The future of Fairfax

Crikey boss and former Fairfax editor Eric Beecher published a scathing opinion piece about his former employer in yesterday’s newsletter, in the wake of the sudden departure of Fairfax CEO Brian McCarthy.

Of course, as a direct Fairfax competitor, we should take Beecher’s opinion with a grain of salt.  He’s been gunning for Fairfax for some time.  As splenetic Melbourne blogger Andrew Landeryou points out, Beecher may conceivably have a few agendas in this game.11. KP: Mind you, Landeryou has a few agendas of his own that might not be immediately obvious to everyone, so we should take him with a grain of salt as well [] Indeed Beecher’s Crikey piece yesterday is mostly just a reheated version of a longer article he wrote about Fairfax a couple of years ago. Nevertheless it raises some interesting issues about the future of newspapers and the MSM generally in the Age of Social Media, a topic we’ve been musing about at Troppo recently, so I’ve reproduced Beecher’s article over the fold.

Fairfax Media is arguably the most opportunistic company in Australia. Over the past decade, it has never lost the opportunity to shoot itself in the foot or to publicly showcase its dysfunctionality.

Yesterday it was at it again. The announcement of the “resignation” of its CEO, Brian McCarthy, was another occasion to prove that the publisher of two of Australia’s most important newspapers, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, has no peer when it comes to dissembling or incompetence.

McCarthy left Fairfax two weeks after presenting the company’s biggest strategic plan in years because, according to the company’s statement, he could not “make a commitment for the next 3-5 years”. So instead of keeping the architect of its future for a year or two, the chairman told him to leave immediately — he was so good that Fairfax wanted him to stay for five years, but not for five minutes.

There are two key elements at the heart of what happened at Fairfax yesterday, and has been unravelling for the past 10 years. First, no one knows the right answers to the existential threats to old media because many of the answers have yet to be invented. And second, in order to position yourself to find the answers you need to be competent, knowledgeable, intuitive, flexible and honest about what you don’t know.

Fairfax is none of those things. It is a dysfunctional company led by an incompetent board chaired by a former retailer, Roger Corbett, whose answer to the crisis afflicting newspapers is to sprout generalities such as “revenue streams of the future are all very challenging but we will be working to ensure that we deliver the very best” and “the really important thing is that we provide quality journalism that people actually want”.

Unlike Rupert Murdoch, whose local media arm has not just revelled in reporting Fairfax’s antics for a decade but is ruthlessly turning the commercial screws on their hapless competitor every day, the Fairfax chairman — the de facto “proprietor” in a company without an owner — doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and has no instinct for media at the precise moment that his company desperately needs such a person at the helm.

The truth is that “quality journalism” (whatever that means) or the “very best” is not enough. The solutions to the future of newspapers such as the Herald and The Age lie in their business models, not just in their journalism. And given the rapidity of their decline — each has seen its annual profits fall from about $100 million to about $20 million in the past few years — the solution is almost certainly no longer incremental, but seminal.

They need to be totally re-invented, editorially and commercially, from top to toe. In their current parlous state, the only riskier strategy would be not to take that risk.

Every Fairfax CEO and chairman in the past decade has left with their reputation in tatters. The current chairman and the next CEO are likely to join their ranks unless the Fairfax board acknowledges their own inability to grapple with their survival challenge, and sacks itself and its chairman.

Otherwise they will take a large chunk of Australia’s most important institutional journalism down with them.

I confess I know even less about media than Beecher claims Roger Corbett does, but I’ve never let complete ignorance stand in the way of expressing an opinion before, so why start now?

I reckon Fairfax should stop trying to be all things to all people in its publications, both online and print.  The Age and Sydney Morning Herald both attempt to present themselves as “quality” broadsheets while also seeking to appeal to a younger and more tabloid/bogan demographic.  The entire right column of the Age/SMH websites is devoted to tabloid/bogan rubbish that is of no interest whatever to an elitist old codger like me, while the wider left column consists mostly of more serious broadsheet-style content likely to be of little or no interest to the tabloid/bogan audience.  However even the “serious” left column is delivered in a dummed-down, “sexed up” style and interspersed with horizontal pictorial bars which again mostly contain tabloid/bogan content.

The result is a product which is neither fish nor fowl and which I suspect both the middle class codger demographic and the tabloid/bogan youth market find extremely irritating.

Compare that with Murdoch, which has a much more sober, serious-looking site for The Australian and separate sites for its youth-oriented tabloid/bogan offerings like the Daily Telegraph and Herald-Sun.  I suspect that it’s a much more sensible model.  Certainly I generally find myself spending more time browsing the Oz site each day than the Fairfax ones, even though I’m very conscious of the deeply biased nature of Murdoch media’s news and op-ed coverage.  As John Quiggin colourfully observes:

The conventions of objectivity and balance achieved their most complete dominance in the United States,and it is there where there overthrow has been most dramatic. The end of the ‘fairness’ doctrine in broadcasting paved the way for the rise of Fox News as an openly partisan broadcaster, in opposition to the ‘balanced’ centrism of its competitors. More recently, Fox has become a centre of political power in itself, playing a dominant role in the working of the Republican Party machine. Fox donates large amounts of money to the party, puts favored politicians on its payroll and acts as an organising centre for supposedly ‘grassroots’ groups like the Tea Party.22. KP: The local Darwin Murdoch outlet the NT News is currently running a blatant campaign to unseat CLP Opposition Leader Terry Mills, despite the fact that he’s the only even vaguely competent leader the party has in Parliament []

There is nothing inherently wrong with this. The problem is that Murdoch wants to have his cake (a media organisation that will push whatever line is required politically and tailor the facts to suit this line) and eat it too (be treated as a reliable and objective source of information, with a place of privilege in the media hierarchy, sitting above bloggers, twitterers, PR agencies and the like).

In a sense, by engaging in action so obviously inconsistent with the role of a newspaper editor as it has been understood, Chris Mitchell is doing us all a favor. The Australian is printed on paper, and contains what it alleges to be news, but it is no longer a newspaper in the late 20th century sense of that term. Rather, it is part of a political machine, using its power and wealth to crush its opponents and critics by whatever means it finds most convenient.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic at Charles Darwin University, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law) and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 12 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in he early 1990s.
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6 Responses to The future of Fairfax

  1. Jacques Chester says:

    I agree about the blatant campaign, but it’s not the Dread Hand of Murdoch. It’s the Pathetic Hand of Adlam. I mean honestly, when all your sources are called “senior CLP figure”, “known staunch CLP member” and “prominent industry figure”, I think it’s time to realise that you are a “senior bullshit artist” and not a journalist.

  2. What “agendas” do you say I have other than reasonably frankly declared ones about Eric Beecher, who we say hasn’t done a very good job with Crikey after buying it, and The Age, which is clearly on the verge of extinction due to uninteresting leftist bias and a Jurassic Park business model?

    There’s no hidden agenda at all. We don’t like Beecher, Crikey or The Age and clear about the reasons why. We loudly say so and we make our case, whether you agree with it or not.

    A company I helped run once did a small amount of business with The Age, perfectly agreeably, many moons ago, and I had the same view of their content then as I do now, it’s boring, preachy, left-wing pap. (I refrained from sharing these thoughts too loudly at the time to their folks though I’ll admit in the interests of decorum) I didn’t much with them but they paid their bills on time and it involved something like $100K of revenue for a couple of years or thereabouts. A small part of our business and a tiny part of theirs.

    While Crikey is much the same as uninteresting pap as The Age these days, I have never had anything to do with Beecher and other than being slagged off pretty mildly on occasion, nothing to do with Crikey either. I just don’t like the product, infested as it is with boring opinion pieces from Melbourne’s lefty intellectual self-appointed elite. They don’t break stories any more, at least none worthy of great interest. It used to be feared now it’s just ignored.

    So what agendas are you talking about that I am supposed to have?

    And I am struggling to see what my previous business entanglements with Solomon Lew have anything to do with it. He hates the Age too, I can assure you. And once rabbited on about Crikey at an Coles Myer AGM in front of thousands about how it had been mean to his son or something.

    Perhaps you should be more judicious in both your hyper-linking and your hyped linking of issues next time. You are connecting matters that have not much at all to do with each other. Is it the Darwin heat that ails you?

    We assume you’ve noticed that VEXNEWS has broken more than a few blockbuster yarns, certainly that dwarf anything Crikey has ever done.

    That’s our agenda: breaking news and telling people things they won’t see elsewhere, at least until we’ve reported them. We have no agenda in the Beecher v The Age fight other than laughing out loud equally loudly at both of them. All the epithets one can think of for one seem to apply just as well to the other.

    You might not like our style or politics, and I know our approach and views are not for everyone, but it might be more intellectually honest to say that rather than half-concoct innuendo about our “agenda”. Far from hiding our reasons for reporting what we do, we put it up in the virtual equivalent of neon lights.

    Maybe you should consider doing the same.

    Compliments of the Season to the Club Troppo-ists, love ya work,

  3. Ken Parish says:

    Hi Andrew

    Just as I think our readers are entitled to know that Beecher is a former Fairfax editor and current direct Fairfax competitor with his Business Spectator magazine, has a track record of slagging his former employer, and may conceivably therefore have an axe or two to grind, so too I think readers are entitled to be given (by linking) some basic outline of your colourful/entertaining history. I’m not suggesting that it indicates you’re likely to have an axe to grind in the direct sense of Beecher qua Fairfax, but it’s not unlikely in my view that perhaps even unconsciously the whole Solly Lew, Student Union, bankruptcy etc saga leaves you with a passionate predilection for kicking Establishment figures in the nuts at any opportunity. I don’t think that’s an unfair suggestion, in fact in large part it’s what makes your publication so entertaining (if not always necessarily reliable) to read. In addition, Googling comes up with some previous Crikey pieces that say nasty things about you. However they predate Beecher’s ownership so I didn’t bother to link them.

    Compliments of the Season to you also.

  4. You may well have analysed me well, although I don’t think it tells the whole story. And maybe ‘kicking Establishment figures in the nuts’ is a tougher way of saying ‘we speak truth to power’. We certainly plead guilty to the latter.

    I can assure you being sued by a man with not much of a case but unlimited amounts of money is not that entertaining. And I don’t think it has influenced our reporting much, other than perhaps making it possible in the first place and perhaps making us not particularly charitably disposed to him.

    So the connection you make is that Lew and Beecher are capital-E “Establishment figures” and because one gave us a hard time that we are have an “unconscious” “agenda” against the other. That is rather a long bow, although we’ve probably drawn longer ourselves in the heat of battle at VEXNEWS. I’m not even sure either gent would qualify as Establishment, certainly not by traditional Melbourne standards.

    As for our reliability, we do the best we can, if we make errors, we report those with equal prominence as the original report. And you know, the only time we did that this year was when we broke the story that a state MP was going to quit early to cause a by-election. He vehemently denied it and we ran that prominently and as fact. Shortly afterwards he resigned. We probably should have corrected our correction.

    The truth is that while our approach can be tough on targets, and even intrusive, the only reason we have the large audience we now do is that we are reliable, we report news, that is painstakingly verified to the greatest possible extent, as our phone bills and bulging email inboxes chronicle. If we reported crap, we wouldn’t get read. So you can question our style, sometimes even our taste or political perspective, but if you think we’ve got even one story factually incorrect we’d love to hear which one.

    Our problem with Beecher is that he commits the biggest crime in journalism: he’s dull. The publication he bought was once so lively – and even tho it did occasionally touch me up – and is now just nothing. I preferred the earlier iteration even if it did occasionally bite people unfairly, including me.

  5. FDB says:

    Good God you’re a pompous narcissicist Landeryou. The self-regard just gushes off the screen. You ought to be happy to get a mention at all on an adults’ website.

    [Apologies Troppo mods – delete away if you wish. It’s not as if it needed to be said anyway, in light of #2 and #4]

  6. cbp says:

    the only reason we have the large audience we now do is that we are reliable

    With all due respect – and I do respect the real world legwork you guys put in at VexNews, even if it’s often at the expense of brainwork – but I don’t think I’m alone in suspecting that a large portion of VexNews’ readership is comprised of left-wingers who come for the comforting validation of their belief that little of intellectual value comes out of the right.

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