The early failure of the big established print media empires – News Corporation and Fairfax Media – to recognise and respond to the challenges the internet posed to their business models has had long-lasting ramifications.
The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance conservatively estimates that since 2011, more than 3000 journalist jobs have been lost in Australia – or a quarter of the total journalistic workforce.
Over the years, News and Fairfax – whose publications including the national dailies The Australian and Australian Financial Review, two of the oldest metropolitan dailies, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, big selling tabloids like the Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph, along with scores of regional and community publications – have adapted to become primarily digital publications by embracing paywalls and subscription models, while retaining their print products for sale on newsstands.
In what has been regarded as a watershed moment, late last year, the Fairfax name ceased to exist when the company was taken over by Nine Entertainment Company, whose assets include the nation’s second largest television network.
Meanwhile, the two national broadcasters, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Special Broadcasting Service, have invested heavily in digital, launching dozens of websites, mobile apps and embracing social media.
While the internet has at times threatened the very existence of traditional media publishers, it has also had the converse effect of providing a source of growth and new employment opportunities for journalists, especially those starting their careers, at digital only outlets.
One of the longest-lasting Australian digital mastheads, the provocative website Crikey!, began as an electronic newsletter in the early-2000s and is still going strong as part of the Private Media stable of publications, which also include Smart Company and The Mandarin.
A former high-profile magazine editor, Mia Freedman, launched her mamamia website in 2007, initially as a blog – it has since spawned multiple offspring.
The Conversation, which brings a curated, journalistic approach to the publication of articles by academics, was launched in Melbourne in 2011 and now has operations in eight countries, including the US, UK and France, listing more than 20 staff in Australia alone.
Other high-profile digital startups include The New Daily, which is owned and funded by several of Australia’s largest superannuation funds; youth-orientated Junkee and Pedestrian; and Broadsheet, which specialises in culture and food.
Several of the world’s largest digital outlets have also established beach heads in Australia. Guardian Australia was launched in 2013 under the editorship of Kath Viner, who has gone on to be global editor-in-chief of the Guardian group. It now employs about 50 journalists, while the Australian arm of The Daily Mail employs about 100.
Other operations have had mixed success. Since launching in Australia less than half a decade ago, BuzzFeed grew to employ about 40 staff, but a quarter of that workforce was made redundant as part of recent global cuts. The Huffington Post launched an Australian edition in partnership with Fairfax in 2015, but that was unwound two years later with most of the 40 staff losing their jobs. Vice is another global media brand to establish an Australian newsroom but now also making cuts.
Australia’s print media has traditionally had a strong union presence through the MEAA, and its predecessor, the Australian Journalists’ Association. MEAA continues to have high density at News, Fairfax and the ABC, where collective agreements have been negotiated which ensure pay and working conditions are generous.
But it is a different story at most digital only outlets, which continue to operate under the pretense of being start-ups even though some have stock market valuations of billions of dollars. This means that digital media workers are employed under inferior conditions to staff at the established publications, even though they are doing an identical job. They are working for digital publications, but their working conditions are locked in the analogue age.
The most glaring examples of this are provisions for overtime and working at weekends or outside of normal working hours.
While employees of established publications received paid overtime in addition to six weeks annual leave, and “penalty rates” for weekend and anti-social hours, digital journalists receive only four weeks leave and no additional payments.
It's time for action
The unfairness of this situation has prompted MEAA to launch its Good Jobs in Digital Media campaign. Drawing on the success of organising in some of the larger US digital outlets, such as Vice, HuffPo, Slate and Vox, the campaign is endeavouring to get digital outlets to sign onto a good jobs charter as a springboard towards negotiating collective agreements.
The campaign is being led by a committee of journalists active in their digital workplaces.
They argue that they deliver real value to their publications, but that is not reciprocated with a lack of job security, paid overtime, inconsistent wages and salaries, and limited opportunities for career development. They are dedicated to seeing their online publications adopt the ethics and high levels of integrity that have been painstakingly established at traditional print outlets.
There are several facets to the campaign. Through the Fair Work Commission, MEAA is to modernising the Journalists Published Media Award to acknowledge that journalists at digital outlets do the same job as those who work in print, and to update the basic set of conditions to extend hours of work, overtime, shift penalty payments and other key conditions to employees engaged by online publications.
This would make an immediate, material difference for all journalists not employed under collectively negotiated agreements. Not surprisingly, media employers are opposing any updating of the Award.
Secondly, a Good Jobs in Digital Media Charter has been developed following surveys of workers in digital media and feedback collated by members of MEAA’s Digital Media Committee. It outlines what members believe a good job in digital media should look like.
The purpose of the charter is to raise expectations in our industry and to start the discussion in digital media workplaces about how to campaign to win the entitlements and protections that cover workers in the traditional print and broadcast media.
According to the charter, elements of a good job in digital media include consistent and fair job descriptions and pay across the industry; diversity in hiring; adherence to established ethical practices; access to professional development opportunities; effective dispute resolution processes; and having a voice in decisions within workplaces and in the industry through the union.
Separately, MEAA has begun negotiating collective agreements at some individual digital workplaces, including Private Media, The Conversation and Guardian Australia.
Reach young journalists
The Good Jobs in Digital Media campaign also acknowledges that younger journalists in digital outlets often do not have senior, older colleagues in their workplaces both as mentors, and to introduce them to the union. Due to the increasingly transient nature of journalism, they do not expect to spend long periods of their career with a single outlet, and are just as likely to identify with the profession of digital journalism than with the organisation they work for.
They are looking to the union to provide the structured networks across the industry that in the past were formed within individual workplaces, both through social events and opportunities for professional development.
Social media is also a critical tool for reaching out to digital journalists and helping them to network with each other. Every journalist is active on Twitter, and with almost 16,000 followers, MEAA’s Twitter account is a regular platform for provocative discussion about the ups and downs of digital journalism.
MEAA has also set up a private Facebook group, Digital Journalists Australia, as a forum for people to share industry news and updates, upcoming events, and job opportunities. The group is open to any digital journalists, whether they are union members or not, and has grown to more than 200 people.
Mark Phillips is the Communications Director with the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) our Australian affiliate.