Changing newspapers

MY industry is changing, urgently, and you’ll have read of Fairfax Media’s proposal announced this week to send the editorial production of this and its Wollongong daily newspapers to New Zealand. That means 41 sub-editing and editing jobs would go from the Herald and a few associated free papers, the work done in New Zealand by what has come to be known in journalism as a sub hub, one that produces many of that country’s newspapers. In this new world an office in New Zealand is an office next door, and while it hurts a bit it doesn’t hurt as much as if they’d sent the jobs to The Maldives.

Subs, in case you don’t know, edit copy, design the newspaper, prioritise stories and mould them and photographs to fit the design.

In the broader sense it is the jobs that matter but to me it is the people who matter. They are my workmates, some of whom I barely know and many of whom have been my friends for years, and together with others we have formed the team, the company of people, that produced this newspaper.

For some the redundancy payment would come at the right time or close enough to the right time, for some it would be a problem in the short or medium term while they found another job or retrained, for others it would be – I expect it will be – a disaster that would have an impact on their wellbeing for the rest of their life. I use the conditional would, by the way, because the job losses are part of a proposal subject to discussion with employees until Tuesday.

It’s not a matter of fault or blame, at least not for me. The fact is that newspaper revenues and readers have been moving and moving at an accelerating pace to the internet, and that matters even when those internet websites are owned by what was once a newspaper company and is now a broader media company. Every newspaper in the Western world is cutting costs, and every newspaper that will survive in the business of news and advertising is increasing its presence on the internet. My blog at www.theherald.com.au is an example of that and of the advantage to readers of that.

The move of newspapers to the net is the biggest change in the history of newspapers, and it is both exciting and disturbing. Newspapers have changed in many ways since the invention of the printing press, and I suppose the two big changes before I joined a newspaper’s staff 40 years ago were the capacity to publish photographs and, later, the swapping of ads on the front page for news. Later came the use of colour, in particular colour photographs, and for the Newcastle Herald the move from the expansive broadsheet shape to what we prefer to call compact.

Until the arrival of the internet the biggest change in the course of my career was from the tools of paper and metal type to computers, a process that began in the late 1970s with keyboards replacing typewriters and culminated in sub-editors using computers to produce the paper on a screen 15 years later. It was huge change but not as huge as we expected and feared. We’d have, we said, a paperless office, but that has not happened, and there’d be fewer journalists, when the reverse was true. Because of the efficiencies of the computer production newspapers became more sophisticated, using new sections and lift-outs to cater to specialist interests and thus to more people, and so the number of journalists increased.

We were right, though, about this most recent and bigger change when we expected and feared that the move of journalism to the internet would mean fewer journalists.

The loss of a job is a real loss even for those who welcome the redundancy payment. In the past half a century we have moved from having a job to possessing a job to owning a job, and hence a redundancy payment as compensation. For most, though, even redundancy payments that are generous in comparison to some standards do not compensate for the loss.

For those who stay, the loss is the people.

What do you see as the future of newspapers in the age of the internet?

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