Fairfax in 'schizophrenic mode' as it pivots to softer news

Lindsay Bennett
By Lindsay Bennett | 18 May 2016
“Fairfax is stuck in a schizophrenic mode"

Senior Fairfax journalists are in the firing line as the organisation re-positions its focus from hard-hitting journalism to articles that register well online.

At least 30 staff are exiting the Australian Financial Review, regularly regarded as the bastion of business journalism in this country, as part of 100 staff that have either taken voluntary redundancy or been pushed.

The latest round of redundancies include resources editor Perry Williams, investigations editor Anne Davies, media editor Dominic White, aviation and tourism reporter Jamie Freed, international editor Tony Walker, senior business reporter Michael West, cartoonist Rod Clement, property writer Robert Harley and economics editor Alan Mitchell.

A number of sources close to the moves have suggested to AdNews Fairfax is prioritising younger journalists with digital skills, as investigative journalism, usually carried out by senior reporters, struggles to attract online traffic and is more labour intensive and costly to produce.

“Fairfax is stuck in a schizophrenic mode,” one source told AdNews. “There is no strategy. [Fairfax] hasn't worked out how to translate its [harder-hitting] print stories to digital but it continues to drive blind as fast as it can into digital.”

Such a strategy, or lack thereof, would add weight to industry rumours that Fairfax reporters are judged more on clicks and SEO-friendly content than in-depth reporting.

Several senior journalists are choosing to exit the business now before further reductions are made when the digital transition is implemented, however it's also important to note that many top journalists remain a part of Fairfax, including Kate McClymont and Adele Ferguson.

Steadfastly hard-hitting

Speaking with AdNews, a source says daily reports on article click rates used by Fairfax editors show investigative journalism doesn't have the same impact online as softer news.

“It used to be journalism had an impact. The pointy stories were once read more than others. Fairfax isn't giving the pointy stories the same push,” the source adds.

If Fairfax is taking a softer news approach based on clicks, it could risk damaging the publisher's reputation for quality, investigative journalism – its titles have always faired well at The Walkleys, journalism's highest accolade in this country.

Fairfax strongly denies the claims, with a media spokesperson telling AdNews: “Fairfax puts hundreds of journalists in the community who produce the sort of hard-hitting reporting and award-winning journalism that the likes of AdNews doesn’t.

“Our mastheads carry credibility and trust within the marketplace and great journalism – and our commitment to quality journalism remains steadfastly at the core of our business as it takes its modern shape.”

fairfax top 10At an investor presentation earlier this month, CEO Greg Hywood referenced the top 10 stories in a month to show the “depth of quality journalism” Fairfax delivers, a list AdNews was pointed to as evidence of the publisher's commitment to quality.

One article, titled 'Unaoil: The company that bribed the world', was the result of a six-month investigation by Fairfax and The Huffington Post. It exposes the corruption present within the oil industry and implicated dozens of companies, bureaucrats and politicians.

The article is a shining example of the important contribution Fairfax makes to investigative journalism, which it has built its reputation on over many years.

However, also included among the top 10 stories is: 'Shane Warne Labels Waleed Aly 'arrogant' after The Project interview'.

While the Unaoil story represents investigative journalism, it is questionable how a story about Shane Warne's TV spat with a host of The Project could be labelled as “hard-hitting reporting” or a display of the “quality journalism” Hywood refers to.

Lumping two articles together that any journalist can see are poles apart in the quality stakes merely underlines the fallacy of judging journalism purely on what has received the most clicks.

A source suggested to AdNews it was the end of the legacy masthead, as it moves towards producing content fit for the Daily Mail, focusing on celebrity stories and avoiding topics that may pose a conflict of interest.

It is notable that some of the exiting journalists are renowned for breaking some of Australia's most important investigative pieces in recent years.

This includes Anne Davies, who won a gold Walkley with Kate McClymont over explosing the Canterbury Bulldogs salary cap scandal, another example of Fairfax at its best.

Another high profile journalist who left is Michael West, who announced on Twitter last Friday: “Last day today. Told my skill set was not aligned with Fairfax strategy going forward #sacked.”

michael west tweetWest famously uncovered the tax and accounting practices of big business and his work has led to reforms of multinational company tax law.

Industry veterans, including Wendy Bacon, Margot Kingston, Mike Carlton and Paul Barry were left dumfounded by the decision to axe him, with Barry describing the move as “pathetic” on Twitter.

Two years ago West wrote a column for AdNews on big tech and big tax avoidance, saying further legalisation is needed to address tax challenges of the digital economy.

Going soft on big business?

Some media commentators have speculated the removal of such investigative talent has more to do with pleasing large corporates, who may find coverage less thorny in the future.

Crikey media reporter Myriam Robin wrote in an article: “West's redundancy will have multinationals breaking out the bubbly, with one fewer check on corporate malfeasance.”

On Twitter, tech expert Charlie Brown, who regularly appears on National Nine News and The Today Show, says: “and multinational tax avoiders all hi-five together. Ding Dong the investigative journo who called BS is gone.”

“West has helped bring big business to account,” a source told AdNews. “Many feel he was targetted. A fly in the ointment.”

West declined to comment on his redundancy.

Another senior source involved in the redundancies tells AdNews the suggestion that the AFR will go easy on big business is "ridiculous", adding it's clearly an economic decision to let go of senior staff.

A Fairfax spokesperson also bats off the claims, saying: “The suggestion is absolutely ridiculous, offensive and plainly wrong.”

As newsrooms shrink, particularly at the AFR, publications will focus on fewer topics, AdNews understands. For example, aviation, which used to be the focus of one reporter, could now fall under a general patch.

An area where readers could notice a difference is in sport. At the Sydney Morning Herald, seven sports reporters have been let go, which will surely result in some sports receiving fewer column inches.

All of these moves point to Fairfax Media closing down its weekly newspaper editions in the next 12-18 months, a strategy that Hywood has already hinted at the Macquarie Australia Conference earlier this month.

“Exactly when we move towards implementing a new model for our Metro titles depends on the view we form about trends in consumer and advertiser behaviour, but all the signs indicate it is inevitable – although some time away,” Hywood said.

When weekly editions are cut, it is estimated newsrooms could be reduced by up to 40%. A challenge as Fairfax makes this transition is to ensure it maintains the foundations of quality journalism it has built its brand upon.

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