Fairfax Media chief executive Greg Hywood has replied to critics of the company’s planned editorial cuts in its news and business verticals in an an op-ed piece published across Fairfax titles:
“When I walked into The Australian Financial Review Melbourne office in January 1976 for my first day as a journalist I was shown to a desk with a fixed-line telephone, a broken chair, an ancient and unloved typewriter and an empty ashtray.
Out the back was a telex machine on which our stories were retyped and sent to Sydney head office and a newspaper clippings library, the Google of its time.
In those days if you called a source or subject of an interview and they were not there – bad luck. No smartphones.
It took an age to get up even the basic information for a complicated, well-sourced story.
Yet there were only 25 of us reporters. Not in the Melbourne office. On the entire newspaper.
Still, the Financial Review was then, as it is now, with more than five times the number of reporters, the pre-eminent business publication in the country. Under the leadership of Max Walsh it defined the national economic debate and shaped the general political discourse. The business community got the news and analysis it needed and was held to account where necessary.
So when the cry goes up about Fairfax Media giving up on quality journalism because we are reducing staff numbers I am incredulous.
Since when has quantity got to do with quality?
It was the same story at the Herald and The Age.
In preparing for this article I found the Herald staff list for 1968. The Herald had about 75 reporters, and based on the memories of some of those around at the time The Age even fewer.
Remember this was the time of the legendary “rivers of gold” when both papers had virtual monopolies over print classifieds in Sydney and Melbourne and they were the main source of quality journalism in their respective cities.
Currently across the Herald, The Age and the Financial Review, Fairfax Media employs in excess of 520 reporters and more than 700 journalists in total.
So let’s put to bed the myth that as Fairfax Media reshapes its publishing model to respond to a very different set of industry economics, and yes, adjusts its staffing levels accordingly, there is some dire threat to quality journalism.
Fairfax Media has always adjusted to the vagaries of the marketplace but always in the context of delivering our essential promise of independent, fearless reporting.
Why did the Financial Review have a small staff back when I started? Because it didn’t make much money.
It was not until the deregulation of the banking sector in the 1980s brought on the massive expansion of financial services that the Financial Review became seriously profitable.
More reporters (like me) were required – not because the newspaper needed to lift its quality – it had plenty of that – but to fill the space between the ever increasing number of ads.
The Herald and The Age expanded staff as the economy grew for the same reason.
Some of what was produced to fill those enormous Saturday papers could not qualify under any definition of “quality journalism”. It was the “clickbait” of its time.
So, how in more straitened times will Fairfax Media deliver its commitment to “quality journalism” and focus on the areas of greatest interest to our readers – breaking news, investigations, national politics and state issues, business, sport and entertainment? Because of the instantaneous feedback we get through the net we know that of the 9000 stories we publish a month a substantial portion are read by only a handful of people.
So like any media organisation committed to serving its readers, we are focusing our journalism on the areas of their greatest interest and demand.
If we satisfy that interest and deliver it through the appropriate mix of digital and print we have – under the plan we have been implementing for the past five years – a sustainable publishing business.
To underline the point let’s look at one area of focus – investigations.
At no time in Fairfax Media’s long history has the company devoted more resources and support to this area. That won’t be changing.
At the Melbourne Press Club Quill Awards one week ago, Fairfax Media took home seven major awards including Adele Ferguson winning the Gold Quill. That is on top of almost 40 Walkley Awards over four years, including two Gold Walkley winners. These accolades are just some of the more prominent examples of depth of reporting that permeates our organisation.
Without our investigative journalists there would not have been the Commonwealth Bank stories, the ICAC stories or the laying bare of the sad truth of the Essendon saga. There may well have been no royal commission into sexual abuse.
Make no mistake – as we reshape our business to meet readers’ demands we will not take a backward step on quality and we will not back away from tackling the tough issues.
I am prepared to bet that in another five years we will still be Australia’s leading publisher. Let’s check back in then.”