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.