Columns, Opinion

GANS: Fish Down Under questions striking for journalism

When I tell most people that “Newsies” is my favorite musical, I’m usually greeted with an eye roll that simultaneously says, “Wow, what a corny choice” and, “I’m entirely unsurprised that your favorite musical is about journalism.”

But the reason I worship the ground those newsies walk on is more than just my career choice. “Newsies,” set in the 1890s, brings to the stage the same apprehension that anyone working in the news industry feels today. We can see the industry changing around us, but we pretend not to feel it. If we feel it, we admit that the changes exist. So we go about our days, watching as the ink hits the paper and pretending newspapers will never disappear.

Then, one day, 120 journalists lose their jobs at an Australian company that has already let go 1,900 employees over the last four years, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. We can’t pretend we don’t feel it anymore.

Fairfax Media makes another cut

The organization at the heart of these layoffs is Fairfax Media, one of the largest news companies in Australia with mastheads including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review. After Fairfax Media CEO Greg Hywood announced Thursday that the company would get rid of 120 “redundancies,” many of the company’s journalists voted to go on strike until their first shift Monday morning.

Like the delivery boys in “Newsies” who went on strike when Joseph Pulitzer raised the price of newspapers, Fairfax Media reporters decided to stand up against the man in charge. They took to social media, using the hashtag #fairgofairfax, and created a petition that asked Hywood “to reconsider and find alternative savings to yet more job cuts.” As of Wednesday morning in Australia, more than 12,000 people had signed on.

According to the petition, the cuts will amount to about a quarter of all employees in the company’s Sydney and Melbourne newsrooms. This, after Fairfax Media posted a half-year net profit of $27.4 million, up from $26.7 million a year earlier, according to the company’s own Sydney Morning Herald.

When the news of the layoffs spread through my own newsroom at the Parramatta Advertiser, we quietly eyed each other. It was a different company, sure, but advertising losses and employee cuts are widespread among the journalism industry. Any newspaper could be next.

I imagine it was that kind of fear that pushed Fairfax journalists to leave their offices Thursday in a statement of peaceful protest. I can only hope that as they decided to forgo a weekend worth of quality journalism, they saw a light at the end of the tunnel that resulted in Hywood saying, “Never mind. I’m keeping you all!”

But the truth is, there’s nothing valuable about what the reporters at Fairfax Media have done with their weekends.

It’s pure, old-fashioned denial. Print journalism, as we know it and see it today, is a dying industry. Reporters can strike and petition and point the finger at their CEOs, but at the end of the day, this change has been coming for decades. No one could have avoided this moment.

That’s not to say the reporters on strike don’t have a compelling argument. More than anything, they’re angry that a company with a $27.4 million half-year profit needs to cut more employees. They see Hywood — perhaps, rightfully so — as the same kind of businessman Pulitzer played in “Newsies.” Hywood cuts employees the way Pulitzer raised newspaper prices, all for the sake of making more profit.

But remember what I said about seeing and not feeling? Maybe these cuts are preemptive. Maybe Hywood is already feeling a change that the rest of the company can barely see. Maybe, just maybe, consolidating newsrooms and cutting costs before a newsroom is in trouble is the only way to reasonably keep it out of trouble.

Fairfax reporters fight an uncontrollable change

The reason I love “Newsies” is because despite the strikes and the power struggles and the anger that make up the plot, the musical is drowning in passion. From Katherine Pulitzer, the young ambitious reporter, to the delivery boys, who pass on their tips and tricks to selling their papers across town, “Newsies” comes with a sense of pride for the field and a ray of hope for the industry’s future.

The Fairfax Media strike does not come with the same sentiment. All I see is a group of 21st-century reporters still living in the 20th century.

They think that with a little petition writing, foot stomping and media attention, they can make Hywood change his mind and keep the “redundancies.” They think that by convincing the public that their company is corrupt, they can bring fairness back to its walls. And they think that by temporarily turning their backs on the journalism organization they love, they are working as its biggest advocates.

That being said, I’m just as angry as every Fairfax Media reporter who left their office to strike Thursday afternoon. I hate that a changing industry is leaving hundreds of talented, experienced and awe-inspiring reporters jobless, and I despise every person who says “Oh, really…?” when I say I want to be a newspaper reporter.

I am fully aware that newspapers won’t be here forever and that my children may never understand the feeling of ink-stained fingers after brushing your hand against a full-page image in the morning paper. I know that in 20 years, news delivery boys and print deadlines may be entirely a thing of the past.

But I also know that I didn’t become a journalist to live in the past. I became a journalist so that I could play a role, however small, in our future. So that when your kids sit down with the iPad 25, I can ensure they’re reading news that matters most to them.

I came to this industry to tell the stories, not to rewrite the one already in progress.

Katherine Pulitzer sings, “Give those kids and me the brand new century and watch what happens / It’s David and Goliath, do or die / The fight is on, and I can’t watch what happens.”

Well, Katherine was wrong about one thing. I can watch what happens. And I will.

And it won’t be from a strike on the sidewalk.

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