Broken news? Fairfax's Garry Ferris on the newsroom of the modern era

  • Media
  • May 9, 2013
  • Ben Fahy
Broken news? Fairfax's Garry Ferris on the newsroom of the modern era

As if taking on the rather sizeable job as Fairfax's Auckland editor-in-chief wasn’t stressful enough, Garry Ferris’s home was robbed three times in his first eight days in Auckland. But despite the tough introduction and fairly troubling times for print media—and the company he's now working for—the avowed newspaper man is still remarkably chipper.

Ferris, 45, has a CV full of newspaper experience, spanning everything from a stint at The Guardian's sports desk to a few years at Queenstown’s plucky weekly The Mountain Scene (which was recently bought by Allied Press, the owners of The Otago Daily Times). But he admits this job, which sees him take control of the Auckland newsroom, including Fairfax's two Sunday papers, the Fairfax Suburbans and the feeding of content into, is the biggest job he's taken on.

"It's a massive challenge," he says. But, after many years in many different chairs, he feels he's developed the skills to run the 100-strong newsroom of the modern era. 

When he was in the UK, he worked at the sports desk on the Independent on Sunday. But he also worked on the features desk and one of his first jobs was to sub a rather confusing diary. 

“It made absolutely no sense to me. It was almost in another language, like run of thought ramblings. Turns out it was Bridget Jones’ Diary. I was trying my hardest but I'd still have to turn to the guy beside me and say ‘does this make sense?’ because it was so colloquial.”

On his second last weekend in London in 1997, Princess Diana died. And he says it was one of the instances where the penny dropped about the power of newspapers and the importance of the story.

“I got up the next morning after it happened and I remember seeing the string of newspapers. One of the papers had no Diana, the rest had 'Diana injured', and only one paper had 'Diana dead'. And that brought the sales. So I understood that’s why they whip you at deadline. It stuck with me." 

Ferris knows things have changed markedly since then. News is now always on, not just available in the morning. Circulations and ad volumes have decreased—and are still decreasing. And while online eyeballs are growing, internet advertising is not meeting what’s needed (The Pew research centre's latest figures show for every $16 lost on print, there's been just $1 in online advertising). 

“Clearly we need to be producing newspapers for less, but here’s the kicker, they need to be better. The free newspaper model has always worked but there’s so much more competition out there now. People go searching for their news like never before. If 9/11 happens in the middle of the day, people are locked in to their TVs or online. So by the time their paid newspaper arrives the next morning, you'd better have taken that news, digested it and delivered something they didn’t already know. Simplified, that’s what we’re trying to do." 

Newspaper mastheads have always traded in trust, he says. And trust in what people read on the internet is declining. So Ferris does see hope for online newspapers. 

“You can find the answer to a lot of questions in life online. Whether those answers are right or not is very much debateable. So I think trust is a really important thing for mastheads.”

Money is also an important thing for newspapers. And there’s certainly not as much of it around, which, in simple terms, is leading to vicious cycle of editorial cuts, declining product quality, fewer sales and fewer ads. The New York Times has had some success with its leaky paywall (although it seems to have hit a growth wall and it is anomaly in the sense it is an international paper). So as Fairfax gets ready to implement its paywall in Australia, what’s happening in New Zealand? 

“I haven’t sat in on that. I come from a News Ltd background in Australia. And everyone is trying to figure this out. I guess we have to sit back here and look and see how it goes. From what I’m reading we don’t have a New Zealand strategy yet. I’ve sat in on a lot of meetings in the past and that’s definitely the challenge for media groups. For us, I think it’s a wait and see.”

So is Stuff profitable as it is?

“I wouldn’t say I’m the expert on Stuff and I couldn’t tell you that without making a couple of calls. I think it’s an integral part of the Fairfax brand. It’s in our interests for Stuff to be exactly where it’s positioned. It’s part of the reach that I think is our great strength. I know I’m the guy sitting in Auckland but being able to draw on that massive footprint throughout New Zealand means we’re able to communicate a message around the country. We’re a vehicle for advertisers to have a consistency of message.”

While this might be good for advertisers, some see this as a weakness when it comes to editorial. While the Otago Daily Times was long ridiculed for its unashamed focus on the region, that has turned out to be a fairly smart strategy. But readers tend to notice when the same stories feature in The Dominion Post, The Press and The Southland Times. 

“For our newsroom it’s fantastic. We’re in touch with The Waikato Times, for example, so it’s about local contacts and having people on the ground who probably don’t need to waste half a day trying to find contacts because they know where to go. I think it’s a really big plus for us.”

Commercial realities have bitten down hard on publishers in recent years. Simply put, advertisers are now less inclined to pay for ads that help pay for the production of content. And, across all media, this has led to a commercial creep. Ferris thinks this creep has been around for a long time. But he’s still a purist in terms of editorial separation. And his main role is driving content and "converting it into a seven day a week operation".

In this way, he says his job is very similar to a role he held in Brisbane where the Courier Mail went from a Sunday paper to a seven day a week proposition, and where writers who were doing two features a week then needed to write every day.

“If I go back to when I left Mountain Scene in 2010, I really didn’t have a head for digital. I was 42, so I took a job with News Ltd to run their commuter paper, MX. Write it fast, write it short and get it out there. And I’m cool with that. Again, it taught me about deadlines. If it wasn't ready to go by 11am, your truck literally couldn’t get into some parts of the city. That helped me in terms of my office management. I don’t know everything about digital, don’t get me wrong, but I think I know how to drive this new newsroom.”

There’s no doubt there’s plenty of pressure on news journalists at present. Anecdotally, we’ve heard of media companies having trouble filling roles and schools having trouble filling journalism courses. Given the lack of job security, low pay and stress levels, it's not entirely surprising, but it is slightly ironic that journalism currently seems to have a bit of a PR problem (newspaper reporter was voted the worst job in a recent US survey). Again, however, Ferris is looking on the bright side.

“What the [new breed of journalists] might lack in contacts and experience they can make up for with their use of technology, like being able to do a handheld piece to camera. You’re also wanting a nice piece of writing so rather than producing a 'he said, she said' news hound, we need to be producing people who can hold people through a longer piece as well … You need to have an operation that’s on top of its costs. I think you need to be cleverer. The numbers in newsrooms have massively declined. So we do expect more but equally we’ve got all the tools at our fingertips to take photos, or to file from anywhere … You can’t chase every ambulance. Those days are over, because by the time you get out to an event there are already photos out there on social media, so you need to use those resources.”

Speaking of longer pieces, Fairfax has been soundly beaten by The Herald on Sunday in Auckland and most of the North Island (it is one of the few papers in the country—and probably the world—to increase paid circ in recent surveys). In last year's readership and circ figures, The Sunday Star-Times, was down across the board, registering an overall decline in readership of 14 percent year on year, going from 540,000 to 466,000 readers in an average week. It also registered a 14 percent decline in circulation to 134,956. Not surprisingly, its newspaper inserted magazine Sunday followed suit, losing around 80,000 readers to reach 409,000. Sunday News was down 17 percent to paid circ of 40,082. But he’s confident he can turn things around. And, judging by the renewed activity on Twitter, there's a bit more energy around the place.

“Sundays are a completely different kettle of fish in terms of the reader. I keep saying I’m in the leisure industry. My job is about content. I’ve got to make sure we’ve got content week in week out that’s going to surprise people. Great breaking news yarns, big stories, in-depth investigations, driving great campaigns. I was about to say 'just the usual stuff', but is it the usual stuff? … They get Syrian wars all week and I think they need a change of pace. I hate that expression dumbing down. It’s not dumbing down. It’s prioritising for that day where things fit.”

When he was considering the job, he says he was sent a copy of the Sunday Star Times and the bylines in the paper gave him massive confidence.

“Yes, there are challenging times ahead, but there are fantastic resources in that newsroom. So it’s about harnessing them. And creating this togetherness in the newsroom … I absolutely believe that the SST has the necessaries to deliver on the promise in the market place. We’ve got to concentrate on keeping the readers we’ve got, winning readers back and getting new readers.”

So are there misconceptions about the state of newspapers in New Zealand, both from the marcomms industry and from the general public? 

“Newspapers have apparently been dying for years. I remember when I left school in 1985 and said I wanted to be a journalist and my economics teacher stood me up in front of the class and said we’d all be using computers in a few years. The reality is there are a lot more ways for people to access their news now. We need to be the product of trust, the product that tells people something new, the stories behind the stories and I think it will be an organic way of reaching readers.”

Journalism is changing, resources are strained and, with social media, information is easy and freely available, so it's understandable it would be used. But it's still low hanging journalistic fruit. And Ferris is of the mind that "you go and you get".

“You’ve got to be on the ground. You can be on the phone and get something, but in terms of the stories I want to see on the front of our paper, I want to see a depth of work. It’s not just a couple of phonecalls matching a couple of facts. That’s not a Sunday lead, that’s joining the dots. You do tell stories differently now. In the old days journalists dreaded the death knocks. So now you can go onto Facebook and see someone who's been the victim of crime, but is that the right way to go? Is that going to get you the great story? No, it's not." 

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