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Journalism cuts affect communities

There’s always been rivalry between advertising and editorial departments.

Advertising blames editorial for spending money; editorial blames advertising for taking up column centimetres or air time. In truth, the relationship is symbiotic: advertising brings in money to pay for the editorial staff who create the content that attracts the readership/viewership that attracts the advertisers. If one side of this symbiosis falters, they both fail.

Over the past decade more and more resources have been pulled from newsrooms – mainly from editorial staff – creating a downward spiral from which it will be difficult to recover. Fairfax Media recently announced the equivalent of 80 full-time jobs to go in Victoria through voluntary redundancies – 62 of these editorial roles. The ABC reported that up to 20 jobs would go from the Bendigo Advertiser and Warrnambool Standard, and more than 20 at The Border Mail. In some cases this is almost half the editorial staff. Other mastheads affected are the Ballarat Courier, Ararat Advertiser and Stawell Times News.

Full disclosure: For twenty years I worked in broadcast production, as a broadcast and print reporter, sub-editor, editor and a freelance journalist for the national broadcaster, on small newspapers, for a community newspaper group, and a magazine with one of the highest circulations in Australia. I’ve covered everything from cake stalls to national stories. I’ve trained staff, and tutored at university. I have never worked for Fairfax, but I know staff who do or have done so in the past.

The loss of staff at already-under resourced publications will affect quality. Some may say, so what? Local media isn’t important. You can look everything you need to know up on the internet.

Here’s an example: I live in a growing town about halfway between two major regional cities. Our ‘local’ media is a monthly-ish publication with ads for local businesses, church notices and maybe one or two articles that are often press releases from the local MP.

Our council recently voted to change rubbish collection from weekly to fortnightly. Without local media to flag this issue, no-one found out until after the motion had been passed, and residents are petitioning, so far unsuccessfully, to have the decision reversed.

There have been developments that no-one knew about until ground was broken, and the first we heard about long-term roadworks in the town centre was a sentence in the school newsletter. The main street was recently shut down for several hours due to a major regional sporting event – and no-one knew about it until the signs were put up.

Granted, the council should be better at communicating with residents, but one of the roles of media is to act as a watchdog for all levels of government. These are small, but significant, examples of the role local media plays in informing the community, not just entertaining: the media exists not only to tell the community what it wants to know, but also what it needs to know.

Journalism can be a thankless job. I don’t know anyone who’s gone into it for the money, and dedicated, talented journalists are often lumped in with ambulance-chasing Fleet Street hacks. Reporters want to tell stories, and connect their communities through information. It’s not, despite popular opinion, a job just anyone can do – there are legal aspects, it’s high-pressure, there’s a requirement to differentiate between opinion, advertorial and editorial, and stories need to be fair and balanced. And a paragraph stating ‘the contents of this publication are not the responsibility of the publisher and are not subject to legal action’ does not make it true. The media can, and does, change lives. That’s a responsibility not to be taken lightly.

But the job is also a privilege. You’re telling the stories of people at their highest and lowest points. The end story is a select portion of what the reporter discovers. You might interview a distraught parent about a child who died in a car explosion, then the emergency workers and the principal of the child’s school; then condense that into a few hundred words. You might arrive at a road fatality to discover it’s a relative of one of your colleagues or friends. You might find yourself in a macabre competition with other reporters to find a local angle to a major overseas bomb blast or natural disaster – and by ‘angle’ I mean a death, injury or grieving family.

You might also meet musicians, artists, performers, sports stars, heads of state, and bring the inspiring stories of everyday people to the page.

Increasingly, you might be competing with social media to get the story out – which means information is often corrected post-publication rather than checked pre-publication. A presenter at a social media conference a few years ago gleefully spoke about Twitter subscribers playing a game to see how far ahead of ‘traditional’ media the platform was in breaking stories. There were several journalists in the room, and almost as one we said ‘That’s because we check the facts first.’

Cutting editorial staff will affect quality in several ways. Experienced journalists will continue to leave the industry, sick of the instability. Remaining staff will have less time to do more work, and stories will not be covered properly – if at all. Statements on press releases will go unchallenged, and sub-editors will not have time to give valuable feedback to inexperienced staff. Advertorial is more likely to slip through as editorial. Publications will become more reliant on outside material, which, in my experience, often needs more work done to bring it up to publication standard than if the piece was written by a reporter.

Poor editorial quality leads to reduced readership – and once you lose a reader it’s hard to get them back. If people stop reading a publication – including online – advertisers stop advertising, publications will fold, and local communities will lose out. It’s a no-win situation.

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