Sorry, Mr Hywood – you missed the point: It’s not about quality it’s about money

Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood delivered the A.N. Smith lecture at Melbourne University’s Centre for Advanced Journalism last night (Tuesday 15 November).

I’ve never quite understood what ‘advanced’ journalism is supposed to be. Maybe I’ll look it up one day.

According to the mission statement, the CAJ is attempting to improve the quality of journalism through ‘knowledge transfer’

The Centre for Advanced Journalism will contribute to the University’s goal of knowledge transfer through interaction with the public and with journalists and media companies.

The four key questions posed for research at the CAJ are also admirable, if a little unremarkable:

  • How will new media technologies impact on the future of journalism?
  • What is the role of public interest journalism in a liberal democracy?
  • What is the nature of the relationship between government and the media and how does this relationship serve the public interest?
  • Is “the public interest” a concept that is understood by the media and the general public?

I have no problem with that at all and I wish the centre’s new director Margaret Simons all the best. Improving journalism is something that I’m passionate about too; so in that spirit, let’s engage with Greg Hywood’s comments.

I’m not sure of the title Greg gave to his talk, on the National Times site the headline is ‘Rumours of our demise exagerated’ and on the AFR site (behind a Fairfax paywall) the headline is ‘Internet the reason journalism’s future is bright’. So, presumably that’s what the talk was about.

I’ve read the edited transcript of Mr Hywood’s speech on the National Times website and I’d just like to address a few issues.

Strong and trusted journalism has never been more important.

Yes, that’s absolutely right, but it always has been. In any day and age there needs to be a robust public debate informed by accurate and honest information. In a mass society when we can’t all gather in the forum for the daily senate meeting the public sphere is highly mediated. We get our information – on which we base our opinions – from the mass media. A reliable and trustworthy news service is absolutely essential to that process.

I believe the future of journalism has never looked stronger.

This statement needs to be addressed in several ways because Hywood’s qualification is important:

And this is because of the internet, not despite it.

We’ll come to that in a minute, but first a question to Mr Hywood: How can the future of journalism look ‘stronger’ to you when your own company Fairfax Media is busy cutting jobs and the number of working journalists in major news titles is falling around the globe?

This was the situation at Fairfax mastheads in May this year:

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald are preparing for a wave of industrial action after new Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood wielded the axe this morning, sacking over 100 production staff to achieve annual cost savings of $15 million under the cover of an announcement spruiking “quality journalism”.

[Fairfax slashes: ‘quality journalism’ with fewer staff]

Perhaps Mr Hywood had this in mind when he said in his speech last night:

What has changed is the workload. Forget filing once a day. In this crowded, chaotic environment you have to provide the best, independent news and analysis all the time.

Yeah, that’s right: the old bosses’ mantra of “doing more with less.” Simple physics and quantum mechanics tell us that it it almost impossible to do more with less.

In May when announcing around 300 job cuts among journalism and production staff at Fairfax, Mr Hwyood is reported to have spent about two hours trying to placate angry staff. This report is from The Australian, which has its own agenda in relation to a competitor, but it is worth repeating to reinforce my point:

Mr Hywood addressed staff at The Age for more than two hours yesterday afternoon, at a time when the newsroom would normally be consumed by putting out its Victorian budget coverage. The tenor of what he had to say, according to one senior journalist was “it is this or die”.

He argued the changes were necessary to ensure the financial viability of the high-profile metropolitan mastheads, which now account for less than 20 per cent of the newspaper, digital and radio group’s earnings.

[Journos fight Fairfax cuts]

So, it’s not about quality journalism really is it, Mr Hywood. And if you believe in a bright, sunny future for your industry, why did you tell staff they had to accept the cuts because it was ‘this or die’? So dire, was the situation for Fairfax back in May that Hywood even threatened compulsory redundancies if targets for voluntary job cuts were not met.

This is not the first round of job cuts at Fairfax in recent years. In 2008 under then CEO David Kirk announce 550 job cuts as part of an Orwellian-sounding euphemism:

One of Australia’s biggest media companies is preparing to sack 550 of its employees as part of what it says is a “business improvement program”.

[Journalists’ union slams Fairfax job cuts]

Business improvement! Nothing about quality journalism in that phrase either. it’s all about the bottom line for Fairfax as this statement to the ASX explained at the time of the 2008 job cuts:

A wide range of initiatives will result in a head count reduction of approximately 550 employees in Australia and New Zealand, or approximately 5% of the company’s full time workforce.

The program will deliver around $50 million in annualised cost savings. Approximately $25 million of the savings will flow into the 2009 financial result.

[Fairfax to slash 5% of full-time workforce]

Yes, it will flow in to the bottom line to the tune of $25 million in shareholder value. I am afraid this leads me to be a little bit cynical about Greg Hywood’s commitment to quality journalism ‘going forward’ as they say in managementland.

Mr Hywood, what exactly did you mean in your speech when you said “It’s all about trust.”

Did you mean that we should trust you to bring us more quality journalism, or did were you talking about journalism and trust? It’s not clear, maybe the subs at Pagemasters cut out something important at that point.

The reason I ask is because, at that point, your edited remarks take a different tack. After telling your audience it’s “all about trust”. You went straight into an attack on the media inquiry. Is there a link there?

Which brings me to the media inquiry. It is a consistent theme. The government is trying its best to restrict press freedom, as always.

Ah, I get it. We shouldn’t trust the government because they want to restrict press freedom, “as always”.

Do you seriously believe that Mr Hywood? I doubt it, but it’s the line you have to trot (excuse my pun) out to satisfy the wishes of shareholders. What you care about is freedom to carry on the business of running a media company without any further regulation of business.

I’m sure, unfortunately, that you don’t really care about content. If you did, why continue to undercut the content by reducing the number of staff?

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot more in the edited comments that back up and address your point about the media inquiry. I am sure you have addressed that today in your appearance before the judge and the professor. I await a chance to analyse your comments at greater length.

I agree with you that government funding for the Press Council is not a good idea, but not for the same reasons exactly. I think it will legitimise the fig leaf of respectability that the Press Council has – that it is somehow independent of the news industry’s major players. Clearly it is not.

I am interested in your argument that ‘business as usual’ is the best defence of press freedom though.

Our best defence is to have our publications edited and led by the sort of people who lead them now – experienced professionals who have spent a lifetime balancing out a cacophony of competing interests and defining a fair-minded news coverage and multifaceted commentary.

Maybe this takes us back to the issue of trust.

A Roy Morgan poll in 2007 showed that journalists are not rated very highly in terms of ethical behaviour among professionals:

As in previous years, journalists are not looked upon too favourably with Television Reporters / Journalists (13%, down 4%) marginally ahead of Newspaper Journalists (12%, up 1%).

[Roy Morgan: Image of professions survey 2007]

In research I have done with my colleague Roger Patching for most years of the past 10, we have found that journalists consistently appear towards the bottom of the annual lists of ‘most trusted’ professions. Isn’t it really part of the problem that the public is turning away from newspapers and other mainstream news outlets because they have come to distrust them?

In 2010, Reader’s Digest put journalists and CEOs into its “Dirty Dozen”

THE DIRTY DOZEN – 29) Fast-food servers 30) Lawyers 31) Tow-truck Drivers 32) Taxi Drivers 33) CEOs 34) Roof-insulation installers 35) Journalists 36) Real estate agents 37) Sex Workers 38) Politicians 39) Car Salesmen 40) Telemarketers.

Things are not getting much better. Here’s a sample of the 2011 list from Reader’s Digest.

37. CEOs
38. Celebrities
39. Sex workers
40. Journalists
41. Taxi drivers
Maybe Mr Hywood has a point. CEOs are more trustworthy than journalists according to these results; but at 37 out of 45, it’s nothing to crow about.

 

 

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