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Reflections on a career tied inextricably to the rise of Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire and the effect of digitisation on the industry.

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Original illustration by Guy Shield

Few people watch the Academy Award-winning movie Spotlight without a feeling of moral injustice, rage even. The tale of how sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy in Boston was systematically covered up is hard for anyone to stomach.

In this movie it is the journalists from the Boston Globe newspaper who are the heroes, relentlessly chasing leads and building irrefutable evidence that those in charge of the church were negligent and complicit. Without their work this story would not have been told; the team won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003, the most prestigious available for US journalists.

But even that success couldn’t prevent readers abandoning the newspaper.

Average daily sales of the Globe were above 450,000 in 2003, but three years later had slipped well below 400,000. Today its average weekday sales are fewer than 250,000.

The Globe has been sold since the Spotlight story, dozens of its journalists have been laid off and its future, like newspapers across the English-speaking world, is dubious.

So journalists like me who watch the movie do so with a sense of melancholy; we fear we’re watching a documentary of a dying industry.

*

One day, not so long ago, it was my turn to be deemed redundant.

I’m part of a dying breed; a journalist squeezed out of work as the demand for traditional news sources contracts. Like chimney sweeps, rat catchers and switchboard operators, the humble newspaperman is becoming obsolete.

For more than 25 years I had made a small but useful contribution to what may be the world’s most influential media conglomerate, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

It felt good to be part of such a big, healthy news organisation.

I respected Murdoch for what he had done to build and nurture newspapers, both in Australia and around the world. He launched the Australian here in 1964, then bought Britain’s moribund Sunday newspaper, News of the World, in 1969. Soon afterwards he bought the low-circulating Sun newspaper, turned it into a tabloid, and within 10 years it was the highest-selling daily in the United Kingdom.

According to Larry Lamb, who edited the relaunched Sun, Murdoch dumbfounded his sceptical printers by first finding the stored-away crusher bars that would enable the presses to alter output size from broadsheet (News of the World) to tabloid (Sun), then showing them how to install them. How many newspaper proprietors would have known that?

When Murdoch moved into US newspapers in the early 1970s, then into movies and television with the purchase of 20th Century Fox in the mid-1980s, I admired him as an Australian taking on the wider world. It helped that he took many Australian executives and journalists with him to make his foreign ventures successful.

It felt good to be part of such a big, healthy news organisation.

Thirty years ago when I got my first job as a cadet journalist, newspapers were still the primary source of news and information. Readers then may have seen the news on television the night before, or heard it on the radio, but reading it over breakfast made it real.

Hard copy was exactly that.

For a junior reporter every day at work was exciting and different. Barely 20, I was working for a local daily in Tasmania. What fun to attend events, see sights and meet people, then return to the office to write about what I’d seen, done and heard. The next day, people would pick up their newspaper and read my reports of the previous day’s happenings. I was enlightening them about the world in which they lived.

For a while I was the paper’s ‘casino reporter’, interviewing the stars invited to perform at Hobart’s Wrest Point, such as comedians Ronnie Corbett and Reg Varney, singer Don McLean and Dame Edna Everage. When the Prince and Princess of Wales toured Tasmania in 1983 I sneaked into an official reception and stood beside Diana to stare at her flawless complexion. The most serious reporting I did was from the Gordon River in the summer of 1981–1982 when thousands of protesters succeeded in stopping the Franklin River being dammed.

Later, when I moved from reporting to subediting, I loved the arrival of a paper hot off the press, the smell of warm ink and newsprint dust, reading the words that only a few hours earlier my fellow subs and I had been engaged in polishing: our editing, our designs, our headlines. This was the craft, where every word was carefully scrutinised for accuracy and meaning; where tenses had to be consistent and grammar correctly employed.

Finally, as an editor and manager, I enjoyed the challenge of guiding and nurturing people and ideas, developing and interpreting the news, and leading campaigns to uncover the truth or improve the community.

News Corporation is the sum of many different businesses in many different environments. Until recently its Australian arm was known as News Limited, now News Corp Australia. Like the Globe in Boston, sales of all News Corp Australia papers are in decline.

Editors hope the slowly rising popularity of news websites will provide a lifeline for masthead journalism, but the costs of almost all are still being subsidised by newsprint advertising revenue or other forms of sponsorship.

*

My introduction to News Corp was in London in late 1986 when I accepted subediting shifts with the Sunday Times. Earlier that year, in a daring clandestine move, Murdoch had moved his four UK newspapers – the Times, Sunday Times, the Sun and News of the World – from Fleet Street to a purpose-built four-and-a-half hectare site in what was once London’s docks.

The overnight shift (encouraged by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher) so enraged the print and journalist unions they promptly declared the site black. Anybody working there was now an enemy of the proletariat, they claimed, and would have trouble finding work anywhere else. Many staff, understandably anxious about their futures, resigned their jobs and refused to cross the picket line at Wapping.

Itinerant Australian, New Zealand and South African journalists weren’t so highly principled and crossed the pickets to accept the high wages on offer and the promise of a good story to tell their grandchildren. On days I was rostered to work, I would call a secret Wapping phone number to learn which outlying London railway station would have an armoured bus waiting. This vehicle would then run the gauntlet of the union picket, buffering the bricks and other missiles hurled by enraged unionists.

We were scabs, but to my mind justifiably so. Fleet Street newspapers had been woefully behind the rest of the world in technology and practice, and Murdoch was simply acting pre-emptively to preserve the industry and his business.

I wanted to be part of a newspaper revolution.

By the winter of 1986–87, the active picketing of the site had reduced to just Saturday nights. Each night hundreds of unionists would barricade the gates and attempt to stop the trucks heading out laden with newspapers. Hundreds of police, many on horseback, would push back to clear the way. Working inside the old wine store that housed the editorial offices behind the wire, we would hear the roars of the crowd, the revving engines of the trucks and clattering of horses’ hoofs on cobblestones as they clashed at the gate.

It wasn’t always peaceful inside the walls, with the editors and staff of money-making publications the Sun and the News of the World scornful of those on the Times, a perennial loss-maker. Intoxicated by their massive circulations, the tabloids misinterpreted their stories about strippers, naughty vicars and overpaid footballers as news. (In 1986 the Sun was selling in excess of four million copies a day. Today it sells fewer than two million.)

We were scabs, but to my mind justifiably so… I wanted to be part of a newspaper revolution.

The Times journalists, bolstered by their publication’s 200-year history and recognition as being ‘a paper of record’, had no doubts they were a superior breed. Their ponderous approach was famous – the chief subeditor advised me earnestly that the Times used both the suffixes ‘-ise’ and ‘-ize’, one for words with Latin roots and the other for those of Greek origin.

‘How do I know which one is which?’ I asked.

‘My boy,’ he replied, ‘you should know.’

Good subeditors would build their own personal encyclopaedias with important lists, spellings of awkward words, potted histories of small but significant wars and pages of obscure grammar usage. (Author Bill Bryson, who subbed on the Times in the late 1970s and early 1980s, actually published his personal stylebook, although I don’t think it was one of his better sellers.)

Good newspapermen and -women double-checked every name, every number and every fact in their stories. Subeditors rang those phone numbers to be published to check their veracity. Winning lotto numbers were run past half a dozen sets of eyes before being committed to print; people lost their jobs for letting through factual errors. When I was editing the Weekly Times, my editor-in-chief once castigated me for letting through some small errors of grammar: ‘Children learn to read using your paper,’ he growled. ‘Don’t let them down.’

News Corp editors deny the common accusation that Rupert Murdoch tells them what to put in their papers, but there are times when he rings them direct and times when he strongly advises them what to publish. Owners can be like that when profits are good.

When I worked in London, Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil would emerge from his office on many Saturday nights and brief his backbench after a conversation with the boss.

This was the 1980s and Thatcherism – conservative policy that seemed to highlight the division between rich and poor – dominated Britain. I arrived eager to see the world and try my luck in Fleet Street just as the year-long coal miners’ strike collapsed, bringing to an end a way of life for communities across the country, forcing thousands out of work. In the rich south-east, however, business was booming and fortunes being made – at least until the stock market crash of 1987.

For me, Britain in the mid-1980s was as much about football (the club I chose to follow, Oxford United, won the 1986 League Cup) and music, as work. Anyone who doubts the significance of this time to music history should check the line-up of the Live Aid concert of July 1985.

For family reasons as much as anything else, after three-and-a-half years, I decided to return to Australia in 1988 and found work with the Herald and Weekly Times (HWT).

Murdoch had bought HWT in 1987, the publishing house his father had built in Melbourne, to complement his Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide operations. He installed an expensive team of editors to revive the fortunes of Melbourne’s afternoon publication, the Herald. They failed, and the 130-year-old paper was folded into the morning publication, the Sun, in October 1990.

I worked at HWT for 23-and-a-half years, first on the newsdesk of the Herald, then as editor of the Weekly Times, in special projects for the Herald Sun, and finally editorial management.

*

The Sydney Olympics was a watershed in the history of News Corp in Australia, and probably many other news organisations. To cover this massive event the various state mastheads – particularly in Sydney and Melbourne – had to cooperate in ways they had never done before.

News Limited was a series of separate state-based businesses reporting to a lean head office in Sydney, and thence to New York, Los Angeles or wherever else Murdoch based himself. The Herald Sun in Melbourne, Daily Telegraph in Sydney, Courier Mail in Brisbane, the Advertiser in Adelaide and the Mercury in Hobart cooperated, but only to a point. Beyond that they were fierce rivals. About all the various editors shared was a loathing for the Australian.

The tabloids hated sharing copy or pictures with the poor-selling Australian, which they saw as being favoured by Murdoch with unjustified resources. Murdoch himself was responsible for the Australian’s birth and it’s unlikely he will be responsible for its death.

The Olympics experience convinced those in control of the purse strings that economies had to be found. The cost of covering the Games was huge yet the returns were low: incremental advertising revenue was minimal, as were sustained circulation gains.

The company conservatism meant we almost missed the digital revolution.

I was HWT’s Olympics Editor, although the title was a misnomer. My responsibilities were limited to the logistics of getting about 40 Melbourne journalists to Sydney and keeping them there safely. Despite it being the biggest story in the country for decades, not all were pleased about being assigned to the task – one reporter demanded to be flown home mid-Games for the weekend.

News Limited journalists from all states were gathered into a unified team where content and page designs were generated in Sydney and transmitted to the various mastheads across the country. Photographers were armed with digital cameras, rendering film obsolete, which made the sharing of images much easier.

Among its many commitments, News Limited had secured sponsorship of the Olympic torch relay, a massive four-month relay across the world. The company promised to publish pictures of every Australian who carried the torch, resulting in a vast investment in extra newsprint and innovative satellite coverage to ensure pictures were transmitted from the torch’s most remote travels. Twelve months prior, News Limited’s Olympics team had travelled the entire route as part of its planning, including a trip to Greece where the torch was lit.

As well as areas of high cost, the Games exposed areas of duplication. For example, News Limited papers in all states had motoring writers who would attend the same car launches and write similar reviews. Surely the work of one News Limited motoring journalist could be shared around the group?

A News Limited Olympics website was established, although it only carried digital versions of the newspaper stories and lengthy columns of results. At the time we saw the website as the ideal means of publishing those details that couldn’t be squeezed into newsprint. I had dreams of it being the repository for suburban bowls results, country race meeting summaries and school sport details, never thinking such communities would set up their own websites for such material.

The company conservatism meant we almost missed the digital revolution.

Long after the smaller Fairfax business realised the future of 21st-century news publishing was online, News Limited was still reluctant to devote resources to its various masthead websites. With much higher circulations and advertising revenues they had more to lose if they switched their focus.

After the Olympics, head office ordered a heavier tread to the company’s online footprint, having seen how US and UK newspapers were hedging their bets with a powerful presence on the World Wide Web.

Resentfully, most of the editors assigned some of their least valued staff to the website workforce and would not break their scoops online.

At the same time, advertisers were questioning the value of newsprint. As public attention gravitated to digital platforms, so too did advertisers, chasing audience and sales for a much cheaper outlay, with the result that all newspapers saw their advertising revenue plummet.

I was told the Queensland arm of the company, publisher of the Courier Mail, lost $55 million in advertising revenue over just a few years to 2010. Rationalising services and shedding staff was the surest way to contain costs and protect profit. Bit by bit, local editors lost their independence and with it their newspaper’s individuality. Increasingly, decisions were taken by head office with a national mindset rather than a local one.

The perfect storm was completed with the increasing costs of printing and distribution. Once, newspaper revenue could easily cover the cost of printers, ink, trucks, trains and planes, but now these costs were such that it was more profitable to print smaller papers and print fewer editions. (More pages in a newspaper makes them heavier, which means bigger trucks are needed to ferry them around, which means more cost.)

News Limited eventually caught up digitally with its rivals, with all mastheads now having modern, vibrant paywall-protected websites, although it’s the company’s generic, free site news.com.au that generates the most traffic. The corollary was that staff resources were taken from the newsprint production side of the business, and this led to a drop in the quality of the newspapers. Fewer eyes were spending less time working with the words.

*

I wish Murdoch had handed the company over to others at its zenith around the end of the last century. The News of the World hacking scandal, failed forays into new media (think Myspace) and a couple of unusual wives have, for me at least, tarnished his legacy.

Those of us who worked for News Corp believed the company offered us an abundance of opportunities, whether to travel the world or to work in the many different ventures Murdoch was following. Some staff did manage to move around and up, although the majority of us stayed within our silos.

My last task with HWT was to establish a subediting hub in Melbourne, in which subeditors from all sections of the business in Victoria would work from a central point to better manage production. It was a sensible way of evening the workflow and reducing costs. It would have worked, too, if the average quality and capacity of subeditors had gone up, which it would have done with patience, training and respect. Unfortunately there was little patience for that and the hub was dismantled not long after I left.

Those who worked in the subs’ hub now lament the passing of quality wordsmithing and the lack of management commitment to accuracy and fact-checking. Now that news is carried first by digital media, language, grammar and factual accuracy seem less important than speed. Old newspapermen and -women worry about a business – and perhaps an industry – that’s lost sight of its core strengths.

Good journalism can still be achieved through digital media, whether mainstream news sites or social media – or at least we hope so. The fear is that editorial direction for digital publication will be dictated by clicks, which means lots more froth and bubble. (An early editor of the Herald Sun’s website told me the most popular story he’d published was about model Miranda Kerr wearing a Collingwood football jumper.)

Critics argue that readers look only to the internet for articles that directly affect them, or only to commentators with whom they agree. At least in a newspaper the reader may encounter contrary views.

On the plus side – and it’s a big, big plus – digital presentation of news stories can be quicker and reach more readers. And it can allow the convergence of media channels to present a complete picture: the written word, moving images, sound, graphics and more.

Despite its financial troubles, the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team still follows big stories with six reporters dedicated to its investigations. Team member Mike Rezendes recently told Hollywood blogger Anne Thompson the team was still prepared to take a year to uncover a good story.

‘Because of the internet and technology, we have a lot of tools that we didn’t have before,’ Rezendes said. ‘In fact, our job is easier, in a lot of ways: we go deeper, much faster. When we do finish a year-long project, we can use social media and the internet to get the story to go viral. There’s a real upside to the internet era.’

I hope Rezendes is right.

For me, though, the ride is probably over, and it was fun while it lasted. I may not have been a big company wheel but at times I had the ear of senior management and I did meet Rupert himself – I have a handwritten letter from him warmly congratulating me on a book I compiled for the 125th anniversary of the Weekly Times, the popular Victorian rural newspaper of which I was editor for four years.

I’m not sorry it ended, although I would have preferred to pick when that end was to be.