Is the sky falling?

Have reports of the death of local journalism been greatly exaggerated? In late May the Newcastle Herald’s publisher, Fairfax Regional Media, announced its decision to shift its editorial production arm offshore. The move has been seen by many as the first step in the eventual demise of local journalism. Is the sky falling, or have reports of the death of local journalism been greatly exaggerated?

Is the sky falling?

"The sky is falling, the sky is falling," screeched Chicken Little to Henny Penny, as the panicked chook rushed from her garden to tell the king, the centre of all wisdom and authority in this fairy tale world.


This well known and popular story has its roots in the fables of a storytelling slave of ancient Greece by the name of Aesop who is said to have lived between 620 and 560 BC.


A first century Pythagorean philosopher, Apollonius of Tyana, is believed to have said of Aesop,"like those who dine off the plainest dishes, he made use of the humble incidents to teach great truths, and after serving up a story he adds to it the advice to do a thing or not to do it. Then, too he was really more attached to truth than the poets are; for the latter do violence to their own stories in order to make them probable; but he, by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events."


This gem of an insight into the human condition was recorded some time in the first century by Philostratus in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana.


Chicken Little's moment of panic occurred not because the sky is falling, but because an unseen acorn struck her head she was while working in the garden.


But such is the chook's shock that she sets out on a course of action that sweeps up all and sundry until they meet Foxy Loxy, who, on learning that they are on their way to their king, asks the question:


"Do you know the way to the king's house?" to which they respond, "No."


"Then come with me and I will show you."


A simple child's tale it may be, but the story of Chicken Little has entered into the human narrative in profound ways; the name "Chicken Little" has become shorthand for a person or group panicking at the slightest movement or perceived disaster and spreading that fear.


The phrase "the sky is falling" is ascribed to those who react to the mere mention of uncertainty or potential disaster, without challenging the notion in the first place.


And what are we to make of Foxy Loxy? Well, perhaps the answer lies in his response to their uncertainty: "Then come with me and I will show you the way."


But should we be so sure?


As for the sky, well, it hasn't yet fallen, the sun keeps rising and the Newcastle Herald continues to hit pavements and front lawns - for the time being.


Whether a printed daily edition of the newspaper will continue remains a moot point, but that can also be said for the future of newspapers across the globe, particularly in the United States.


Printed newspapers are also competing for 'eyeballs' as other screen platforms demand our attention and time.  


Publishers of Australian newspapers are only just now starting to react to the impact of the digital tsunami that has been washing across the media landscape for the last decade.


Last year the metropolitan division of Fairfax Media - publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Melbourne - flagged that it was planning to move its editorial production offshore but at the same time bolster its online presence.


There had been much talk in media circles that something similar would happen with its regional newspapers, like the Newcastle Herald and other mastheads.


That news came in late May when Fairfax Regional Media, the Newcastle Herald's publisher - proposed to shift offshore its editorial production arm (sub-editing and preparation for print production of its major regional newspapers), a move seen by many as the first step in the eventual demise of local journalism.


Both decisions have meant significant job losses, not just for production journalists like sub-editors but for an array of people who form an integral part of any print newspaper's ecology. In Fairfax's case, 1900 positions over three years throughout Australia. For its opposition, News Limited, some 1500.


Here in Newcastle, the change currently would mean the immediate loss of 36 full-time jobs among the journalists, but no loss of reporting or photographic positions, and thus Fairfax would continue to run the largest newsroom in the region.


Despite an eleventh hour bid by the journalists' union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) to stave off the job cuts with an alternative plan, Fairfax management remained steadfast.

So how does the community respond to this news? It goes social, galvanises around one large gathering where an estimated 1500 people come along to add their voices to the collective angst over the news and then….dissipates.


How odd that the very thing that has contributed to the demise of printed newspapers - digital communication - is the key choice of weapon to protest and rally others to ensure that it will not go unnoticed among a group of predominantly non-newspaper readers?


And to this point, we turn to late 20th century scriptwriter, dramatist and novelist, William Goldman, who in his 1983 memoir (considered a bible by many budding screenwriters) Adventures in the Screen Trade wrote, "Nobody knows anything" when reflecting on his experience of the entertainment industry.


It is a phrase oft repeated to describe much that is claimed to be true in this tumultuous world beyond the dream factory.


So is local journalism poorer for the demise of embedded sub-editors? Frankly, the jury is still out. But change in the way we all consume our media has been of tectonic proportions and it has not stopped yet.


Such has been the shift that many of us have become de facto journalists in our desire to tell the story of our community.


It is clear that our relationship with the Fourth Estate has always been problematic and while a few of us have "liked" the Facebook banner, the unwritten contract between the people and the media is still being negotiated.


But what of our hapless fable-folk who stood in front of Foxy Loxy?


Well before the fox was able to lead them into his den to eat his neighbours, the sky did fall in on him!

In shock, Chicken Little said, "Oh dear," while her companions exclaimed, "We're too late," while Ducky Daddles remarked, "Poor Foxy Loxy", followed by Goosey Loosey with, "No sense in going to the king."


"Nothing to do now but to go home," concluded Turkey Lurkey, which they all did.


About the author

Greg Hall is the Chair of the Hunter Writers Centre, a documentary filmmaker and journalist. He was a producer on the documentary film "Lockout - Australia's Most Violent Industrial Dispute". He's been a member of the MEAA since he started as a cadet at News Ltd in 1985.

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