings of federal Parliament by law. News Radio was primarily created to discharge that statutory duty and relieve the metro stations and Radio National of the task.

The other reflex, dog-eared criticisms of the ABC that surface at this time every year, concern the program slate. In The Sydney Morning Herald, Debi Enker contributed a column brimming with suggestions as to what Aunty should do to improve her television schedule.

Enker trots out all the familiar complaints: the ABC should be home to “prestigious local drama productions” (indeed it should, but the only drama they can now afford is acquired via co-production with commercial producers, which entails some inevitable loss of creative control); there are too many repeats of QI and Antiques Roadshow (maybe so, but Enker might be surprised to learn how popular they still are, despite their repetitions), etc.

Enker is, of course, entitled to these opinions and suggestions but the disappointing aspect of her wish list is how closely it confirms the view that the ABC’s core audience is a collection of middle-class, inner-city professionals who just want the national broadcaster to match their interests and prejudices.

She makes no mention, for example, of sport, a programming area in which ABC TV was once pre-eminent — and dominant — but is now reduced to almost nothing.

The broader context for all this carping is framed by two developments now creeping into view over the ABC’s horizon. One is genuinely significant; the other may seem important (at least to the press) but is, in truth, trivial.

Like just about every new managing director, Michelle Guthrie has foreshadowed a management re-organisation. As with her predecessors, she looks upon the ABC’s department-based structure as an outmoded system, ripe for reform. It must, to use the current trendy term, be “flattened”.

She should be careful. The history of restructures at the national broadcaster — stretching all the way back to a McKinsey study in the early 1970s — is hardly encouraging. The then-GM, Talbot Duckmanton, quietly dumped the McKinsey recommendations into a bottom drawer and let his troops keep making programs the way they’d been doing since 1932.

Brian Johns forced through his “One ABC” model, based on the bizarre belief that all broadcasting was of a kind, the divisions should be amalgamated and that the resulting forced marriages could then be managed equally well by radio or TV people. The experiment was soon abandoned, and cost most of the new multi-media executives their jobs.

Jonathan Shier tried to take the ABC in the opposite direction. He split the corporation into tiny fiefdoms (at least on paper), some of which had just one program strand to produce. Shier imploded and Aunty quietly returned to its traditional management structures.

[Sport and pop music? What it would mean for the ABC to reach 100% of Australians]

Interestingly, David Hill — a notoriously bull-in-a-china-shop MD — was smart enough to leave the main departments untouched, even though he was unabashedly interventionist in just about every other aspect of the ABC’s activities.

The unspoken truth about all these restructures is that their real purpose is to get rid of senior staff who don’t suit the new MD’s tastes. It is very difficult to dislodge long-serving ABC staff, but much easier to concoct a restructure and reorganise their jobs out of existence.

No doubt Guthrie and her new inner circle will characterise all this as an overdue realignment of priorities in response to our rapidly changing media environment, blah, blah, blah.

Grand-sounding new titles will be invented, lofty job descriptions promulgated. And the few actual program-makers still employed by the corporation will allow themselves a weary sigh before trudging back to the editing room.

Meanwhile, the press — always obsessed with “top job” name-check speculation — are now working themselves into a lather trying to guess who will be the next chair of the ABC after Jim Spigelman departs. This is a matter of little pith and even less moment.

The chair has no power, and very little influence. They are appointed at the prime minister’s pleasure, with all the consequent obligations and timidities that implies. Can you remember the last chair of the ABC who has confronted the government on a matter of principle? Try Sir Richard Boyer (1945-61).

Malcolm Turnbull could appoint the Yellow Wiggle to the big office at Ultimo and it would make not the slightest difference.

Media

Feb 7, 2017

5 comments

Throughout the Global South, the bodies of billions are devastated by trade and war. Across the West, workers are displaced and racists rise to power. Within Australia, neonationalist toddlers are throwing their toys into Parliament and out of the cot. And what is the response of our most storied media institutions to this era of chaos, inequality and violence? A quiz with cartoon illustrations. What is your “political persona”?!

Yesterday, the problems and effects of our time were reduced to a form of politico-astrology. Find out, urged the shareable headline, what kind of Aussie you are! Take our test to know where you stand on a political spectrum! I took the test. I learned nothing about myself, the nation or the world. I was reminded, however, of the lure of the Barnum Effect — a way to describe dodgy personality tests, such as Myer-Briggs, which have no function nobler than to award the respondent with a membership badge, so called because it refers to entertainment that delivers “something for everyone”.

It’s clickable, teachable, self-involved Oprah moments such as that unfolding to large audiences across Fairfax properties yesterday, which serve to remind we why I took out a Crikey subscription a decade ago. Do we always get our analysis of the era correct here? No. Do we pour our resources into some quasi-academic survey that seeks to say nothing more ambitious than “there’s no such thing as left and right anymore, and aren’t you special for knowing that!”. Hell no.

Complicated times demand complicated answers. Answers far more complicated than, “there are now SEVEN kinds of voter, instead of just two”. If there ever were just two kinds of voter in Australia, it was certainly before the time of Bob Santamaria, who knew there to be at least three.

[Why clickbait is killing Fairfax]

This “project”, which bears the imprimatur of the Australian National University, is the latest and most elaborate in a long line of declarations that “there is no such thing as right and left anymore! The divisions are blurred.” People say that as though this is news, and not the way voters, politicians and political philosophers have tended to behave at least since the age of the Jacobins. We’ve long had confusing debate about what constitutes political freedom from within particular movements. Karl Marx, granddaddy of the left, argued with trade unions. Milton Friedman, bastard of the financialised right, advocated for same-sex marriage. The brilliant and erratic Hannah Arendt changed and challenged her own political positions, sometimes within a single paragraph. If I read ONE MORE piece about how “left and right means nothing anymore!”, with the tedious conclusion always being that centrism is the only compromise and somehow, a form of democratic deliberation, I will, I will … well, I will probably just keep whining about it in Crikey.

Although this survey, first conducted on a sample group and now unleashed on Facebook, purports to describe the era using “science”, it fails to generate new knowledge just when we need it most. And that’s not just because its illustrated results now appear on social media alongside those of the “Which Buffy the Vampire Slayer Boss Villain are You?” quiz. I don’t mind the cutesy pictures and the cheap pop-culture approach. What I do mind are those assumptions built into the test questions, which spring from precisely the kind of centrist ideology so common at Fairfax.

There is this peculiar idea getting around that centrism is apolitical; that something that sees itself as a compromise between left and right is necessarily free of ideology. How can we believe that centrism is best after its most famous advocates, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, are now largely remembered for their political obfuscation, and how can we believe it when centrist parties are being currently ejected from power in the West, in the directions of both left and right?

There’s a self-deluded centrist approach that can be easily seen in several of the questions. One question asks the respondent if they would be happy to sacrifice the value of their home if it meant greater housing affordability for all. Another asks if the respondent would “prefer” to save their money, or spend it all now. Another asks if weekly living costs are being cut back. All of these questions are, just like third-way policies were, based on the assumption that the citizen has wealth and assets about which they can make decisions.

On the question of housing affordability, there is great voter ignorance presupposed. During the last election, the ALP managed to claw back some of its territory precisely by describing to the people just who gets to determine housing prices. It’s not a secret, guys. We know it’s not us. We know it to be policies that favour investors. We know this is what forces 25% of the general population and close to 70% of Australian millennials to rent. I mean, come on. The Big Short was a very popular movie, and many of us have learned that we don’t individually determine a commodity price within a market, so why ask such a dumb question?

And why ask me about my “choice” to spend or save? It’s a fantasy question, asked by deluded centrists. One gainsaid by reports, also published by Fairfax itself. This week’s Household Financial Comfort Report showed the rapidly increasing divide in wealth in Australia. The historical tendency to capital accumulation is showing itself again. But, hey. Left and right mean nothing any more. The thing that matters, apparently, is a Barnum assessment of a voter’s ideas, not their material reality.

[Razer: white guilt and the individualised impotence of modern protest]

This is not good data. This is centrist garbage in and out. Not to assert my own “political persona” (that would be “historical materialist”, but they didn’t have a cartoon for it) but, if we are living in a nation where the growing number of people in the lowest income distribution are also the people experiencing the greatest income loss, don’t you think it’s time to have a bit less of a look at our values, and a bit more at our wallets?

This survey was designed to say that left and right mean nothing anymore. Even though these divisions are clearly now more meaningful in Europe than they have been in decades. I guess the guys who wrote this survey have not heard of Greece, a country that produced both Syriza and Golden Dawn. Actually, I guess these guys haven’t noticed the local rise of those who are both economically and culturally right. If the right means nothing anymore, I guess Cory Bernardi is just an unpleasant dream. And the default reality, as is so often the case at Fairfax, is centrism.

The imaginary centre. The fictional hub of deliberation. The delusion that political compromise is what will serve the people, or is what the people even imagine they want. If we keep producing knowledge and opinion from this false place, we will keep ignoring the very fact of political economies. This survey does nothing but support the ideology by which it was formed. The centre refuses to believe that it is the thing that will soon mean nothing anymore.