Last month the Australian newspaper publisher Fairfax announced it would cut 1,900 positions in a bid to return to profitability. Crikey.com, an independent political website, has published a list of journalists now leaving Fairfax newspapers, including senior editors at the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Financial Review and the Canberra Times. Joel Gibson, opinion editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, reflects on the changing media landscape and explains why he has chosen voluntary redundancy.
I started as a trainee at the Sydney Morning Herald in 2003, just after the now-hackneyed metaphor of the ship of public interest journalism had begun to take on water.
In those days, Rhodes scholars and university medallists routinely applied. It was considered one of the best graduate gigs in town. And it was my first full-time job, so I could be forgiven, 10 years on, for thinking that all companies everywhere shed a quarter of their staff once every 18 months or two years, like snakes starting over with a shiny new skin.
After a decade of cut upon cut, though, skin upon skin, I’ve come to realise it is far from normal – and it’s simply not possible to slither onwards without leaving a living part of you behind. In fact, it can become deeply demoralising. It can quickly make a coveted job a grind, turn a vibrant culture into an extended dirge, and I have the greatest respect for those so dedicated to the calling that they remain, no matter how much money is waved at them or how deep their feet are in bilge.
On this occasion, my gut just said it was time for me to go; time to take the redundancy on offer and do something different, whatever that may be. Here at the Herald, the big difference this time around, for me and many others, is that there is no longer a safe choice and a risky one.
In the past, it always seemed safer to stay. The paper and its associated digital products would never enjoy the resources they once did, but you’d still have a job doing what you loved with people whose work you deeply respected.
This time, with the ideologue mining magnate Gina Rinehart playing cat and mouse with the company’s board, revenue declining even as readership is counter-intuitively growing, and digital metrics gradually replacing editorial leadership as the compass that guides the boat, it seemed almost as safe to walk the plank.
I have not yet heard a cogent explanation for why going digital must mean going downmarket, but I have no doubt that one will lead to the other.
There was once a viable broadsheet business model in print, supported by the demand among an AB demographic for smarter, deeper, more nuanced journalism and – let’s be honest – the status that comes with subscribing to it, and yet the same model is deemed unviable on digital publishing platforms.
One theory is that we now know what the mass audience wants to read and neither they nor we can pretend any longer that it is high-brow. There is an element of truth in that, but I have always believed people don’t know what they want to read until you show it to them and if you keep feeding them junk they grow fat on it and lose their sense of taste. My guess is that before long, as mainstream media competes for the mass market, a troposphere of niche publications will fill the vacuum at the high end. They might be pitched at an industry, a demographic or a geographical group. Some will fail, others will not, but the process will take some time and many, like me, would prefer to observe it from another angle.
I believe most journalists departing the Herald and other publishers like it as the industry restructures around the western world will be pleasantly surprised by the demand for their experience and talents. I’ve been encouraged by the interest shown in my skills by the handful of people I’ve approached about work. It will be foolish for me and my colleagues to put all our eggs in the journalism basket at a time when a shrinking market is being flooded with out-of-work hacks.
Many of us will have to do some corporate or government communications work, or something else altogether (wine bar, anyone?), but if that means governments or companies do a better job of talking to their citizens and customers, all the better. Too many CEOs no longer speak English; too many politicians speak in half-truths. Maybe we can be more useful elsewhere.
Joel Gibson is the Sydney Morning Herald’s opinion page editor for the next month, after which he hopes he will be very employable. Twitter: @joelgibson