Offices of the Cairns Post newspaper c 1930 (1)

Inside the fall of The Cairns Post

The rot starts at the top

A fascinating and fabulously moustached character by the name of Frederick Thomas Whimble launched The Cairns Post in 1883 after he recognised a significant gap in the local market.

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Seeing the opportunity when he moved to the Far North, Whimble used his background in the printing industry to kick-start the newspaper.

Today, it is the oldest surviving business in Cairns.

A short time after launching the paper, Whimble would go on to become the Member for Cairns in the Queensland Parliament.

The Cairns Post continued under different owners until it joined Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited empire in the mid 1980s.

Fast forward from those pioneering beginnings more than 130 years ago through to today, and Whimble’s vision is turning to dust.

The Cairns Post is now at a crossroads, locked in a struggle for relevance and revenue.

With its profit margins bleeding, key departments cut or moved south to Brisbane, and talented and senior staff moved on or made redundant, The Cairns Post’s very survival relies on it being propped up by its parent, the giant News Corporation.

For how long, no-one at its Abbott St office is quite sure.

If it wasn’t for real estate advertising, declining as it is, in addition to a few multinational clients such as Dan Murphy’s, Masters, Bunnings and the supermarket chains, there would barely be a Cairns Post at all.

Indeed, one wonders how long it will be before News Corporation makes the tough decision to scrap certain weekday editions of the Post altogether.

In some parts of the United States, media companies have reduced the number of editions they print each week to save millions of lost dollars.

Instead of a newspaper hitting the newsagents and front lawns 6 or 7 days a week, readers get their free fix of news online and settle instead for a Saturday or mid-week paper.

When you consider how much it costs to put out a physical newspaper each day – the staff, printing, distribution, marketing, building costs and all the other overheads – the economics no longer stack up.

They haven’t stacked up for a while now.

Printing six copies of The Cairns Post each and every week is simply unsustainable.

But declining circulation is just the symptom of the sad state of affairs going on behind the grand white portico at The Cairns Post.

Despite our region’s growing population, which climbs by between 2 and 3 percent each year, The Cairns Post’s circulation has gone in the opposite direction.

More people moving to Cairns would suggest a growing market of potential readers.

But those thousands of new residents clearly aren’t buying it.

A decline in advertising revenue is, of course, linked to this declining circulation and loss of relevance.

Take a copy of any Monday edition of the paper as a prime example.

Typically, there are just five or six paid advertisements, bringing in a miserly few thousand dollars in revenue.

But all of the above is not exactly breaking news. The fact The Cairns Post is struggling for relevance, shedding circulation and hemorrhaging money is not exactly a secret.

Over recent years, it’s clear to anyone who picks up a wafer thin copy that advertising has dried up and the quality of its journalism has declined.

Like any business, staff cuts and restructures have gutted the Abbott St office, just as the printing presses were moved to Townsville and departments such as the classifieds were outsourced far out of town.

My years at the Post

This bleak state of affairs is in stark contrast to The Cairns Post of just a few years ago.

When I first joined the paper as Business Editor in 2006, The Cairns Post attracted high praise across Australia as a respected, buzzing place to be a reporter.

The editor at the time, Scott Thompson, was one of the best in the business, and now based in Brisbane remains so. He was replaced by equally talented editor Mark Alexander, who led the paper with nationally recognised skills and news sense.

Back then the Abbott St headquarters was a thriving workplace with more than 200 staff.

Today the number of local employees is believed to be less than 40.

Recent developments in the long and once prosperous life of The Cairns Post are mostly well known and, to be fair, are similar to the pressures impacting newspapers around the world.

But there is a strong undercurrent playing a dominant role in the decline and decay of The Cairns Post that has never been explored or explained.

Quite apart from those global factors impacting the Australian newspaper industry, The Cairns Post is beset on all sides by the iniquities and inexperience of its reporters and editorial team.

This article seeks to explore and expose the personalities, skills and judgment of the paper’s hierarchy, and its roster of reporters.

Nick Trompf

He would never admit it publicly, not even to his closest mates, but Nick Trompf now has tenuous and limited control of the once great local institution he has helmed for the best part of 14 years.
Trompf

Trompf was never supposed to be in charge of The Cairns Post for so long.

Despite a clear affection for his adopted home of Cairns, Trompf always wanted the plum role of general manager at The Gold Coast Bulletin.

During his first and lengthy tenure at The Cairns Post from May 2001 to July 2012, Trompf coveted this Gold Coast job.

He was short-listed a couple of times, but was always passed over.

After a short and somewhat mysterious stint back home in Victoria between July 2012 and October 2013, Trompf moved back to the north in late 2013 with the new title of North Queensland executive general manager.

This is a big role, geographically at least, with Trompf now having managerial responsibility for 14 newspaper businesses from Bowen to Port Douglas.

Insiders at The Cairns Post, as well as close friends I’ve spoken to, all insist this is a key factor in the decline of quality and fast falling circulation of the paper.

Simply put, it has become glaringly obvious that Trompf is too busy to give The Cairns Post the attention it so sorely needs.

When you add in Trompf’s business and career pursuits, from his extensive commercial property portfolio to his board position at Advance Cairns, it is little wonder The Cairns Post has shifted from the centre of his radar.

I am sure hundreds of people in Cairns over the years would have heard Trompf’s infamous saying: “I don’t have any control or influence over editorial content”.

With a frequency that is almost weekly, if not daily, Trompf is forced to defend his editorial team and the coverage they provide by repeating the line: “I’m the general manager and I don’t have any control or influence over editorial”.

When advertisers who are angry at a bad news story call him, this is the standard line Trompf trots out time and time again.

Theoretically, at least, Trompf is correct.

In the purest sense of any newspaper business, general managers are supposed to run the business, as opposed to the content the newsroom generates. General Managers look after sales and revenue, budgets and marketing departments.

But I’ve sat in more than a few news conferences at The Cairns Post in my time there from September 2006 to October 2011 (with time spent in between at The Sunday Mail).

I can safely assure you that in reality, as opposed to the theoretical model of a newspaper, Trompf and his oft repeated phrase of “no control or influence over the news agenda” is hogwash.

In practise, Trompf is about as correct in saying he has no control or influence over The Cairns Post’s editorial coverage in the same way Rupert Murdoch might say he has “no control or influence” over the editorial direction of his big metro papers.

To The Cairns Post’s detriment, Trompf’s new role covering such a large area and portfolio of mastheads means time is not on his side.

As someone who has lived in Cairns for more than a decade, Trompf’s network, community connections and editorial input are actually of strong value to the paper.

Trompf’s input into The Cairns Post news coverage is largely lost to the newsroom these days, and it shows.

Editor’s Missing in Local Action

Next, we have the editor, a role far more directly responsible for the Post’s editorial decline than Trompf.

Recent editors have failed to become part of the community. They lack any real touchstone with the Cairns way of life, its rhythms and its whims.

It also takes a certain skillset, networking ability and judgement to run the editorial section of a newspaper, particularly a publication that is part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp empire. And recent editors have possessed very little of the above.

This lack of editorial grit and drive is another key part of the problem that continues to see The Cairns Post’s circulation plummet and its editorial coverage descend further into the mire of amateurish, irrelevant, puerile drivel.

The Cairns Post is in a death spiral when it comes to editorial coverage and its roster of newsroom personnel.

As revenue drops, cost cutting follows, and this cyclical loop has meant senior journalists have become entirely expendable, and all but non-existent at the Abbott St office.

Like so many newspapers, The Cairns Post has realised short term savings by hiring young, inexperienced reporters fresh out of university.

When it comes to reporters, these days The Cairns Post is more interested in three-for-one deals better suited to a fast food outlet than a newspaper.

Rather than pay for an experienced and senior hard news journalist, costing anywhere from $80,000 to $130,000, the bean counters see greater value in hiring three cub reporters for the same price.

The evidence of this bargain bin approach to hiring journalists at The Cairns Post newsroom is stark.

The reporters, and their relationship to the paper’s decline

Reporters and journalists in regional newspapers like The Cairns Post come cheap these days.

Once upon a time, newspapers paid top dollar for quality journalists, a premium price for experience, knowledge and wisdom in the ways of the world.

Those days are long gone at The Cairns Post.

Today, the average age of the reporters at the Abbott St office is currently the youngest it has been than at any point in living memory. And they cost peanuts.

When you take out former Real Estate and Cars Guide advertorial writer turned editorial business writer Nick Dalton, well, the average age drops even further, dramatically so.

You turn 25 at The Cairns Post these days and you’re considered a veteran.

The following section is not intended as a personal criticism based on ageism.

The current crop of young journalists, including Shannon Power, Anika Hume, Scott Forbes (both pictured) and others, are so inexperienced, so wet behind the ears, and so politically naive, they are damaging the very brand they are paid to represent, as well as belittling and demeaning the once great craft of journalism.24446_10151625596046562_1723907872_n 10848512_308279259372578_3540776848774373225_o

We all understand that like every business, media outlets need new blood to replace those who move on to greener pastures or retire.

But there is now no balance, no swings and roundabouts between youth and experience at the paper.

The scales are tipped so heavily towards youth, inexperience and low journalistic standards that it is cruelling the connections between the stories they write and the readers who are supposed to be reading them.

This youthful factor is also highly relevant in light of the much discussed “greying of the newspaper audience”.

Industry research has noted the average age of newspaper readers is now around 45 years, and older.

At The Cairns Post, this translates to an age gap of between 20 and 40 years between the age of readers and the age of the reporters delivering content catering for them.

The readership and demographic data is at such extreme loggerheads with so much of the editorial content produced by the budding reporters at the Post that is accelerating the paper’s decline, particularly in terms of relevancy and engagement.

Having a few young reporters around was never a problem in days gone by at a paper like the Post.

Just a few years ago, there was a strong and vibrant mix of experience, ages and skill levels. In most major newspapers today this mix still exists.

In a healthy newspaper and functioning editorial department, the type of fresh faced young kids writing The Cairns Post today would normally look up to and learn from senior members of the team.

When my journalism career began around 15 years ago, I plied my trade under the critical eye of many cranky and often legendary sub-editors, who would yell and scream (figuratively and often literally) at my grammatical errors, particularly when deadline pressures were reaching fever pitch.

I’ve no doubt they’d be cringing at some of the style guide errors I’ve no doubt made in this article, if they were still alive to read it.

Those subs would shout out and summon me to their computer terminal, berate me for misplacing a comma or an apostrophe, question and cast doubt on my sources and demand I rewrite the story, for the umpteenth time.

Sub-editors cut and duties sent packing south

Where are the current crop of experienced and accomplished sub-editors now?

Where are those experienced, hardened, eagle eyed (and cranky) sub-editors and the guidance they once provided?

In the case of the Post, they’re all in Brisbane, following a mass cull of local sub-editors and senior editorial staff a couple of years ago, at about the same time the local printing press was shut down and printing of the paper shifted south to Townsville.

When you consider the performance of the paper’s editor Andrew Van Smeerdijk, it appears The Cairns Post newsroom is being run by a flaccid leader with little capacity to control and guide his classroom full of rambunctious Gen Y uni grads.

In the best case scenario, their wonderfully enthusiastic though characteristically shallow writing would be tempered and moulded by senior colleagues, all under the watchful and critical eye of an experienced editor.
Instead, we end up with the impotent and directionless version of the Cairns Post on offer today.

Now more than ever before in The Cairns Post’s 130-year history, this broad lack of experience, respect for the craft of journalism and a vacuum of diverse opinion is having a disastrously negative influence on its editorial output.

As former News Corporation reporter Will Colvin rather notoriously pointed out in an article last week about his experiences at the company, most young reporters today cannot write “without jamming a voice into everything”.

“Jamming a voice into everything” is the new norm at the Post.

This current crop of reporters lives in social bubble, an echo chamber of colleagues and friends of similar ages, beliefs, and views. And it infects their writing.

Their social beliefs and echo chamber of ideas is the voice they jam in to their journalism.

It is a voice far removed from the average resident in Cairns. This is the disconnect and the gap between the editorial and the readership it is meant to serve.

Writing in Meanjin, young journalist Ashlynne McGhee highlights the need for senior journalists to balance the “indignation and outrage” of young reporters – that voice they inject in every story they write.

“Talented young journalists are all around me, full of determination and grit”, McGhee writes. “We are indignant and outraged. If newsrooms can harness our energy, and temper it with the experience of age, we will play an integral role in the fight to report in the public interest.”

Unbeknownst to her, McGhee hit the nail on the head of the problem facing The Cairns Post, and no doubt other regional newspapers: the need for experienced reporters to mollify and guide the “indignant and outraged” work of young reporters.

Such a pivotal balancing factor does not exist at The Cairns Post.

When it comes to their personal political beliefs, so many of the Post’s young reporters sit to the left of centre.

This is to be expected.

Consider that famous adage (sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill) “If you are not a socialist in your 20s you don’t have a heart, if you are a socialist in your 40s you don’t have a brain”.

While this left leaning stance is clearly reflected in the many comments, posts and shares featured on the respective social media profiles of the current reporters, no-one is more blatantly biased and journalistically compromised than Scott Forbes.

Scott Forbes: Labor’s man in the newsroom

Forbes, a former TV reporter and modelling aspirant, is a long-time supporter of the Labor Party, and worked for a number of years in the highly political offices of Labor Ministers during the Bligh Government’s reign.

Needless to say, you don’t work in the office of a government minister if you vote for the other side.

It’s long been understood Forbes is seeking to rejoin one of Labor’s ministerial offices in Brisbane.

(UPDATE: As predicted, Forbes left his job at the Cairns Post and now works for Labor Treasurer Curtis Pitt)

His deep affinity with Labor knows no bounds.

In a post on his Facebook page on January 6, 2013, Forbes wrote “GOLD!!!” on a negative story about then Tourism Minister Jann Stuckey from The Courier Mail.

A comment from a friend on this post reads “Oh Stuckface”, a derogatory nickname devised by Labor apparatchiks for the Member for Currumbin.

In another post of August last year, Forbes gloated about a negative article attacking Joe Hockey. Countless other examples abound to provide insight into the political thinking of Forbes, and his premeditated approach to interviews and reporting.

In addition to his background as a Labor media advisor and his devoted advocacy of leftist beliefs, Forbes has also failed to declare the acceptance of gifts and a perceived conflict of interest in what appears to be a clear breach of News Corporation’s Code of Conduct.

During the most recent season of the NBL, Forbes was a semi-regular sight in the Paronella Park corporate box at Cairns Taipans matches, drinking and dining on the corporate tab.

However, Forbes has never publicly declared this gift of hospitality, specifically when writing about Paronella Park in the editorial pages of The Cairns Post.

Forbes has penned two fluffy articles on Paronella Park, published on January 7 and February 28.

In order to abide by News Corporation’s code of conduct and adhere to a semblance of journalistic integrity, the paper should have featured a disclaimer about Forbes accepting hospitality from the company he was writing about.

The failure to do so speaks volumes about the Post’s (and Forbes’s) attitude to readers, and the craft and ethical standards of their journalism.

Forbes refused to provide a response to this matter when I posed the questions to him. What’s good for the goose is clearly not good for that gander.

In private conversations with acquaintances, Forbes has often spoken of his disdain for Cairns and his life in it, and the fact he has been forced to return here working in a low level job at the Post.

As someone who had previously lived in bigger cities, where cultural and lifestyle pursuits are more to his liking, Forbes is personally trapped in a regional city he believes is beneath him.

Perhaps this is why he is eager to return to Brisbane to work for a Labor Minister.

At about the time I began writing this piece I learned of a temper tantrum Forbes threw while dining at the Salthouse in November 2014, and the influence this incident had on the articles he subsequently wrote about the establishment.

Rather upset at having to pay a minor charge – $2.50 – for wanting to split a group bill at the Salthouse, Forbes stunned staff by throwing a tantrum, and arguing against having to pay the charge, which is levied to cover multiple credit card transactions when splitting a bill.

This type of fee is levied at restaurants around the world, but Forbes was outraged.

Just a few days later, still smarting at the $2.50 fee, Forbes wrote an article – containing factual errors – which damaged the Salthouse’s reputation, albeit temporarily.

This is not journalism. It is petty, personal and contextually bankrupt.

It is an example of Will Colvin’s concern that young reporters are “jamming their voices” into the news they are supposed to report with impartiality and fair judgement.

Forbes refused to comment on the Salthouse matter when I emailed him about it.

Anika Hume

I turn now to another junior reporter at the Post – Anika Hume.

In all of my interactions with journalists during my three years as a Member of Parliament, and more than a decade before that in various editorial roles at newspapers, I can’t recall being more stunned than I was upon receipt of an email from Hume on January 15 this year.

She had written the email to the four sitting MPs at the time – Curtis Pitt, Michael Trout, David Kempton and I.

The subject line of Hume’s email was the first thing to raise eyebrows amongst those MPs I spoke to about it:

“SUBJECT: Urgent Cairns Post inquiry/offer”

Why is a journalist – those people in the editorial section who write objective news articles without fear or favour – making an “offer” to a Member of Parliament?

I wondered if Hume had suddenly switched the advertising sales department of The Cairns Post with her approach of an “offer”.

As I read on further, beyond the offer promised in the subject line, Hume’s email got even stranger.

“Good afternoon Gavin, Michael, Curtis and David,

“In light of the election campaign and the recent $150 million LNP announcement for a Townsville Stadium, we are today asking you as a candidate whether Cairns or the Far North can expect a similarly major announcement from you and/or your party for your electorate or for the city or region this campaign.

“We are more or less offering a very prominent position for the announcement in our paper if you are willing to divulge it to us first. 

“You may not be able to release it today, but when you are able, we will give you the chance to break it with us with the knowledge it will be given the attention it deserves.”

With her promises and offers of a “very prominent position” in return for “divulging it to us first”, amid assurances that “it will be given the attention it deserves”, Hume has sullied the very core of what journalism is supposed to stand for.

I’d never seen or heard of a journalist making an “offer” of a “very prominent position” in a paper before, least of all to a Member of Parliament.

And reassuring a politician that you’ll give their announcement  – before you’ve acutally seen it – “the attention it deserves” is ugly and wrong, and highly unethical.

It breaks every code – if such a thing exists at The Cairns Post anymore – that journalism and editorial integrity was built on.

By putting her “offer” in writing, Hume is either extremely naïve or incompetent, or perhaps a mixture of both.

Either way, just like Forbes, she has likely breached The Cairns Post’s own code of conduct by making a deliberate “offer” with “promises” of favourable positioning in the paper while dressing it up as editorial content.

Hume did not respond to requests for comment on this matter, and referred all inquiries to her editor, who in turn did not respond.

Another demonstration of Hume’s personality came on January 21 this year, when she posted a self-congratulatory message on her Facebook page:

“Proud journo post. There are 800 children with special needs in the Far North, many of which – due to specialist resources being stripped from our local schools – can’t be taught in the mainstream system, leaving home schooling or no schooling virtually the only options.

“Since I started at The Cairns Post, I’ve been lobbying persistently for a special school for the city with numerous articles holding the government to account to make on happen and on the ground reports from parents desperate for help. Today it all paid off.

Regardless of who takes power come January 31, after years of waiting, Cairns will get a special school in 2015. Today is a good day. This is why I’m a journo.”

By claiming credit for a major bipartisan announcement by the Government and Opposition of the day, Hume appears to be deluded with grandiose notions of her own self-importance.

She makes no mention of the fact the special school had been more than a decade in the making.

While I am reluctant to burst anyone’s wide-eyed bubble, this bipartisan announcement had little to do with the 18 months of Hume’s insipid journalism on the topic.

Hume makes no mention or gives any credit to the “persistent lobbying” of parents, and the work by politicians from both major parties over a similarly lengthy timeframe.

This sense of self-importance, of crusading and ‘winning’ and claiming credit for major announcements and “change”, is a trait shared by other colleagues at the Post.

In addition, Hume’s reference to “specialist resources being stripped from our local schools” is not correct, and Hume provides no evidence to back up this partisan, false claim.

Hume did not respond to questions about this particular matter either.

Being young, mostly interacting with people of a similar age and similar views, these reporters never really embed themselves in the community, and the demographic spectrum contained within it.

Hume’s colleague Shannon “ShaPow” Power, another new arrival to The Cairns Post, states on her website she wants to be “Beyonce or Secretary General of The United Nations”. That’s nice. Cute even. If it were written by a 14-year-old on Snapchat.

Her more senior colleague Chris Ellis, an exception to the rule of youth at the Post, is a devoted musician who edits stories submitted by local school students in the paper’s Post Ed section.

Ellis admitted in a recent opinion column after the January 31 state election that he voted for the Labor Party. As a former UK resident, he has also written of his disdain for Margaret Thatcher.

His political and social worldview merely reinforces the bias of his much younger colleagues.

Daniel Bateman: columnist?

As a journalist on a career plateau, and despite being slightly older than Hume and Power, Daniel Bateman fits in well with his younger colleagues.

Bateman is a self-styled opinion columnist with minimal impact.

He writes with no resonance or authority on serious topics, preferring instead to focus on ukuleles, smartphones, and Valentine’s Day.

It is necessary for opinion writers to mix up the topics and issues they cover. But too much inanity diminishes attempts to analyse and pontificate on serious matters.

Bateman’s politics are well known, and neatly aligned with colleagues such as Forbes.

So what is the cumulative effect of all this internal imbalance and immaturity going on just behind the portico at The Cairns Post’s Abbott St office?

Being young, mostly interacting with people of a similar age and similar views, these reporters never really embed themselves in the community, and the demographic spectrum contained within it.

As an example, being so young, they don’t yet have children.

Neither did I at their age.

But the key difference on this point is that when The Cairns Post newsroom was full of staff, before the subeditors and senior reporters were all booted out, and the other departments shrunk or shut down, the experiences and views of parents working at the Abbott St office were highly prevalent and subsumed into the paper’s editorial coverage.

Today’s crop of junior reporters barely know what local parents are thinking, feeling and, importantly, talking about.

This last point – the backyard barbecue conversations – are so important for a newspaper that needs to keep its finger on the pulse of the community it caters for.

Keep in mind my earlier point about the latest research which found the average age of newspaper readers is around 45, with children.

The Post’s reporters are not on the frontline and in the trenches with the very market and readership that any newspaper targets; seniors, parents, business people, self-funded retirees et al.

The reporters are too far removed from the lives of their readers to provide relevant, meaningful and contextualised content.

Allow me to reiterate and stress I am not attacking or condemning this team of journalists merely because they are young and inexperienced.

I am highlighting the lack of leadership, the lack of balance and the dearth of diversity of age, experience and viewpoints in the Post’s newsroom, and how that reflects the ever-dwindling quality of its editorial.

When your newsroom faces the double whammy of weak leadership and an almost exclusively young and inexperienced roster of reporters, you end up with The Cairns Post we see today.

This distinct lack of any touchstone and true empathy with readers, as well as those thousands of new residents who could be readers, is reflected in The Cairns Post’s dwindling circulation.

Around the world, of course, newspapers have been in decline for many years. But the situation at The Cairns Post is far more desperate.

Nosedive to irrelevancy

On most metrics, the Post continues on an inexorable nose-dive to irrelevancy.

The latest and best estimates suggest sales are now approaching an average of 15,000 copies for the Monday to Friday editions.

This is a catastrophic collapse from just a few years ago, when the paper was selling around 25,000 copies, and more.

This dramatic drop has come despite the Cairns and Far North population continually increasing and is a result of both global factors impacting the newspaper industry and the virtual collapse of journalism at the Post.

If it weren’t for sales being propped up by free copies provided to the customers of airlines, cafes, libraries and schools, the circulation figures would look even worse.

This is a crying shame.

As a growing regional city with continued population growth, Cairns and Far North Queensland needs a thriving, responsive, mature newspaper.

Instead, we see a slapped together, generic and pale version of its old self, full of facile Facebook-lite articles and irrelevant chatter about things that don’t really matter to the majority of people in our community, be they retirees or parents, business people or migrants.

I do not know if these factors are playing out in regional newspapers in other parts of Australia. I suspect they are.

When I can bring myself to read The Cairns Post of today, thinking of what it was and what it could still be, I feel let down as a reader and a local resident.

I despair at the gap it leaves in our community.

Cairns and Far North Queensland faces struggles and hardships, but it is also full of wise, mature thinking, positive people.

And The Cairns Post has completely abandoned them. And our local community is all the poorer for it.

I hope News Corporation attempts to rescue and rectify the situation. I seriously doubt they can.