Today’s sealed section of Crikey gives some insight into what on earth is happening at The Canberra Times and why.
17. Behind closed doors at The Canberra Times
Crikey reporter Jane Nethercote writes:
Is it true there are only three journalists left of the 60 who were there when editor Michael Stevens took over the helm of The Canberra Times three years ago? That’s just one of the claims made by a Crikey tipster who paints a pretty bleak picture of life and times at the paper.
For starters, the circulation figures are appalling, he says, with drops of 3.8% weekdays, 3.2% Saturdays, and 2.7% Sundays: “The worst for any major metrop in Australia.” About the “only good thing Stevens can claim is each edition of The Canberra Times is being read by even more and more public servants as even fewer and fewer actually buy the paper!” (The figures can be seen here â€“ The Times’s figures are indeed the worst, but drops at the SMH are similar: 2.9% weekdays, 3.5% Saturday, and 2.0% Sundays). [You can have a look at Michael Stevens’s take on the figures in this story.]
More worryingly, all the older journalists have left, says the tipster, “replaced by young, inexperienced and shamelessly sycophantic cadets from Rural Press’s stable of suburban and country titles … And it shows in the sheer lack of any quality in the rag these days.”
While one of our inside sources says it’s “definitely, definitely not” true that only three of the 60 staff remain, it’s a “salient point” that staff are younger and less experienced. Has the quality of the paper dropped for this reason? A hesitating, but firm “yes.”
There aren’t many old hands left, another insider tells Crikey. In fact, turnover and “generational change” has been such that journalists don’t even know each other despite working on the same floor. Why the shift? Younger labour means cheaper labour, so as older hands with large salaries have left, they’ve been steadily replaced with younger journos from within the Rural Press stable. The downside: They don’t know Canberra and they don’t understand its very particular demographic.
Rural Press, which bought The Canberra Times in 1998, are “penny-pinching b*stards” from what I’ve heard, says one source. They’re definitely tight with money, says an insider. The travel budgets are “practically zilch” which makes things very difficult for political reporters. But maybe it’s all part of Rural Press’s grand plan for the paper. Their philosophy, as put into practice by Michael Stevens who is very much “Rural Press’s man,” is to dig into the local community, says the insider â€“ because that’s where the advertising base is.
But another insider disputes the financial stinginess, saying that Rural Press has “always been quite willing to fork out” the money for political reporters, and during election time, Canberra Times’s journos “travel with the best of them.” Meanwhile, the paper is “not nearly as dysfunctional as people portray.”
Whatever the case, Stevens certainly divides The Times’s community. And there’s been some “pretty intense concern at senior levels of Rural Press” about angst and faction-fighting within the paper. Stevens has had enormous problems with staff â€“ it’s all “pretty poisonous stuff” â€“ but when it comes to the crunch, Rural stands by its editor. Some “can’t stand him,” says an insider, while others respect his decisiveness. And he’s certainly “full of ideas.”
We tried to contact Stevens for his response, but he was out of the office, as was editor-in-chief Jack Waterford, who was off being Principal for a Day.