Newsroom of the future

Late in 2007  journalists at The Sydney Morning Herald, the Sun Herald and the Australian Financial Review moved into a new building dubbed the “newsroom of the future” on Sydney’s inner harbor. The papers are the flagships of Fairfax Media, Australia’s biggest and most integrated media group.

Phil McLean, Fairfax Media’s group executive editor and the man in charge of the move, said three quarters of the entire process involved getting people to “think differently” – that is, to alter their mindset so they were willing to work with multi-media. Fairfax media had moved from being a newspaper company to an integrated media company, McLean said.

Weekly training courses were introduced as part of the move. The author facilitated two-day multimedia courses from July to December of 2007. Each course involved introducing journalists to a portable digital assistant (PDA) called a JasJam, made by iMate. The rival Murdoch-owned The Australian reported on 23 August 2007 that all Fairfax journalists would be equipped with JasJams. The misleading report speculated on the high cost, given Fairfax employs about 800 journalists on its Sydney daily newspapers and each JasJam costs about $US1100.

Only reporters and photographers involved with breaking news used the device, McLean said. “That’s somewhere between a dozen and 20 reporters at The Sydney Morning Herald and another 15-20 at The Age [in Melbourne, the other major city].” A pool of about 70-80 JasJams would be made available for specific assignments.

All reporters at the Brisbane Times, the online-only daily launched in March 2007 in Australia’s third-largest city, were equipped with the JasJam from the start. The issue was not the technology, McLean emphasised, but preparing journalists for new ways of providing information to audiences. “It’s the JasJam today, but it could well be a different piece of equipment tomorrow,” said Mike Van Niekerk, editor-in-chief of Fairfax Digital, the company’s online arm. McLean said the JasJam was likely be “superseded within the next 12 months” by other technologies.

Australia’s next biggest media company, Murdoch’s News Ltd, has also embraced the multimedia future, though at the time of writing the embrace had been less well developed. The Australian is the company’s Sydney flagship.

In a speech to mark the death of a famous journalist, Andrew Olle, on 19 October 2007, News Ltd CEO and chairman John Hartigan said it had never been a better time to be a journalist. “If you really care about journalism you have to be passionate about re-inventing it in the digital age,” he said. “As journalists we’ve never had more inducements to open our minds, stretch our imaginations or reach more people. We can write, blog, broadcast audio and video, all from the one work-station.”

Hartigan said that for much of his 43-year career most journalists were generalists, “sweeping over any subject with a light dusting of curiosity and a nice turn of phrase”. But he warned that those days were numbered. Journalism needed more specialists, he argued – “more people who can provide compelling insights to what’s going on” because quality was “taking on greater meaning, not less”.

Hartigan said competition for talent was intensifying. “We will need to pay more and offer better opportunities to attract – and retain – the best people”. In other words, quality content was the key. In a world of information overload, audiences return to brands they can trust that synthesize information and make it easy to absorb. That deep skill requires highly skilled and educated journalists. The obvious place to find specialists is at universities and think tanks.

What does Fairfax Media’s move mean for the journalism curriculum in Australia? It means educators have to become more relevant. The industrial-age curricula devised in the 1970s are no longer useful. The key is preparing students for a multimedia future, which means adapting the mindset of teachers so they help their students embrace change.

Mike Van Niekerk, editor-in-chief of Fairfax’s online editorial staff, said newsroom integration depended on changing a newsroom’s culture and mindsets. McLean agreed: Much of Fairfax’s training, instead of teaching journalists specific tricks, aimed “to recalibrate the way people think about journalism”. Training all journalists in multimedia did not mean an end to specialization. “We don’t expect everybody to practice it [multimedia], but everybody must think” in those terms, they said.

The new newsroom symbolised the culmination of a series of major changes at Fairfax. In August 2006 the traditional newspaper company, John Fairfax Ltd, changed its name to Fairfax Media to reflect its multi-platform future. In March 2007 Fairfax launched Australia’s first online-only daily publication in Queensland, brisbanetimes.com.au. In May 2007 Fairfax completed its merger with Rural Press to become the biggest media company in Australasia, with annual revenues of about $A 2.5 billion and market capitalisation of about $A 7 billion.

Two months later Fairfax got even bigger when it acquired at least one radio station in all capital cities and several television studios when it bought Southern Cross Television. Laster this year Fairfax is expected to bid for one of the two digital television licences made available by the changes to media ownership laws promulgated last year.

The aim in moving Fairfax from a print to a multi-platform company was to reach as large an audience as possible. “We have a total readership in print of over 4 million per day and online of over 5 million per month,” CEO David Kirk said at the time of the Rural Press merger. “Our brand of quality, independent, balanced journalism will serve and support more communities than ever”.

Chairman Ron Walker wrote that Fairfax was “evolving into a truly digital media company” in the 2006 Fairfax annual report. Within five years Fairfax would be a significantly bigger Internet company that distributed its content “over more media,” Kirk wrote in the same report.

Kirk developed a three-pronged strategy. The first part of the strategy involved the need to “defend and grow our newspaper publishing businesses” – that is, to consolidate and develop the existing newspapers, whose circulations were holding steady during the week and improving at weekends. The second part involved plans to “accelerate the revenue and earnings of our digital business”. The third part was “to build a digital media company for the twenty-first century”.

Fairfax Media’s embrace of multimedia and its use of the JasJam marks the start of major changes to how journalists work in Australia. The process reflects major changes in newsroom practices around the world. In November 2006 Ifra, the international media research company, asked newspaper executives worldwide about their priorities for 2007 and 2008. The survey attracted 240 responses from 43 countries and results appeared in January 2007.

Integration, editorial convergence and cross-media strategies attracted the most attention. Four in five executives rated it one of their top priorities, and half made it their main priority in terms of allocating “significant” funds.

It seems a likely future for journalism is evolving in Australia. The newsroom of the future has been re-named the “newsroom for now”.

Written for the Convergence Newsletter at the University of South Carolina in the United States in March 2008.

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