The Fairfax fortnight

Fourteen days ago Fairfax announced 1900 job cuts, seven days ago the editors resigned, on Friday we received a letter from Gina Rinehart. In that time, everyone has had their say. Management to media, union representatives to industry experts, even a few publicists who possibly regret their timing, if not their tone.

Yet in a fraught, exhausting and emotional fortnight, in which reports of sleep loss and nausea from colleagues are commonplace, the most regular voices, the ones that have been most consistently heard, and in some ways most hurtful, have been those guised in friendship or camaraderie.

From the first announcement, many, if not all Fairfax employees had family and friends get in touch to express concern, sympathy and empathy. These were the people who would make contact in any time of crisis.

Then the second wave began, the acquaintances and professional contacts, those who feel they have a relationship not just with you, but with Fairfax as a reader.

Those conversations always seem to begin with the seemingly loaded “how are you?” – a question I now dread – then swiftly morph into a conversation in which they sympathise with the situation by explaining what is wrong with Fairfax and then bludgeoning you with it.

Fairfax hasn’t delivered decent newspapers or proper stories, or it has neglected its readers we are told. All statements that are entirely subjective, but more importantly primarily the editorial staff’s concern, not management’s. So pity soon becomes an unwitting accusation of ineptitude. “How are you?” rapidly becomes “Just how stupid are you?” In return for being threatened with redundancy, we get blamed for every change in the media landscape.

Readers are responding the same way, just look at our online comments. Stories on any topic are gathering comments from bravely anonymous individuals, bashing the organisation, the story and the writer, all in the name of protest. I’ll be honest with you, the CEO doesn’t read many comments sections, but the writers do, the editors do. Journalists own their stories, own their paper, not on the share market but in their hearts and souls. Suggesting an article is an example of what is wrong with Fairfax’s current policy only hurts the journalist the commenter is apparently upset to lose.

Express concern over redundancies, condemn our employers for uncertainty, but don’t swaddle us in abuse of our work. Right now, those we speak to and those we hear from are lashing us with rage wrapped in pity.

Not that the journalists of Fairfax have made life easy either. In the last fortnight, the most common sight is a group of three or more editorial staff huddled in a hallway or over a partition, none-too-quietly discussing their suspicions, redundancy entitlements and fears, which is only to be expected.

But sadly regular and far less expected is the haranguing given to colleagues that don’t believe the sky is falling. One staff member lecturing another in how naive they are to accept anything management says, another mocked for believing they will have a job in a year’s time.

Those in online being sycophantically praised for foresight to their face, then vilified for representing the problem or not being “real” journalists once their back is turned.

At print desks the new “digital first” newsroom model – designed by colleagues not consultants – is disparaged as unworkable and inept before any plan is presented, then when it is, it is maligned for, essentially, not being the old model.

Based on the atmosphere in the office, Fairfax won’t struggle to fill its 150 editorial redundancy target, in fact you’d swear there will be a race for the exit. It is just to be hoped those 150 won’t infect those of us who want to stay before they go.

For sadly many have fallen out of love with the Fairfax idea or feel it has betrayed them – either way the relationship has become toxic. Those people should take this chance and go. As Jack Matthews is fond of saying, if you don’t like it here, leave. We spend far too much of our lives at work to hate our jobs.

The atmosphere in Fairfax right now is awful. Fear can be explained, resolved and dispelled. Anger and hatred to the organisation and towards your colleagues – those who want to try something new, who dare to contemplate producing a different paper to the one we put out ten, twenty or thirty years ago, those who still want to have pride in writing for The Age or The Herald whatever form it comes in – that anger is the sign that your time has come.

This article was originally published on mUmbrella on 2nd July 2012.

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