By Mike Osborne
Departing editor-in-chief Tony Gillies drove the transformation of AAP from a traditional wire service into a cutting-edge, multimedia news agency.
His boundless energy and constant stream of ideas over 16 years at the helm ensured AAP was always at the forefront of industry innovation.
Gillies leaves the 85-year-old Newswire – that once delivered a traditional text service to Australia’s print and broadcast outlets – as a digital operation that provided auto-published words, images, graphics and videos for websites and publishing platforms.
AAP’s outgoing chief executive Bruce Davidson said Gillies instinctively understood what content was critical to inform Australians.
“For a CEO it was invaluable to have such a professional running editorial,” he said.
“It meant I never had to worry about that side of the business – it was always taken care of to the highest level.”
The biggest legacy Gillies left when he exited AAP at the end of July 2020 is the survival of the Newswire, after shareholders News Corp and Nine Entertainment decided to initially close and then sell the business.
AAP’s new CEO Emma Cowdroy said Gillies left no stone unturned in trying to keep the Newswire alive. “Tony was absolutely committed to assisting the process to find a buyer,” she said.
Gillies takes great pride knowing the AAP name and business lives on.
“The thought of Australian life without a news agency was unbearable. If the new owners have the financial stamina and patience to grow it again, then this will be the greatest gift to the country’s media landscape,” he said.
AAP’s survival is just one of Gillies’ personal highlights over 16 years as editor-in-chief. But he considers all of his highlights an editorial “team effort”.
They include the supportive team-first AAP culture; training and nurturing cadets and young journalists; the newsrooms’ digital transformation; creating an effective news planning workflow; growing the award-winning photo business and criminal courts content; pioneering big-event coverage of Olympics, elections and budgets; launching New Zealand Newswire; and establishing the FactCheck unit.
The former Rural Press newspaper editor said he was captivated from the first day he started at AAP in January 2004.
“The first week in the business has stayed with me,” he said.
“The complexity of the operation, the moving parts and the vagaries of content syndication rights.
“Publishing has its challenges but that was no comparison to the 24-7 and 360- degree nature of the agency business.
“The quiet calm of the newsroom operating at high speed was astonishing.
“It didn’t take long to fully appreciate the skill and care of the people around me. I have been hooked ever since.”
Close friend Brian McCarthy, who was Gillies’ CEO during his time at Rural Press, said he was very disappointed when his mate left the regional publisher.
“Tony filled a number of roles at Rural Press as an editor, creating and launching several titles and taking responsibility for quality and standards across a number of publications,” he said.
“He also trained editors and journalists, becoming a confidante to many as a trusted set of ears.
“But Rural Press could not provide what he wanted to achieve in the industry.
“On reflection I saw the logic of the move to AAP and wished him well.”
Former AAP CEO Clive Marshall, now CEO at the UK’s Press Association, said Gillies was an outstanding hiring who exceeded expectations.
“Tony grew the reputation of the AAP not only in Australia but also among the community of world news agencies. His contribution to our industry will be hugely missed,” he said.
Those sentiments are echoed by Peter Kropsch, German news agency DPA’s CEO, who said Gillies was one of the “outstanding experts in the business of independent newswires”.
He said Gillies played an important role within the global MINDS group of news agencies and paid tribute to his thirst for new ideas and strategies gained from visiting news agencies around the world.
“He has a deep understanding of the structural and economic challenges to our changing business and has always been a strong defender of journalism’s independence,” he said.
Gillies toured like-minded news agencies throughout Europe soon after starting at AAP, absorbing the good ideas and how to deal with the similar challenges they all faced.
He became an active MINDS board member, taking over as president from Sweden’s TT agency CEO Jonas Eriksson, who described Gillies as a “can-do” guy.
“No matter how hard, how tough the challenge Tony always faced everything with a ‘yes’ and a positive attitude,” he said.
Gillies’ desire to take on a challenge was obvious from early in his career according to Richard Lawson, who hired him as Tamworth’s Northern Daily Leader newspaper editor in 1989 and who later came to work as AAP’s Canberra bureau chief.
“In 1991, the Northern Daily Leader was named best regional daily newspaper in Australia,” he said.
“It was an enthralling ride as Tony threw himself into the job, showing the energy, enthusiasm, drive, initiative and creativity we’ve all seen at AAP.”
But the more recent devolution and downsizing of the media industry took its toll.
“Having to lose staff has always hurt most,” Gillies said.
“No media organisation has been immune to the tough times.
“Watching very good people who had been part of the news agency for years leave the business never sits well.
“I have enormous respect for our shareholders but I am most disappointed we couldn’t convince them that AAP was worth holding on to. They had a great asset.”
But Gillies prefers to accentuate the many positives that include launching the New Zealand Newswire in 2011 within five weeks; creating AAP’s Awards and the Walkley Awards won by AAP photographers Dean Lewins, Lukas Coch, Mick Tsikas and Craig Golding; and the pioneering development of FactCheck and Constructive News.
“I am genuinely proud we were prepared to back ourselves, muck in and have a go,” he said.
“Some ideas have not lasted. But they felt right at the time. You have to back yourself and I was grateful for the latitude we were given.
“The image service and FactCheck elevated AAP’s profile and FactCheck reinforced AAP’s role as a trusted guardian of the truth.”
Gillies said the thing he will miss most about AAP is the people.
“It has been a privilege to have led the newsroom for the past 16 years, helping to develop that supportive, inclusive AAP culture,” he said.
“If anyone was doing it tough personally, we’d go over and above to help. There’s been times when I have experienced that myself.
“AAP has a unique group of people and I will not let go of the pride they have given me.
“We all invest a lot of our time and emotional energy at work – so you would bloody well want to enjoy it and enjoy the people you are with.
“I have done that, no doubt. For me that’s ‘job done’.”
A former colleague of Tony Gillies’, Mike Osborne retired from AAP late in 2019 after 35 years with the business.
Photos AAP/Kylie Gillies