Emotion high, but so is the bill

The problem for Fairfax is that it should have implemented this measure earlier but either ignored it or was loath to confront its journalists with this strategy.

Coincidentally, perhaps, it did not come until the organisation appointed a former journalist as its chief executive.

Whatever the case, internal subs’ desks for individual papers have become a luxury which print media simply cannot afford in the struggle for survival in the savage jungle of competing electronic news delivery platforms.

When I worked in editorial production on The Times in London in the late 1960s and early 70s, we employed “readers” who checked every line for accuracy before it went into the paper.

This age-old practice continued there and in Australia until the advent of editorial computerisation.

Many of these readers may have felt that their departure would leave the door open for editorial sloppiness (and in some cases it might have) but the industry had to move on.

It has been argued that quality journalism will suffer without the close internal relationship between writers and sub-editors who share a common understanding of the nature of their newspapers.

This suggests a lack of professionalism, or at least indifference, by the outsourced subs.

But what is the basis for this?

After all, Pagemasters, which was set up by some highly qualified sub-editorial journalists made redundant in a major rationalisation in the Herald & Weekly Times more than 20 years ago, has become very successful around the world and is jointly owned by Fairfax and News Limited through AAP.

It is hard to believe Fairfax or News would allow the quality of their products to slide just to save money.

But the introduction of this outsourcing, as with the scrapping of the Readers’ Room, removes yet another comfort zone.

It wasn’t long ago that most suburban newspapers around the country had their own pre-press facilities and their own presses, even though most were owned by the major newspaper groups.

Rationalisations and upgrading implemented by News Limited after it acquired the Herald & Weekly

Times in the late 1980s not only saved many of the smaller papers from going under financially but helped them introduce efficiencies, which made them far more competitive.

There was some concern by local management that reader loyalty would disappear if a paper was printed outside its traditional circulation area.

This, of course, was nonsense.

What was much more important for these free papers was to have them delivered on time and with plenty of informative and attractive content.

Meanwhile, the decision by the major metro daily organisations to put a payment system between their print and online products is another inevitable development in the industry’s battle for survival.

But it may turn out to be the highest-stakes gamble of all with the risk that it could backfire on the traditional print versions of the news.

On the one hand, readers may resent having to pay for something online which they are now accessing for free.

On the other hand, how many readers are likely to opt for the hardcopy of a newspaper rather than pay an online fee, particularly if they were not doing so in the first place?

All of this could well shift the rationalisation spotlight on to the mega-millions of dollars which the print media (newspapers and magazines) have invested in presses around the country.

As the newspaper industry looks for savings to offset the rising costs involved in slugging it out with its electronic competitors, it is hard to believe it can sustain, for example, the current number of editions which each metro paper brings out daily.

And this will reinforce the rationale for a combining of the printing and distribution resources between publishers because of the enormous cost saving that this would deliver.

It is an option which has bobbed around just below the surface for years. But it now has a distinct look of inevitability about it.

Malcolm Colless is a former senior executive at News Ltd and writes a column for The Australian’s media section.

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