How The Age maintains quality amid Fairfax cuts

Editor Alex Lavelle on job cuts, building morale, the website relaunch

Alex Lavelle

Fairfax mastheads have had a shaky few years as the company tries to secure its digital future. Since the beginning of 2016, it has had two waves of cost-cutting exercises, which have been well documented by the media. On top of the staff cuts, The Age newsroom was also impacted by the departure of its former editor-in-chief Mark Forbes in December 2016 following sexual harassment allegations.

It was the duty of then-deputy editor and now-editor Alex Lavelle to keep the ship stable and he approached this by having an open dialogue with his staff.

“I started from a place of wanting to be completely honest and open with all my staff. So when the cost cutting was announced I invited anyone who wanted to come and have a one-on-one discussion with me,” Lavelle told Mediaweek. “Over the period of five or six weeks, I had about 120 one-on-one discussions with the staff.

“It really helped in keeping everyone on the same page and not having wild rumours and things that weren’t true circulating around the office. That also helped in terms of keeping staff morale up. From my point of view, it also helped in making people realise that I genuinely cared about what they were going through,” Lavelle said. “One of the problems that happens is that people don’t have enough information about what is going on. That’s when you get rumours starting and escalation of things that aren’t necessarily right or true.”

When The Sydney Morning Herald editor Lisa Davies spoke to Mediaweek a few weeks ago, she said that were a number of things that were misreported about the cost cuts. Lavelle echoed Davies’ statement. “There was a bit of misinterpretation. But I try to not worry too much about what our rivals are saying about us, especially when they clearly have an agenda there.

“There were suggestions that we were drastically going to cut our arts coverage, which isn’t true.

“There were also speculations about who is going to leave and who isn’t – some of it was right and some of it wasn’t.”

As part of the cost cuts, Fairfax revealed that there would be a reduction of up to 125 full-time equivalent staff from The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review. Lavelle revealed that this has affected 40 people in The Age newsroom.

Something that was widely reported was that Fairfax would be letting go of photographers. “That was another rumour that isn’t right,” Lavelle said. “Only one of our photographers is leaving The Age. We have a fantastic group of photographers who add value to our reports.”

The changes in budgets and the staff size have required The Age to revisit its editorial strategy.

“For a few years in the past, we were trying to be all things to all people,” Lavelle said. “Now we are trying to focus our attention on what we do best and concentrate on what matters to people in Melbourne and Victoria more specifically.

“Getting the editorial strategy right was one of my main challenges.”

While Fairfax and The Age have been attracting headlines for unfavourable reasons, there is some positive news on the horizon for the Melbourne daily. Along with its counterpart in Sydney, The Age will also be relaunching a new-look website later this year.

“We will have more pictures at the top of the homepage for bigger impact,” Lavelle said. The redesign is aimed to encourage people to scroll down the homepage and explore the other stories on offer. At the moment, Lavelle said, visitors to theage.com.au just read the headlines of the stories on top of the homepage.

While the number of stories on the website will be smaller, the quality of the journalism coming from the Fairfax newsroom in Melbourne will be remaining high, if not pushed higher, Lavelle said.

“We’ll probably cut the number of stories that we publish by a third, but we just need to make sure that the stories we do are important, they matter and are well read, researched and balanced,” Lavelle said. “What they [the journalists] are going to be judged by is their best two or three stories each week. In the past they may have been writing five or six.

“In terms of journalism, people talk about things being unfair and unstable, but I think it’s actually a really exciting time to be a journalist. I am optimistic about the future for several reasons. I don’t buy into the argument that the industry is in trouble.”

Asked about his thoughts on the equity firm pitches for Fairfax Media, Lavelle said: “I am only concerned about things I have any control over.”

CV: Alex Lavelle

Lavelle started his career in the media industry in the UK as a sports reporter for the Daily Mirror. He moved to Australia after getting married.

He started working at Fairfax Media ahead of the Sydney Olympics in 2000. He went on to become the sports editor for The Age, and then deputy news editor.

Asked if he misses writing, Lavelle said, “I do miss it from time to time. I get to write the editor’s letter every week, which I guess is something.

“When I stopped being the sports editor, my parting gift was sending myself to the US Masters to cover it.”

Herald Sun Competition

Melbourne is also home to the most-read newspaper in Australia, the Herald Sun. The News Corp paper has held onto this title for some time now.

In the readership results for 12 months to March 2017, the weekday edition of the paper had a readership of 1.261 million according to emma and 844,000 according to Roy Morgan. Meanwhile, in the same period, The Age’s weekday edition was read by 582,000 (emma) and 466,000 (Roy Morgan).

Herald Sun is also ahead of The Age in cross-platform readership. The latter has a reach of about 3.1 million.

Asked about the competition coming from the Herald Sun, Lavelle said: “It’s always good to have competition, because it raises standards. Having a healthy rivalry between the Herald Sun and The Age is a good thing.

The important thing for us is that our audience is bigger than we’ve ever had. More people are interested in the news than ever before. We are competing for people’s times. So when they come to The Age we want to make sure that that time is well spent.

“Our main priority is serving our readers. It’s not about the readership that the Herald Sun has.”

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