Fairfax yesterday announced that it would be restructuring its business to align it more closely with a "modern newsroom," which is digital-centric and focused on audiences and content rather than traditional mastheads.
From the outset, chief executive editor Sinead Boucher said that the proposal of this restructure was not about "reducing headcount" but rather about reorganising the way the business operates.
“We are boosting our reporting capability in small and large communities, and by streamlining our print-focused production processes, increasing the ratio of content creators from just over half to almost two thirds,” Boucher said.
Despite these reassurances, the media quickly jumped onto the story and speculation on the number of job cuts quickly spread around the web.
TheNBR points to media speculation that as many as 115 Fairfax employees might be at risk of losing their jobs; the NZ Herald suggests that 180 editorial jobs will be disestablished, leading to approximately 20 job cuts; and Radio New Zealand puts the number at around 25, on the basis of Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union's Paul Tolich claim that 185 disestablished roles will be replaced by 160 new ones.
Numbers make for good headlines, but the reality is that it's still unclear how many staff members will be losing their jobs due to the restructuring at Fairfax.
StopPress approached Fairfax for an interview with Boucher to get her thoughts on the figures being quoted in the media, but she was not available for comment (StopPress has on previous occasions also asked the comms team to speak to Fairfax Media managing director Simon Tong*).
Group comms manager Emma Carter did, however, criticise the reports, saying: "There have been lots of numbers bandied around and inconsistencies in what has been reported over the last 24 hours."
Carter then went on to reiterate several details contained in the Fairfax release:
"We are not proposing to cut jobs from today's numbers: we're actually proposing to boost the number of local and specialist reporters across the country through the new structure. Local journalism is our backbone and we are committed to doing this better than anyone."
Fairfax, which employs around 700 journalists throughout the country, has over the last year emphasised the importance of its regional journalists in producing original content for both its online and print publications—and in yesterday's release Boucher said that the restructure would not diminish this commitment to local journalism.
"It’s an entirely different way of operating that puts our journalists even closer to the communities they cover."
Boucher says that the new newsrooms will be "digital first and socially driven" and "geared towards building a dynamic, responsive newsroom."
Pushing its digital strategy does make sense for Fairfax, given that the company's digital revenue across both the Australian and Kiwi markets has has grown over the last year.
For purposes of context, the Fairfax financial report released on 19 February shows that digital advertising revenue increased Au$13.7 million while print advertising revenue decreased by AU$16 million for Australia's metropolitan papers (Fairfax was previously asked for a similar breakdown for the Kiwi market, but this has not yet been provided).
Notably, the metropolitan papers in Australia are also generating funds via digital subs, which are fed through paywalls on the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Although digital revenue is still below that generated by print, Fairfax can no longer rest on its print legacy for its future. And this is especially true in the digital age, when innovation is often key to surviving swift changes.
Fairfax already laid the groundwork for its shift to a more digital newsroom when it updated its CMS system earlier this year with the aim of giving it journalists improved digital storytelling tools.
“[The new CMS is] very flexible for journalists, and what I mean by that is that it allows for the telling of news stories in an effective way, using lots of fresh media elements: videos, images, charts, diagrams, and snippets pulled out of Twitter and other media," said Fairfax Media development director Rob Hutchison at the time.
The expectations on modern journalists extend beyond producing copy for stories. They are now required to add the interactive elements that readers expect to see in the online space. And the steps to publishing stories are also changing, with journalists now expected to produce copy ready for publication.
Previously, Boucher told StopPress that modern journalists shouldn't have to rely on other staff members to embed videos, imagery other interactive material into stories.
"We want all 700 of our journalists across the country to be in the position of producing stories that are publish-ready," she said.
Speculation surrounding the recent slew of changes suggests that the restructuring will see many subeditors departing the company due to the disestablishment of the Fairfax Editorial Services department.
Predictably, industry commentators have suggested that this will result in a drop in the quality of what is published on a daily basis. And while this might be true, it's also worth noting that it's human nature to long for how something was during periods of change. But baselines shift quickly, and before long we could have a generation of journalists who are happy to publish their own work without the assistance of a subeditor (and this is already the case at many digital publications).
*Update: Fairfax Media comms manager Emma Carter has confirmed that Tong will be available to chat about the changes at Fairfax in the near future.