Asset stripping: the end of subbing

There is only one destination left for subeditors on newspapers now and that destination is extinction. At many Fairfax, News Corp and APN newspapers, subeditors have been outsourced (2007 onwards to Pagemasters), they have been offshored (2012 onwards to Fairfax Editorial Services in New Zealand) and now they are being eliminated completely.

Yesterday, Fairfax held meetings with staff at regional newspapers around Australia to explain its plan to “transition regional newsrooms in Australian Community Media to the News Now model over the next two years”.

A two-page press release explained how NewsNow would “better support the delivery of quality journalism and content to our local audiences”. The headline promised that regional newsrooms would be upgraded and regional journalists would be “upskilled”.

A new content management system (CMS) would enable “digital first” publishing. “Stories can be authored into the CMS for masthead websites, attached with story assets such as headlines, captions, fact boxes and images, and then pushed automatically to preset pages”.

Some readers may notice what is missing from the last sentence. Yes, that’s right, the subject! Let’s make this sentence active rather than passive (an activity formerly known as subediting) and so reveal its meaning. Stories can be authored. Headlines can be written. Pages can be designed. Captions can be written. Fact boxes can be compiled. Images can be placed on a page. Pages can be proofread. Pages can be typeset.  All of these tasks are certainly possible but who is performing them?  Until NewsNow, this sentence would have required five subjects:  a reporter; a layout sub; a copy sub; a graphic designer; and then a check sub. Now it requires just one – the reporter.

NewsNow was introduced at Fairfax’s Bendigo Advertiser last September. The pilot was seen as very radical. The Addy was produced without any subs. Instead, reporters subbed each other’s copy, wrote their own headlines and captions and filed their yarns (with associated “assets”) straight to a preformatted newshole. Aside from page one and the back page and other “show pages”, the paper was produced to a template. No layout sub required.

By the end of this year, The Courier in Ballarat and newspapers on the New South Wales South Coast and the Southern Highlands will be produced without subeditors too.

It is unclear, as yet, how many jobs will be lost. It must be dozens, if not more. In Victoria alone, Fairfax has regional newspapers in Albury-Wodonga, Ararat, Colac, Hepburn, Kerang, Kyneton, Latrobe Valley, Mildura, Port Fairy, Sale, Stawell, Swan Hill, Warrnambool and the Wimmera.

Although the press release talks of “the potential of moving to other roles wherever possible” it is difficult to see what those roles might be. Chief switch flicker, perhaps?

At this stage, NewsNow will not be introduced at the Newcastle Herald, the Illawarra Mercury or the Canberra Times. There are no subs in Newcastle and Illawarra anyway because Fairfax sacked them in 2012 and offshored the work to New Zealand. I was one of the people who took over, an experience I chronicle in Stop Press: the last days of newspapers (Scribe). Fairfax community newspapers, its seniors publications and agricultural media will also be excluded.

Fairfax’s metro newspapers are subbed by staff at Pagemasters and elsewhere. The contract is about to expire and the two firms are negotiating its renewal now.  It appears likely that the new content management system (Adobe) will mean fewer subs are needed for this work too.

News Corp introduced new production software last year – Eidos Methode. The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance estimates that up to 100 production journalism jobs have gone as a result. The production process on News Corp papers is now “as lean as it can be”.

The one exception, I hear, is The Australian, where there has been some push back against the extinction of the sub. I’m glad.

I have spent almost two years documenting the collapse of newspapers but I have not yet lost my ability to be shocked and saddened by what is happening. Twelve months ago, I interviewed Pagemasters founder Bruce Davidson. I thought that the next step for newspaper publishers (after outsourcing and offshoring to New Zealand) might be to offshore subbing to India. I was so misguided. Sure, subeditors come cheap in India but they still cost something. There is an even cheaper way, as we can now see, and that is having no subeditors at all.

I extend my sympathy to colleagues who are subs at Fairfax regional newspapers. Your work matters. The same goes for the printers who are still making The Age each night at Tullamarine. The plant did not shut on 28 March as I wrote in an earlier post. That was the date when day shift ended.  The last night shift at Tullamarine is 25 April, Anzac Day. From the 26th, The Age will be printed at Ballarat.


About rachelbuchanan2000

Journalist, historian, mum. 'Stop Press: the last days of newspapers' (Scribe, 2013). Creative fellow, State Library of Victoria. Project: 'The Melbourne Sirius' an artist newspaper (2014). First book, 'The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget' (Huia, 2009). New project, about doctors and doctorhood, is on the go now.
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