Fairfax Media abandons more country mastheads

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Time to support locally-owned news services

OPINION: Fairfax Media announced yesterday more plans to shut down its country mastheads.

The Yass Tribune is amongst papers in Goulburn, Bowral, Queanbeyan, Crookwell and Braidwood undergoing “revitalisation” by the multimillion dollar company as part of its centralisation strategy initiated in 2014.

Staff from the Tribune office travelled to Goulburn yesterday afternoon to learn their fate.

Under the plan, the Cooma-Monaro Express and the Summit Sun at Jindabyne will be closed down and The Queanbeyan Age will be merged with Queanbeyan’s freebie, The Chronicle.

The Queanbeyan Age’s shopfront office will close and the paper will be produced out of The Canberra Times in Fyshwick.

The Braidwood Times’ office will need to be shared with another tenant.

The future of the Tribune has not yet been revealed, but it looks eerily similar to other mastheads which have been similarly actively downsized through a strategy of natural attrition (assumedly to reduce the costs of voluntary and forced redundancies).

Fairfax says it is preparing voluntary redundancies of about 12 full-time equivalent positions from across the company’s ACT and NSW Southern Inland operating group, which includes the Tribune.

Local staff cuts, dropping back to one edition per week, and producing the paper remotely out of Canberra remain real possibilities.

Fairfax’s plan requires journalists (many of which are cadets or juniors in country towns) to be responsible for writing, subbing, photographing and headlining their own stories before posting them up online – sight unseen by anyone other than themselves.

Fairfax ACM director John Angilley explained during yesterday’s announcement, “Our NewsNow editorial model involves journalists reporting local news across multi-media, as well as being trained to write headlines and captions and take photographs”.

It appears they will also be relying heavily on computing grammar and spell-checkers.

“Quality-checking processes and procedures are built into the system and our editors remain responsible for maintaining editorial standards,” he said.

But many Fairfax editors have been pushed out of the country papers and not replaced.

And it’s hard for a computer to spot inconsistencies in names, for example, or discrepancies in dates, or pick up an ambiguous paragraph that infers something else altogether.

And then there’s the ongoing drive to get country people to read metro papers by placing a token story about their town every once in a while. If you don’t subscribe, you might blink and miss it.

Former editor of Central Midlands & Coastal Advocate told ABC News last year that Fairfax Media’s centralisation strategy would spell the end of localised content.

Merrel Pond, who had edited the paper for 20 years before its closure by Fairfax last year, predicted the decision to centralise regional newspapers out of metropolitan areas was unlikely to work.

“You don’t have the feet on the ground, hearing the local stories,” Ms Pond said at the time.

“I think it loses the local focus… I can already see, there’s a lot of stories in there that aren’t particularly pertaining to our region and that’s been happening in the last six months since they haven’t actually had someone on the ground.

“When you don’t have that personal contact with people you just miss out on so much and you lose that local content.

“Local content; a lot of the stories are quite fluff pieces but they’re also a lot of the pieces that people like to read.”

The Yass Tribune has been operating without an editor for nearly two years, its only permanent journalist living in Canberra.

It has been borrowing an increasing number of Canberra Times stories during the past six months, a collaboration that didn’t exist in previous years.

It has halved its editorial staff from 4.5 in 2012, to two (one permanent and two part-timers) this year.

Fairfax Media is closing several country publications and has warned others, including the Yass Tribune, it could face significant cuts.

Fairfax Media is closing several country publications and has warned others, including the Yass Tribune, it could face significant cuts.

Its digital format has also shifted, with more seemingly random stories with no local connection or relevance, being tagged “Yass” and published as Tribune stories online. An effective, if somewhat deceptive strategy to boost clicks and take inflated statistics to advertisers.

A good percentage of those clicks would come from out-of-area with little hope that readership would ever convert to dollars for local businesses advertising alongside those stories.

Fairfax Media’s intention to cut Tribune staff in half and lower the standard of local content two years ago was the reason why I resigned myself, after 19 years with the same company, having started as a Rural Press cadet in 1995. The Tribune was undergoing natural attrition (read downsizing) which meant there was no intention to replace the managing editor who left after extended stress leave. It proved impossible to run the editorial department as a part time journo (it’s not an easy job to fit into 20 paid hours per week!) on reduced staff and with more dramatic staff reductions mooted. All on the same wage, of course. It’s even more difficult to constantly produce a paper you couldn’t be proud of.

I resigned in protest. Not an easy decision. But I could not condone the distinct directive to lower standards of quality in favour of quantity – which typically means publishing more press releases verbatim, many of which have nothing to do with this area and have such a greasy spin on them, readers would never find them credible, and would extend that opinion to us by association.

And what if a story actually needed investigating? No time. There was the suggestion the readers wanted “dumbed down” content anyway.

Chances to have local content published, let alone the ability to voice your own opinions, are diminishing.

Chances to have local content published, let alone the ability to voice your own opinions, are diminishing.

 

But Fairfax Media’s shift to centralise its country newspapers has led to a surge in independentally-owned newspapers cropping up all over the state, fuelled by locals dismissing the big monopolies and determined to keep local news local. And relevant. And in the country towns where their readers, and journos, live.

Besides Scoop Yass Valley, independent mastheads include the Twin Town Times covering Harden, Gundagai Independent, Tumut and Adelong Times, The Monaro Post, District Bulletin covering Palerang, The Bungendore Mirror, Cowra Community News and Temora Independent, to name a few.

The Bungendore Chamber of Commerce started its own newspaper The Bungendore Weekly this year too.

Some of the areas Fairfax has just closed down already have independents operating to take up the slack. Sadly, some don’t. They are left newsless.

As Angilley tries fervently to rally Fairfax faithfuls into a false sense of security with the words “reshape” and “modernisation” and espousing his company wants “even stronger connections with audiences and advertisers”, he is at the same time sacking its employees, moving its offices into the cities, and throwing junior jacks-of-all-trades in the deep end with little or no experience, and no editor to guide them.

By supporting local independent news services, you are supporting locally-owned small businesses who have the desire to ADD to their staff levels (locally of course!) and preserve the towns and communities they call home.

You can offer your support by advertising your business or event with them, contributing editorial copy or news tips, purchasing copies of the paper, sharing and tagging their online content to help them with marketing, and being patient as they pick up the pieces left by an era of Fairfax Media’s exploitation and abandonment of country towns.

An excerpt of the announcement published in a full page ad in today's Fairfax Media publications.

An excerpt of the announcement published in a full page ad in today’s Fairfax Media publications.

Katharyn Brine

Editor / Publisher

2 Comments

  1. Karan Gabriel

    Karan Gabriel

    April 2, 2016 at 2:12 pm

    Kathy, thank you for putting this all on the record. It needs to be known.

  2. Mick Conlan

    April 3, 2016 at 1:14 am

    Gidday Katharyn,

    Sad to see, read and hear about the degradation of quality journalism but I guess the facts are now starting to be realised with escalated downsizing across the board.

    Don’t ever compromise your principles 😉

    Cheers,

    Mick

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