8 Mar 2020

Pillar of Australian journalism falls

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 8 March 2020

Hundreds of media jobs will go across the Tasman when Australia’s national news agency AAP closes in June - and some working for its offshoots here will be affected too. Mediawatch asks its long-serving chief editor why “Australia's news media engine” is closing and the impact it will have on news. ​

Tony Gillies, editor-in-chief at Australian Associated Press tells Mediawatch about the closure of its local news agency NZ Newswire.

Tony Gillies, editor-in-chief at Australian Associated Press tells Mediawatch about the closure of its local news agency NZ Newswire. Photo: PHOTO / RNZ Jason McClelland

“If you value reliable, independent sources of information you're about to lose one and you probably don't even know about it,” the ABC’s Linda Mottram told listeners last Tuesday on the PM show, Australia's equivalent of RNZ’s Checkpoint.  

Australian Associated Press - or AAP  - will shut in June after 85 years gathering news. 

The ABC called it "the news service you've probably never heard of - but most likely read." 

“AAP is a news agency, or a wire service that provides media organisations big and small with coverage of news, finance, sport, regional and rural affairs. It is nothing less than a mainstay of Australian journalism and its loss could well mean things you want to know about just don't get to see the light of day,” Mottram said.

She made of point of saying the report that followed on the PM show was by one of many reporters who started out at AAP. 

The AAP is owned by, paid for and governed by major newspaper publishers in Australia. It sells Australian news on to many publishers across Australia and overseas and has overseas correspondents - including one in Wellington.

When AAP closes in June, publishers won't be able to replace it with any other single source of news around the country - because there isn't one.   

AAP’s chief executive Bruce Davidson told staff on Tuesday that the business was "no longer viable in the face of increasing free online content."

"Too many of our customers are relying on what is on Google and what's out there on Facebook,” he said.

This is devastating for 200 or so journalists who work for AAP - and also photographers, designers and back-office staff. 

AAP has around 30 online content editors here who work for its subsidiaries including editorial content operation Pagemasters, which is set to close in August.

The editor of news website The Conversation - Misha Ketchell - said many people will have little idea that AAP was a "media industry engine".

“AAP journalists are unsung heroes of journalism. When I worked for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in the early 2000s, I used to check my ropey shorthand of press conferences against AAP and often unearthed embarrassing errors, sometimes ones that would have got us sued,” he wrote

“AAP also regularly broke major news with coverage that would lead all the newspapers and TV news bulletins,” he said. 

“Every honest journalist in Australia today should feel guilty about the way we have secretly relied on AAP. We almost never gave it enough credit,” he said 

The journalists union in Australia - the MEAA - said the AAP closure was "a gross abandonment of responsibility by its shareholders."

“Bean counters at the top of media organisations might think they can soldier on without AAP, but the reality is it will leave a huge hole in news coverage. Filling those holes will fall to already overburdened newsroom journalists. Or coverage will simply cease to occur," said the MEAA's media federal president Marcus Strom. 

The closure of a national news agency - owned and run by the big papers publishers - might sound familiar to some, because it happened here in 2011. 

The NZPA - a co-operative news agency founded in 1879  - closed down because the major publishers didn't want to pay for it anymore - and they said it no longer produced the kind of content they needed in an increasingly competitive and digital environment. 

The void was partly filled the following year when the AAP set up is own agency here - NZ Newswire. It supplied media here and in Australia with New Zealand News that used to come from NZPA. 

But with major news publishers here publishing all their news online for free at the time, it also struggled, and NZ Newswire closed in 2018.   

At the time AAP chief editor Tony Gilles told Mediawatch there would be less news about New Zealand read in Australia as a result. 

This week he told me the same will happen in Australia after the closure in June. 

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Photo: supplied

"There are a number of media players in Australia but all of them have been relying on AAP for their baseline news coverage of things like courts and politics in an unbiased way," Tony Gillies told Mediawatch.

"AAP has been producing about 350 stories a day and that will cease on June 26," he said.

On Tuesday, that included reporting on their own organisation's demise.  

"Australians and New Zealanders will miss this source of news. We've been overwhelmed by messages of support from around the world," he said. 

"If only that support could transfer into subscription fees that would be wonderful," he said.  

 Tony Gillies told Mediawatch the closure will affect about 500 people in total across its businesses. 

He said there are plans for "a new emerging entity" to take over Pagemasters, which will be able to offer jobs to some of those currently working there, including in New Zealand. 

The MEAA said Google and Facebook had stripped the revenue from the media which once helped fund subscriptions.

"I think it's a fair point. There's been serious disruption in media all over the world. The publishers and broadcasters here have argued the 'tech titans' have an unfair advantage in that they're not paying the taxes publishers have to pay and they're not bound by the same content rules," Gillies told Mediawatch.

"Surely the loss of AAP must be enough of a signal for the Australian government to stand up and take action," he said.