Building a career in journalism has always been difficult, but it appears that retaining one has become just as challenging. Especially in Australia.
Riding on the back of a major resources boom, Australia is touted as an economic miracle of the post-GFC world. With an unemployment rate of 5.1 per cent and GDP growth of 3.4 per cent last financial year, the Australian economy stands in stark contrast to the harsh realities facing Britain, the United States, or countries across Europe.
Our newspapers, however, are not so lucky. The argument that Australia’s media industry would remain immune from the digital advertising crunch that has plagued the Western media has been proved a spectacular fallacy.
The latest Audit Bureau of Circulation report predicts a grim future for print journalism in this country. In the first quarter of 2012, overall print sales declined by 5 per cent on the back of a 3.9 per cent drop in the previous quarter, despite a steady increase in online audiences. In fact, not a single major Australian print publication recorded circulation growth.
Compared to the British circulation figures, Australia’s mastheads could be said to be in relative health. In July this year, The Guardian recorded a reduction of almost 18 per cent in year-on-year print circulation, while The Independent recorded a reduction of just over 49 per cent. The financials tell a different story.
The figures for Australian dailies are troubling given that the nation has the largest concentration of media ownership of any Western democracy. Unlike Britain or the United States, who have always had a competitive media market, Australia’s national media market has traditionally been dominated by a media duopoly.
News Limited, the Australian branch of Rupert Murdoch’s News International, controls approximately 70 per cent of the nation’s metropolitan media including the Herald Sun, The Daily Telegraph, and the agenda setting The Australian. Together with Fairfax Media, publisher of Melbourne’s The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, these conglomerates control 90 per cent of Australia’s metro media market.
On August 23 Fairfax Media announced losses of AUD$ 2.79 billion (GDP 1.8 billion), roughly seven times the AUD$ 390 million (GDP 253 million) loss a year earlier. As it stands today, Fairfax’s share price is 90 per cent lower than it was five years ago.
The story at News Limited is just a lighter shade of gray. In August News Corporation reported an AUD$ 1.6 billion (GDP 1.03 billion) loss in the final quarter of the financial year, claiming that the hit was “most significantly” due to failings in the Australian market.
For both organisations, it appears their hands have been forced towards painful restructures, supervised by elite consulting firms and designed to buttress the bottom line. Like papers across the world, the consensus is that the move to digital is paramount. Unfortunately in the short-term of the structural change, it is the journalists themselves who are bearing the brunt of this transition.
On June 18, Fairfax Media reported that 1,900 jobs would be cut from all sectors of business, in an effort to create a ‘digital only’ future. Major printing plants at Chullora, west of Sydney, and Tullamarine, north of Melbourne, would also be closed in June 2004. Staffing cuts were designed to save the company AUD$ 235 million, while the plant closures are expected to save approximately AUD$ 44 million in printing expenses per annum.
Just two days later, News Limited announced that it would centralise its nineteen divisions to just five in a move that will potentially impact 1500 staff by 2014. The restructure will create one newsroom, in one city, for distribution across all areas of Australia. At the time of the announcement, News Limited employed close to 8000 staff.
Earlier this month, management at The Australian announced plans to outsource 65 editorial staff to Pagemasters, a wholly owned subsidiary of Australian Associated Press.
In an email to staff at The Australian on Tuesday, executive director Campbell Reid maintained the move “reflects an opportunity to improve the company’s operating efficiency”, and said he did not believe the development was a “reflection on the dedication or quality of our teams”.
While disgruntled with the layoffs, the Australian media was far from shocked.
Four days earlier, scores of journalists at the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age announced their allegedly voluntary redundancies; just months after a number of journalists departed the Melbourne offices of The Age.
Journalists from across the nation expressed their concerns and commiserations through Twitter, with some decrying an alleged 2000 years of experience leaving the office in just one day.
There is no doubt that the saga of redundancies will continue to make headlines in years to come, as circulation figures remain in the red. The question for now is whether the Australian media market can balance a commitment to quality, informative, and professional journalism while resources are stretched and staff retrenched. The jury, for now at least, is out.
In the midst of these changes, there are a number of organisations moving into the digital space to challenge the established duopoly and Australian audiences. Online publications such as Crikey, New Matilda, The Global Mail, and The Conversation are just a few outlets rising in popularity as traditional media wanes.
Despite the gloom, many journalists are optimistic about the future of Australian journalism. In reaction to the latest redundancies, Katherine Murphy of The Age said, “if balance is a pillar of the new media then the truth will still win out”. That sort of quality journalism might not yet be on its knees, as is so often reported. However this will be a tough distinction to make for those who placed their possessions in cardboard boxes last week.
So what will the state of Australian journalism be in 2015? If you have any ideas there are a few people over here who’d like a word.
Photo courtesy of billjank
Henry Belot is an Australian journalist based in Melbourne. While completing his post-graduate degree at The University of Melbourne, he has produced content for The Conversation and a number of local publications. For now, you can find him on Twitter @Henry_Belot
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After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look