'Decade of hell' for staff journalists could help freelances

Journalists are set for “10 years of hell” as advertising’s migration to the web intensifies, a financial analyst and former newspaper columnist has warned.

Ivor Ries, a former columnist for the Australian Financial Review and head of research at EL&C Baillieu Stockbroking, told a conference in Melbourne that the $A450m (£192m) Australian newspapers had lost in classified advertising in recent years was the equivalent of 4,000 full-time journalism jobs.

Speaking at a conference on the future of journalism, organised by Australian trade union Media Alliance, Ries predicted that the industry would eventually rebuild itself with the emergence of titles that are better adapted to the new economic realities.

But he forecast that things will get worse before the industry regenerates itself, with billions of dollars sucked out of mainstream newspapers over the next few years.

“It’s going to be 10 years of hell for existing journalists,” he said.

Ries said the opportunities that emerge would be in smaller, niche, internet companies with leaner structures, but he added that the new jobs would not pay as well and may not provide full-time work.

Instead, he said, start-ups wishing to avoid the expense of a full-time staff team would assemble pools of freelances.

“The environment could be brilliant for freelances,” said Ries. “The good ones will be able to negotiate higher rates.”

In the same session, Robert Gottliebsen, a columnist for the Business Spectator, predicted that news would increasingly become commoditised, with the emergence of “star journalists” whose copy could prove lucrative to their employers.

‘A terrible idea’

Delegates also heard academics and leading recruiters in the newspaper industry warn that the expectation for journalists to work over different platforms could impact negatively on the quality of their work.

In a discussion on training the journalists of the future, Colin McKinnon, learning and development manager for editorial at The Age newspaper, said that employers must be realistic about the extent of journalists’ capability to multitask.

“It’s important to realise that not everyone can do everything,” he said. “The reality is that isn’t going to happen unless quality suffers.”

McKinnon warned against getting too “hung up” on technology and forgetting the basics of journalism, such as fact-checking, fairness and balance.

His warning followed comments from Phil Meyer, Knight professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina and author of The Vanishing Newspaper, who told delegates via satellite link that expecting reporters to be their own sub-editor was “a terrible idea”.

He cited research showing that papers which have the highest ratio of sub-editors to reporters have the least errors, and greater credibility as a result.

The Future of Journalism conference also saw the launch of research by the Media Alliance into the extent and pace of change in the industry.

Its report, Life in the Clickstream, calls on employers to provide the training necessary to deal with changes and urges union members to embrace these opportunities.

Its publication follows a tough year for the Australian media. Recent cutbacks have included the loss of 110 job cuts through voluntary redundancy at Fairfax Media, publisher of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.

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