So, in case you didn’t know, in 2006, just after the birth of my middle child, I began working for Uncle Rupert. Or as many call him, Rupert Murdoch. From the moment I began my journalism degree, my vision was to one day work on a daily metro. For me, that represented success. And in 2006, about 10 years after I graduated, that goal was reached when I was hired as a sub-editor on The Courier-Mail. Today, I mark two days of unemployment, since being made redundant from that job.
On the surface, that last statement may sound as though I’m devastated following a sacking from my dream job. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Here are a couple of lessons I’ve learned since being made redundant.
Dreams are funny things.
When you achieve a goal you’ve been aiming at for about a decade you think, “That’s it! I’ve got it made. My life is perfect.” At least, that’s what I thought. Working on a daily metro pays well. Better than any other area of journalism, as a matter of fact. So I was pretty happy to call myself a metro journo. But just when I landed my dream job, they went and changed it!
The more things change…
The job was transformed dramatically over the six years I was there. I started on the general news desk and we would sub half a dozen or so stories in a shift. This gave us time to really craft the story and more importantly, think about the selling points – the headline and the caption. These are the first points of entry for most people into a story and the goal is to make the headline captivating, interesting, intriguing and dynamic. And while you’re trying to achieve that in only three words, you also have to adhere to a loooong list of rules about what words you can and can’t use (always ‘police’ never ‘cops’ even though cops fits better in short spaces, always present tense, always active voice, and so on). Many of my best headlines were written during these years, when we had time – time to craft, time to think, time to be the best.
Harry Potter and my favourite headline
One of my favourite headlines (that lamentably never made it to print, for reasons that will shortly become obvious) was on a story about J.K. Rowling hinting that Dumbledore, a central character in her bestselling Harry Potter series, was in fact gay. It took me about 20 minutes of thinking, unravelling threads, meandering through the thesaurus before I hit upon my headline: “Poof! Dumbledore is gay”. It was highly regarded around the newsroom, the greatest of all accolades, and was even printed out on a full sheet (we were broadsheet back then) and pinned up on the pillars in the centre of the room for a long time. It’s a lighthearted play on words, but for reasons of causing offence to the gay community we chose not to run it. I completely understand that. But it was still one of my favourites.
But over the years, as newspapers began to struggle, the subbing team began to be pared back. The first step was to roll all the specialist subs into one desk. Where once you were a sports sub, or a business sub or a features sub, or a Sunday Mail sub, all of a sudden we were all one group. While on the surface that sounds small, in real terms it was like putting a gruff grizzly bear in a cage with a cranky polar bear and expecting them to get along. They’re not the same and they probably don’t like each other.
At the same time all the stories were put into one general news queue and we were expected to sub the story at the top of the queue, regardless of whether it was a sports story or a finance story or an esoteric story about the intricate and highly prized knitted brunch coats of the southwestern Innuit, popular on the runways of Paris and Milan this year. You can imagine how well it went down when a veteran sports sub of 40 years picked up a story that required he verify the spelling of Gaultier, chantilly lace and underwire bra branding. Or when a lifestyle sub-editor picked up a story that required her to understand the complicated draft rules of the AFL pre-season and its ramifications for the Brisbane Lions. It made the process slower, longer and harder for everyone. It was a pretty stupid idea. But they stuck with it.
Then the first round of redundancies came. Rumours swirled around about the exact number, about the call for voluntary redundancies that were meaningless when it came time to drop the axe. Management would get rid of whomever they wanted to and it mattered not whether you volunteered for redundancy or not. We heard the Gold Coast Bulletin’s round of redundancies was handled badly, with misinformation and half-truths flying until the air was thick with them. And we said goodbye to valued colleagues, some who were ready to move on and some who weren’t. Some were fathers with a young family and no clue what to do in life after News Ltd. But after all the bloodletting we were told that would be it. We were streamlined now, a lean business ready for the switch to the profitable online world of newspapers.
Then the company spent $60 million upgrading the Bowen Hills building. A tidy chunk of that money was spent on a TV studio in the basement that lies dormant. “It’s a sign of a healthy future,” we were told. “Rupert wouldn’t be spending this money if he thought newspapers were dying,” we were told. “Newpapers are safe, newspapers will survive,” the mantra went.
The subbing staff were then rolled into a separate business unit within News Queensland (formerly known as Queensland Newspapers) and called News Central. We had ‘clients’ – The Courier-Mail, The Sunday Mail and the Quest publications. This was all part of the streamlining process.
Also part of the streamlining process was the introduction of software called Fatwire that was supposed to make the leap to publishing online a simple task. From the start Fatwire struggled and staff hated it. Rumours had been circulating for a while that newspapers in the UK were introducing a piece of software that would completely eliminate sub-editors altogether. The page would be designed, reporters would write to fill the hole and would be in charge of all the elements of the subbing process as well. The backbench – a team of high level newspaper editorial staff who make all the crucial decisions about what goes in the paper and how it looks when it appears – would mop up the spots and dribbles of subbing that the reporter missed in their writing.
The lunacy of such a dangerous process filled us with shock and awe. Whole tracts of subs were being put out to pasture once this software came in. I can’t recall the title, but it had ‘wood’ in the name. Woodwind? Woodwark? Woodwire? Something like that. To this day I don’t even know if such software exists. Although, the next step in the inevitable march to demolish sub-editors is coming. It’s called Methode and it’s supposed to be a “publish once” solution for News. Instead of different versions of the same story being subbed three or four times, say, for the website, the iPad edition, and the print edition, it gets subbed once and the same version appears in each different platform. Sounds sensible. And sounds like it will need a quarter of the subs in its ranks.
And that brings us to the real problem newspapers are facing. Never before has a company been as big as News Corp. So the problems faced by this company are on a scale that we haven’t seen before. And it just so happens that newspapers are a big chunk of its business (alongside movies and the Fox network in the US). And newspapers are declining.
So things that made sense in the 1980s – having one reporter on the police round, one on the fire and ambulance round, one theatre writer, one fine art writer, one education writer, and so on – no longer make sense. The theatre writer may only file one review in a week and be on a full salary! Better to make that person more productive and have them file 15 stories a day. Now, there aren’t 15 theatre stories in a day – unless we distribute to Broadway or the West End – so the theatre writer is going to have to take on another round, say, education.
Busy, busy, busy
So that’s how things have been going. All about the productivity levels. Except that, while the theatre writer only filed one story a week, the theatre person knew everyone there was to know in the theatre world. They knew who was coming and going, who the new set designer on Cats was going to be and why the lead feline was getting sacked only six months into their contract. The theatre writer, let’s call her Jane, knew all this because Jane was a failed theatre actor and still loved to hang around theatre people. She loved everyone and everything associated with theatre and the people liked her. She was a fair reporter and was trusted because she’d proven herself and established a long and enviable list of contacts in her highly prized little black book of contacts. Jane’s one theatre story a week would lead the arts section every Saturday and was the must-read piece of the paper. Everyone talked about Jane’s piece and bought the paper just to read that one piece. And if Jane said it, you knew it was true.You could trust the newspaper because they never got it wrong.
But Jane got made redundant and now the education writer is filing theatre stories and the education writer barely knows Cats from The Lion King. So nobody trusts the new theatre writer and as a result the new theatre writer only writes boring, un-informed pieces. Yawn.
And that is the problem for newspapers. Jane costs money, but she sells papers. Get rid of Jane and the papers stop selling. OK, it’s not quite that simple, but that’s a key element to the saga of the decline of newspapers.
Another key component is that readers are getting their news in bite-sized pieces now, from the internet. That’s great, we can supply the news online instead of in print. Ah, but nobody pays for news online. They’ve been getting it for free for so long, why would they pay for it?
Well, because good journalism – as we’ve seen with Jane – costs money. And you can’t always see what you get for that money. And when bean counters get in charge of newspapers they want to see exactly what they get for their money. So news costs money to produce. And we live in a user pays economy. But for some reason people don’t think they should have to pay for the news. They think they get enough news from TV and radio – which is free. Many don’t understand that news and radio is the tappas of real news. It’s tiny little morsels that barely represents a full degustation menu.
People won’t realise until it’s too late, the vital role that newspaper journalists perform in our society.
In the great tradition of All The President’s Men, newspaper journalists are the eyes and ears for a society. For example, the Lance Armstrong saga, was – as revealed in 4 Corners last week – uncovered by a newspaper journalist on a hunch. Nothing more. Newspaper journalists have been sullied by recent scandals, but the fourth estate is uniquely placed to be the protector, and shine a spotlight on corruption and dishonesty in all corners of society. A lone citizen can’t uncover a corrupt city official. A newspaper can.
But I digress… I started out talking about my redundancy.
The redundancies have been coming and coming and coming. And just when you think it’s all done, they announce another round.
So in early September, editor-in-chief David Fagan stood up in front of the room filled with News Queensland staff and said there was to be yet another round of redundancies. And we would find out in a month who was staying and who was going. And that’s when I started to think, maybe it was time for me to shuffle off, as they say.
I had long been disillusioned with my role. Instead of subbing interesting stories for the newspaper, I had been ‘subbing’ copy for Quest. I put ‘subbing’ in inverted commas because there was no crafting of the story. We were expected to ‘sub’ around 40 stories a shift. In the two minutes you have a story you’re expected to run a spellcheck over it, whack a serviceable headline on it (Win for residents is always a good one and covers a multitude of stories) and throw an equally boring caption on it that spelled everyone’s names correctly before pushing it through to the next stage.
So, it turns out dreams are a funny thing. My professional dreams came true, and I’m very thankful it happened before these changes came through. I worked with crusty old subs who knew house style better than their own children’s names; who knew without hesitation where every apostrophe goes and knew when a quote was wrong or someone’s name they didn’t know was spelled incorrectly. They were curmudgeonly and they cared only about the product, certainly they did not give a shit if they were liked or loathed. I got to work in a newsroom where care was taken with headlines, where pride in the product was rampant. I’ve been yelled at, across the newsroom, for stupid mistakes and embarrassed in front of my peers enough times to learn not to make mistakes.
And it was nice to be part of the last glory days of good papers. I’ll always be grateful to The Courier-Mail for getting me started on my very first blog. Mum Said was a phenomenal success, raking in thousands of unique users every week. Aside from Emily Everywhere, which had had a big head start, Mum Said was the highest ranking blog in the News Queensland stable. And it was getting bigger all the time. It was lots of fun and I learned lots.
Because we’re entering a new age now and we’ll have a new kind of newsman to go with it. And that’s fine. Things must change and newspapers have had a pretty good run for many, many centuries. All good things must come to an end.
Dreams are funny things
And so back to me. My dream came true. And now it’s time for a new dream. What will I do? Well, I’ve got more time to devote to this blog, for starters. I’m also going to hang out my own shingle and freelance for a while. I’ve been a freelance journalist on and off for many years, so this is not new. But I’m going to see if I can get it up and running into a thriving business – all while I finish my romance books!
I’m so excited to embrace the future, and so ready for a change. I’m looking forward to the new opportunities that I’m certain are coming my way. Fingers crossed!