News­pa­pers with­out sub-edi­tors?

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Fair­fax man­age­ment has recently decided to sack its in-house sub-edi­tors, and out-source the role to the com­pany Page­Mas­ters:

Fair­fax to look at out­sourc­ing options

Fair­fax sets new out­sourc­ing dead­line

Fair­fax con­firms out­sourc­ing plans with 82 jobs to go

Fair­fax jour­nal­ists to dis­cuss strikes

In one way, this move is an under­stand­able response to the impact of the rise of the inter­net on adver­tis­ing sales rev­enue for news­pa­pers. But in another, it is a weird attempt to reduce costs by out­sourc­ing an essen­tial step in the process of pro­duc­ing a daily newspaper–a bit like com­mit­ting Harakiri in order to lose weight.

Subs aren’t seen by the read­ers of a news­pa­per, but they play sev­eral essen­tial roles, from scan­ning reports from exter­nal news ser­vices (“wire ser­vices”, as they were once called) to copy edit­ing, last minute lay­out changes, etc.

They also inter­act with the jour­nal­ists writ­ing sto­ries, and they tend to be “old hands” at the news­pa­per game, with the wis­dom as well as the cyn­i­cism that goes with that.

To my mind, this pro­posal is a bit like remov­ing inter­ac­tion between expe­ri­enced nurses at a hos­pi­tal and newby dTo my mind, it would be a bit like remov­ing inter­ac­tion between expe­ri­enced nurses at a hos­pi­tal and newby doc­tors. I’d pre­fer to go to a hos­pi­tal where expe­ri­enced nurses restrained the enthu­si­asm of inex­pe­ri­enced if well-trained new doc­tors. Out­sourc­ing won’t get too much in the way of the base func­tions, but it will end that inter­ac­tion between old hands and new jour­nal­ists, and I expect that the papers will become much weaker for it.

This is ironic, because a major rea­son why news­pa­pers have suf­fered from the inter­net is that peo­ple can get a lot of online com­men­tary from sites like mine for free–and they rely on the news­pa­pers more for the news feeds that subs play a major role in main­tain­ing. If a news­pa­per loses its subs–or has the same subs as its com­peti­tors because they out­source the role to the same or sim­i­lar organisations–then they lose one unique fea­ture that made them desir­able when com­pared to the world of free online com­men­tary on the Inter­net.

So I sup­port the actions of Fair­fax jour­nal­ists to resist this move, or at least to reduce its sever­ity and keep some of that old-time wis­dom in house. If you’d like to sup­port them as well, here is a let­ter Fair­fax jour­nal­ists sent ask­ing for sup­port:

Dear Fair­fax, Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald and The Age reader, We write with an urgent request for your help to limit dam­ag­ing cost cut­ting at the Fair­fax mast­heads, the Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald and The Age. We believe these cuts will have a long-term neg­a­tive impact on the qual­ity of jour­nal­ism at these unique and impor­tant pub­li­ca­tions.

We urge you to email today the indi­vid­u­als below and join our online cam­paign call­ing for a more well thought out approach to change.
We are com­mit­ted, and will con­tinue to be com­mit­ted, to pro­vid­ing you with the robust, crit­i­cal, inde­pen­dent, qual­ity report­ing that has long been asso­ci­ated with these pub­li­ca­tions but we need your help. Please pass this email on to your friends, col­leagues and rel­a­tives.
Yours sin­cerely,
Edi­to­r­ial staff at The Age and Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald.

Join our cam­paign on:
Face­book: Future Proof Fair­fax


Dear Mr Hywood and Mr Matthews,

Fair­fax staff recog­nise there is a need to change, par­tic­u­larly when con­fronted with a rapidly diver­gent media envi­ron­ment. For Fair­fax to be com­mer­cially AND edi­to­ri­ally suc­cess­ful, staff must be included in the deci­sion mak­ing process from the begin­ning. At the moment you are fail­ing to do this. Cut­ting costs with­out con­sul­ta­tion and tar­get­ing areas that are cru­cial to the integrity, inde­pen­dence and qual­ity of your mast­heads and pub­li­ca­tions is not accept­able. Your approach is dam­ag­ing to staff morale and to the Fair­fax brands in the com­mu­ni­ties they serve. As a dili­gent reader of your pub­li­ca­tions, I urge you to rethink your approach.

Yours sin­cerely,

One rea­son for my sup­port here is that, decades ago, I became friends with some sub­bies from AAP, and helped them out dur­ing the jour­nal­ists’ strike back in the late 70s (or was that the early 80s?). I also worked with them when I arranged sev­eral sem­i­nars on jour­nal­ism back when I worked with the Aus­tralian Free­dom from Hunger Cam­paign and the United Nations Association–one sem­i­nar on the cov­er­age of the col­lapse of India’s Janata Party, another on Aus­tralian and Chi­nese news cov­er­age of each other’s coun­tries, and a third on Aus­tralian and South East Asian news. I came to under­stand and respect the roles they played in putting news­pa­pers together. It’s hard for me to imag­ine news­pa­pers with­out them on board.

Finally, the only real solu­tion here is to attack the prob­lem: the rivalry between free infor­ma­tion on the Inter­net and the com­mer­cial roles of news­pa­pers. The only long term solu­tion will be micro­pay­ment sys­tems, which so far have been sin­gu­larly unsuc­cess­ful. I’ve recently added a Flattr link on my site, which is about the only viable micro­pay­ment sys­tem out there right now. Of course I’d per­fer to have read­ers pay a micro­pay­ment (a frac­tion of a cent) per click, and if that could be imple­mented across the Inter­net then the finan­cial prob­lems that lie behind deci­sions like this might evap­o­rate.

But that, if it ever hap­pens, is far in the future. The Fair­fax journalists–both those los­ing their jobs as subs, and those who are try­ing to imag­ine their news­pa­per with­out them–are los­ing now. Please sup­port their cam­paign to reverse–or at least reduce the scale of–this man­age­ment deci­sion.

About Steve Keen

I am Professor of Economics and Head of Economics, History and Politics at Kingston University London, and a long time critic of conventional economic thought. As well as attacking mainstream thought in Debunking Economics, I am also developing an alternative dynamic approach to economic modelling. The key issue I am tackling here is the prospect for a debt-deflation on the back of the enormous private debts accumulated globally, and our very low rate of inflation.
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  • ak


    There will be no micro-pay­ments with­out micro-pay­walls. These will mean that peo­ple will vote with their legs to “free” sites which aren’t gen­uinely free as they make money on adver­tis­ing (the Google model). There was recently a rather des­per­ate attempt to erect a pay­wall around all the lead­ing news­pa­per sites in Slo­va­kia… good luck with that, we’ll see how much more money they can make and whether no new com­peti­tors emerges over time. We are talk­ing about a tiny coun­try where peo­ple speak a lan­guage which is not spo­ken any­where else.

    In the United States, that would be com­pletely ille­gal for anti-trust rea­sons, and it’s imprac­ti­cal because there will always be a free alter­na­tive, as the United States has a giant never-end­ing sup­ply of sources.”

    If we think that the behav­iour of Inter­net users can be changed and they will vol­un­tar­ily pay for the con­tents — please look at the strug­gle to force peo­ple to pay for down­load­ing music and movies.

    I am sorry but I think that if some­one wants to spread his/her ideas, this has to be rather free to the con­sumers of the con­tents. It is plainly impos­si­ble to mon­e­tize blogs that way. You can charge peo­ple for an online course in het­ero­dox eco­nom­ics or for invest­ment advice but this is a dif­fer­ent story.

    Also there is a very inter­est­ing study belong­ing to behav­ioural eco­nom­ics described by Dan Ariely in “Pre­dictably Irra­tional”. Either mar­ket norms apply where ser­vices are sold/bought for money or gift exchange / char­ity / friend­ship social norms and oblig­a­tions apply where peo­ple still exchange goods and ser­vices but that con­text must remain free from com­mer­cial ele­ments.

    In chap­ters 4 and 5, Ariely speaks in great detail of the dif­fer­ences between social norms—which include friendly requests with instant pay­back not being required—and mar­ket norms—which account for wages, prices, rents, cost ben­e­fits, and repay­ment being essen­tial.
    He also explains how com­bin­ing the two can cre­ate trou­bling sit­u­a­tions. The author proves that peo­ple are happy to do things occa­sion­ally when they are not paid for them. In fact there are some sit­u­a­tions work out­put is neg­a­tively affected by pay­ment of small amounts of money. Tests showed that work done as a “favor” some­times pro­duced much bet­ter results than work paid for.”

    We can­not have a cake and eat a cake. Some Fair­fax employ­ees must find other jobs. The same hap­pened to many other pro­fes­sions like “lec­tors”, ele­va­tor oper­a­tors, errand run­ners, pin­set­ters, river dri­vers…

    One day it may hap­pen to soft­ware engi­neers as well.