Former Age editor Andrew Jaspan returned to the public eye this morning on Jon Faine’s program on ABC 774 Melbourne. There was a lot of wittering on, but also some interesting facts. For example, Jaspan quoted the cost of producing The Age as being about $50 million – a figure that to my knowledge has not been in the public realm before.

He also gave some information on what he is going to do next.

Jaspan said that he was staying in Melbourne and was going to join the Global Cities Institute – an initiative of the United Nations based at RMIT University.

When I rang the Institute at RMIT this afternoon, none of the staff on deck had heard anything about Jaspan’s appointment. It later emerged that he is a member of the advisory committee for the Institute – which is an honorary position. The Director of the Institute, Paul James, said Jaspan had joined late last year and had been “terrific” and “most enthusiastic” in engaging cities in the region, and advising on research priorities.

Talking to Faine, though, Jaspan was less than articulate. What was he going to do at the Global Cities Institute ? Faine didn’t ask, and Jaspan didn’t help, although he said a lot:

“Here in Melbourne, RMIT, they have won the secretariat to serve the Asia-Pacific region for all the – all the cities that are signed up to the program. And the idea is to act as a bit of a clearing exchange to look at everything from social issues, economic issues, environmental issues, around housing, transport, government, governance, waste management, energy usage…Yeah. Now, the reason, I think, I was invited to there is I was really very committed to The Age playing a role and being at the heart of the debate in Melbourne as to what kind of city Melbourne was going to evolve into, given that, you know, population projections say we’ll overtake Sydney and all that. Now, you can’t just pour people in when there’s no water. I mean, there is no water in this city, in sufficient water. Or, in fact, if you push further, you say there is water but we’re not using it terribly well.

There was more along these lines.

Yeah. And the thing we never – we always forget about power is when you switch on your air conditioning, I don’t have any, but if you do switch it on or you switch on the lights, you’re actually consuming water. Another key area we’ve got to really look at is why are we exporting water. Cause right now when we send dairy products, milk, cheese, whatever, we’re actually exporting virtual(*) water.
The same thing goes, you could argue, for – for particularly things like, there’s wine, there’s a whole bunch of other products which consume huge amounts of water, rice and cotton being two of them…
JON FAINE: And meat. Meat production is massive user of water.
ANDREW JASPAN: And meat. Meat production. So, you know, I can’t remember the exact numbers, but for every litre of milk you’re actually chewing up something like 60 litres of water.
JON FAINE: So we need to rethink how we do things. So…
ANDREW JASPAN: So, all of that is, I think, why this, to me, is going to be one of the most stimulating periods to be looking at what’s going on. And in many ways I’m just frustrated I’m not there to play a part.

Here is RMIT’s Global Cities Research Institute website . The United Nations involvement is through the UNGC Cities Programme , and there are about 150 researchers involved.

Faine’s summing up of the discussion was little on the generous side, given that Jaspan’s position with the Institute is honorary:

So the rumour that you were going to go back to England or Scotland is wrong, the rumour that you don’t have any work is wrong. There’s another rumour that you were sacked for refusing to sack journalists, the way Sydney wanted you to. Is that right or wrong?
ANDREW JASPAN:I’m not going to go into that.

Jaspan, of course, was famously shunted from his job as Age editor late last year. His time at the broadsheet was not a happy one. He was faced with a staff revolt, including what amounted to a vote of no confidence in his leadership. He also managed to make enemies of senior management. All this despite comparitively buoyant circulation.

So what did he have to say about all this? Quite a bit – after stating that he was constrained from talking by an agreement he had signed with  Fairfax.

Why was he sacked? Jaspan blamed Rural Press and their reverse take-over of Fairfax.

I was praised for what I’d done editorially, but they told me that there’s going to be a change of direction in management, as – I don’t know if all your listeners know this, but there’s been, in effect, a reverse takeover. Rural Press has taken over Fairfax. The CEO of Fairfax, David Kirk, has gone, Brian McCarthy’s now in charge.

Faine: So, the country paper network’s taken over the capital city paper network?

Correct, yeah. The boys from the bush as they call themselves. [Laughter] And I think they want to go in a different direction and good luck to them. I mean, let’s see how they do. I mean, I think the jury’s out, in terms of what they do, and they’ve only just taken over and Brian, I think, is formulating a complete restructure of the company. Some of which I think is good, by the way.

The bit of the restructure Jaspan thinks is good is changing the arrangement by which the Fairfax newspapers’ online presence is managed entirely separately from the print iterations

I always argued to David Kirk I thought it was wrong that the online division, so The Age online, did not report to me. I had no control over it. That was a separate entity called Fairfax Digital. So, The Age had the newspaper, I was responsible for that. I wasn’t responsible for the magazines, for the books, for online, for a whole range of other areas. And I think it is good that it’s being looked at.

So, in effect, change of direction. And I think they felt that I was not the guy to take it down what they call the low cost environment.

Here Jaspan encouraged the view that he was sacked because he was not willing to cut costs. There is truth to this – but Jaspan’s newsroom critics would add that part of the problem with his management was that he was not sufficiently across his budgets to be able to argue his corner with the high-ups.

Jaspan went on to point out that when he left, so did about 550 other people from across the company. then he made the somewhat staggering claim that he really didn’t mind being sacked.

I don’t actually mind. In fact, I very much welcome a radical rethink of the way Fairfax is run, the way The Age is run, and I was always very much an advocate of that, because it allows you to really challenge. You know, are you spending your money in the right areas.

He made the somewhat conventional point that what matters is journalism, rather than mode of delivery. “I always argue that newspaper is dead”.And when it came to the online presence, Jaspan seemed to suggest that Crikey (yes, us) might be an appropriate model – which is generous of him, given that we were hardly his biggest fans when he was in office.

As I said to you a moment ago, it pains me to say this, but I didn’t have responsibility for The Age online. The people who do run it tell me that they were looking for a different audience, which I think is fine. Or the sort of phrase that they use is stretching the brand. In other words, getting other people who don’t currently read The Age. My argument always is, well, you can do that, but don’t call yourself The Age. You know, The Age is The Age and it needs to communicate through all the channels I said before. Now, I think Brian McCarthy and the new people at Fairfax may look again at that. But the key thing is, you know, who are – who are the people who are going to make editorial decisions about the quality of The Age online, the quality of The Age print and so on and so forth, those are the key questions you do need to look at.

And later:

What I would say, however, is that we here in Melbourne had a lot of thoughts about how we wanted to develop the online service, and I’m not going to rehearse them all here. But I think if we’d allowed local initiative to take hold and we could have developed The Age online as we wanted to do it here in Melbourne, we would have been offering, you know, very much the kind of things that Crikey and others can do out there.

I understand that Jaspan is right about McCarthy wanting to restructure the Fairfax Digital division. Running online separately from the print products is indeed a very strange arrangement at a time of the integrated newsroom.  I understand there may be an announcement within the month on restructuring. In fact, the mystery is why McCarthy hasn’t already moved on this.

Jaspan again floated the idea he offered as editor – of a narrower format for the papers, saying he had always thought The Age was too big. He said former CEO David Kirk had backed the idea, but it hadn’t gone ahead because it would cost money to implement the change – money Fairfax didn’t want to spend. He thought the idea was now dead. Once again, he revealed figures not before in the public domain. The cost of going to a narrower format would have been “about $20 to $40 million” to do both The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. “I think they just felt they didn’t want to spend that right now.”

Jaspan nicely mixed a metaphor to make a contentional point about the way newspapers have been managed.

Newspapers, particularly, have been cash cows. They’ve been milked by the institutional investors and private investors, and they’ve been returning huge profits. And in many ways I think they’ve been killing the golden goose.

So that was it from Jaspan. Doubtless we will be hearing more from him.

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