Journalists and editorial staff at Fairfax media walked off the job for 36 hours on May 30 in response to an outsourcing scheme announced by management. Workers from the Sydney Morning Herald, the Melbourne Age, Newcastle Herald, Illawarra Mercury, Sun Herald, Canberra Times and Australian Financial Review took part in the stoppage.
Sixty-six subediting jobs at the Newcastle Herald, Mercury and seven associated community newspapers would be moved to a New Zealand office of Fairfax Media.
In Newcastle, a rally to defend workers at the Herald attracted hundreds of people to Civic park on June 2. A similar rally was held in Wollongong the same day.
Fairfax management subsequently entered into negotiations focussed on an alternative restructuring plan presented by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) on behalf of staff.
But on June 12 management rejected the workers' restructuring plan and reiterated its intention to carry out the offshoring scheme.
MEAA equity member and Green Left Weekly's Zane Alcorn spoke with Tim Connell and Greg Ray from the Newcastle Herald about the June 2 rally and the current dispute.
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How did you get people along to the the snap action at civic park?
Tim Connell: I put out feelers through social media, trying to build on the strong platform of support the We Love Our Newcastle Herald page already enjoys on Facebook.
We haven't had to push hard to get people to speak up about keeping subeditors in Newcastle. We only had a day (the one we were on strike) to work on it properly, and you saw the results in Civic Park.
What do think of the role of social media like Facebook for people like the Herald workers, who need to fairly quickly build up a support network to defend your livelihoods?
TC: Social media is extremely effective at getting word out if your idea already strikes a chord with people. It's a conduit, but no more than that.
Even after using Facebook for years, like most people, I've been stunned by the numbers who've backed us on there. Not to mention on Twitter.
I created the rally event as an afterthought one night, and woke the next day mildly embarrassed that I'd put it out there. But 80 people had already accepted the invitation. I'd underestimated our support. That base of 80 increased by a handful every time I looked at my Facebook, and had swollen to about 350 the last time I checked on the morning of the rally.
So in short, if you have a powerful idea, it will snowball on Facebook. If you have a weak idea, it will fizzle.
Having hosted the rally in Civic park, can you comment upon the level of community support for the Herald workers that has been shown?
Greg Ray: We expected powerful community support, for a variety of reasons. For a start, the idea of exporting jobs is something that most people find inherently repugnant.
Added to that is the extreme distaste Newcastle people feel for interference from outside, especially from Sydney and especially if that interference seems ill-considered. Fairfax’s move on the Newcastle Herald and its stable of satellites fits the familiar narrative.
It was hard to find a logical reason for the move on Newcastle when it seemed obvious that Fairfax had innumerable problems elsewhere. It is widely known that the Newcastle Herald, unlike some other Fairfax papers, still makes a good profit.
The immediate conclusion many Novocastrians drew was that, once again, capital city decision-makers were making Newcastle pay unfairly for shortcomings elsewhere. This sense of resentment is always latent in Newcastle, and it isn’t hard to appeal to Novocastrians when they see what they think is apparent arrogance from outside causing detriment to their city.
Another factor is the popularity of the Newcastle Herald brand and the fear that people felt about “their” product being damaged. In general, the paper has a reputation for tolerating a relatively wide spectrum of opinion. It is also considered to be generally fair and relatively unbiased in its reporting, a fact repeatedly stressed by politicians of various persuasions who addressed the rally.
The rally was a remarkable success, given the extremely short lead time [48 hours], the poor weather and our inability to harness the Herald itself for any publicity.
Feedback from readers and advertisers has been ferocious, suggesting anger is deep and widespread.
Part of the rationale for the offshoring scheme is that print media is increasingly struggling to compete with online media. Yet presumably some of the staff at the Herald would have ideas for how to better integrate it online. Has management endeavoured to listen to and act upon ideas for how to modernise from within its own ranks before resorting to this slash-and-burn offshoring plan?
GR: Staff and management at the Newcastle Herald had worked together for several months on a wide-ranging plan to migrate online without wrecking the still-successful print model. This was done in a very collegiate and cooperative way and that added to the shock felt when Fairfax came out of nowhere with its job-exportation proposal.
What hasn’t dawned on many capital city media brains is that local news is a premium product for which a paying audience will be easier to find than for “dime a dozen” mainstream world and national news and commentary.
Commentators such as John Pilger have observed that Australia is home to some of the most concentrated media ownership in the Western world. How do you feel recent managerial shifts at Fairfax, such as the offshoring plan, and the imposition of certain moneyed interests upon the board of directors, affect this situation?
GR: The challenge for the established newspaper brands is to maintain their market dominance in the new media environment online. The harsh reality is that online media can’t replicate the old “rivers of money” that once flowed from newsprint, so costs have to fall.
Online media products can’t afford to employ journalists in the same numbers that old-style newspapers could, at least not yet. The proprietors have been wrestling with that problem for years, without much success. They will certainly find new and profitable niches online, but they won’t be oligopolists, as before.
Journalists are perhaps not known for being up there with blue collar workers, teachers or nurses in terms of having a culture of going on strike to protect their rights at work. Has the recent dispute been a bit of a crash course in the fairly restrictive laws that Australian workers face in this regard? Do you think the right of workers to withdraw their labour should be enshrined in law?
GR: Journalists have a long history of taking industrial action to protect and enhance their wages and conditions. They have a mixed record of success, however. Some of their most protracted actions have been dismal and expensive failures.
Fairfax journalists have been well aware for quite some time of the restrictive nature of present industrial law. This has been driven home during painful negotiations over enterprise bargains, with some quite high-stakes brinksmanship seen on at least a few recent occasions.
As a rule, journalists hate to strike. They have such an emotional and personal stake in their work and its creative and social aspects that they require extreme provocation to down tools.
I personally believe very strongly that the right to strike is a fundamental one that should never be removed. History demonstrates starkly and persuasively that, when labour is denied that right, it is disrespected and oppressed.
How can others support your campaign to stop the offshoring plan?
GR: Just keep telling Fairfax they are making a mistake. Write to them, call them, fax them and email them. Tell them the biggest regional cities of NSW deserve better.
[To show your support for the Herald workers, you cansign the petition here, or visit “We love our Newcastle Herald” and “We love our Illawarra Mercury” on Facebook or the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance website.]