Stories of humour and pathos from the final days of journalism’s golden age

A review of Upheaval: Disrupted lives in journalism

WHEN Fairfax Media announced in June 2012 that 1900 staff would be made redundant, it was only the beginning of a decade of carnage which has seen up to 5000 Australian journalists lose their jobs.

A group of Australian academics quickly recognised that the redundancies of 2012 were a historical turning point — the end of a golden age in journalism — that needed to be studied and recorded.

Over the next five years, they tracked the post-redundancy lives of 225 journalists through annual surveys. The results of this longitudinal study were published in 2018 as New Beats: Mass redundancies and career change in Australian journalism.

It’s easy to forget that those redundancies were not just numbers on a page: every one of them was a human life disrupted.

Edited by two of the New Beats researchers, Andrew Dodd and Matthew Ricketson, Upheaval: Disrupted lives in journalism (UNSW Press) is an attempt to do justice to the stories of those discarded by their employers often in the prime of their careers, and through their eyes tell a bigger story of what journalism was like in its heyday and how it has changed.

Dodd, Ricketson and the rest of the New Beats team — Lawrie Zion, Penny O’Donnell, Merry Sherwood, Timothy Marjoribanks and Brad Buller — have drilled down into the lives of journalists like David Marr, George Megalogenis and Samela Harris to explore the ups and downs of a career in newspapers or broadcasting and what happened after they took a package.

Upheaval is drawn from 4885 pages of transcripts of interviews with 57 journalists in total, all of whom were made redundant in 2012 or the years that followed (it would have been 58, but one subject, Michael Gordon, sadly died suddenly before he could be interviewed).

Each journalist was interviewed for an average of four hours, and they spoke with great candour and honesty about the good, the bad and the ugly of their years in the trade.

The early chapters lovingly describe the golden days of journalism at the peak of its influence. We are plunged into frenzied newsrooms with larger-than-life characters. Those days are less than 20 years ago, but feel like a completely different era.

Journalism provided its practitioners with a secure job and a generous income, along with a sense of self-worth. For many of those interviewed for this book, journalism was a calling and they had a passion to use their job to right wrongs and cure society’s perceived ills.

At times, the stories read like the types of yarns, tinged in black humour, that journos would swap in the pub after deadline. But the authors do not shirk from the downsides of that newsroom culture as well: the lack of work-life balance, bullying and sexual harassment, and alcohol abuse.

The insights into the underlying trauma that results from years of reporting on personal tragedy and witnessing the worst of human nature are fascinating. There are scenes in Upheaval, such as when Gary Tippet of The Age describes his first “death knock” and the shame he felt afterwards, that will have every old hack nodding in agreement and familiarity.

The journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, also comes under scrutiny, with the authors concluding that while it could do little to prevent job losses, those who lost their jobs benefitted from the generous redundancy packages negotiated by the union over the years — even those who had actively sought to de-unionise their workplaces walked away with, in some cases, several years of pay thanks to the union agreements.

The latter half of the book is filled with moments of pathos, none more so than when the interviewees describe their final day at work. For most, it was a sad anti-climax as they left behind not only a job and a workplace that they loved, but a large part of their self-identity.

Redundancy was a painful experience, and some of the interviewees experienced periods of depression after leaving their job. But most of them have eventually been able to find meaningful new work, often still in journalism or related fields.

For some, like Jo Chandler, it was a relief after spending years lamenting what she regarded as the dumbing down of her beloved Age. Reinventing herself as a freelancer, Chandler has been able to pursue the type of serious long form investigative journalism she has wanted, along the way picking up a Walkley and other awards.

For others, like Hugh Jones, redundancy was an unexpected and complete shock after decades of loyalty to News Corporation. Jones had just overseen a restructuring of the company’s Melbourne sub-editing operations when he was told he was no longer required.

For Tom Arup, a promising young journalist at The Age, his career as a journalist was cut short by redundancy, simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

For Amanda Meade it was a chance to escape what she felt had become a toxic culture at The Australian, where she had been media columnist. Meade, like David Marr and Anne Davies, found a new life at The Guardian, while Steve Lewis has used his redundancy from News Corp to co-author three political thrillers with colleague Chris Uhlmann, which have been turned into the television mini-series Secret City.

Upheaval’s keenest readers will no doubt be fellow journalists who will recognise their own lives in these stories. But it will also appeal to students and anyone else with an interest in the media industry, particularly the chapters that talk about the eccentric culture of journalism.

Most of all, Upheaval is an indictment of the blinkered and short-sighted management of Australia’s media companies who first failed to adapt their businesses quickly enough to the threats and opportunities of the internet, and then took the low road of cost-cutting by shedding the creative talents who were their greatest assets.

One would hope that this book would serve as a salutary lesson so the same errors are not repeated, but that is probably wishful thinking.

Mark Phillips is Communications Director at the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance

Join the book launch for Upheaval on Tuesday 6 July 2021 at Judith Neilson Institute Headquarters, Sydney. Featuring a panel discussion with Richard Ackland, Amanda Meade and Dr Penny O’Donnell. More information here.

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