Ben Hills’ monument to newspaper journalism

Ben Hills has a new book out – Stop the Presses! How Greed, Incompetence (and the Internet) Wrecked Fairfax. It’s published by (surprise!) News Corp’s HarperCollins. Its essential thesis is that the Fairfax media group, owner of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, is in trouble because it has been run by nongs. Boards and managements have been too dumb to exploit the opportunities of the Internet, Hills reckons. He thinks Fairfax should have bought Seek and carsales.com.au and realestate.com.au. Fairfax also needs to be run by “people who know about media”, he complains.

Hils has done some great journalism over the years, notably on the asbestos industry and medical scams. But this book looks like a mis-step.

Since Hills is making a virtue of plain language, I’ll copy him: Hills’ theory is tripe, and I’m surprised more people aren’t calling him on it. In the media, most people seems to be treating him very politely.

But Stop the Presses! also has its lessons – though perhaps not the ones Hills draws.

The reality is that “people who know about media” do not have a great record of thriving in online business. Hills points to Eric Beecher as an example of an ex-newspaperman thriving in the Internet age, but Beecher looks like an admirable but thoroughgoing exception to the general rule – and his online enterprise is, so far, sub-vast.

I worked in newspapers for more than a decade, including five terrific years with The Age, and in Fairfax’s online operations for several months. I left in 1998 to join an Internet startup. I’m quite open to the idea that Fairfax boards over the years may have not been composed of business geniuses.

But the truth as best I can see it is that Fairfax over the years has had broadly normal leadership, and that they’ve run into a hugely abnormal economic disruption. In normal industries at normal times, normal leadership makes normal mistakes, nobody pays much attention for long, and enough successes happen to keep management’s reputation intact. But when an industry is having its entire economic underpinnings ripped away – which is what is happening to newspapers – that same normal leadership usually looks pretty bad.

This happens in all industries. Think of Kodak’s response to digital photography. For that matter, think of carriage-makers’ response to the rise of the car: none of those firms have their names on anyone’s boot-lid today.

Hills knows all these things. If he was more prominently acknowledging them, and more assiduously pointing out that Fairfax has reacted like most other big businesses in a similar situation, I’d have more sympathy for him. If he took care to say that the world he yearns for was the product of an information quasi-monopoly, I’d cut him some slack. But he’s fronting up to interviews still claiming that management incompetence is what caused Fairfax’s strife. This looks a lot like an attempt to make a book about industry decline seem like some sort of moral tale – because moral tales sell much, much better.

Note, by the way, that early references to the book cite its title as Stop the Presses! How Greed, Ambition and Incompetence Wrecked Fairfax. It’s just possible that late in the day, a smart editor turned to Ben and said words to the effect of: “Shouldn’t you at least acknowledge that the Internet has been a bit of a problem for newspaper companies?”

So, four questions for Ben Hills:

  • If “media people” know so much about today’s online media, why have so many of them been astonished by the decline of the newspaper business?
  • If hundreds of papers have closed around the world in recent years, how likely is it that Fairfax’s problems could have been solved by sounder leadership?
  • If newspaper companies can make a great success of buying and running and growing online advertising businesses, what proportion of newspaper companies in developed nations have actually done so?
  • If Fairfax had bought it had bought Seek and carsales.com.au and realestate.com.au, would it really be using them to cross-subsidise its newspapers?

I have my own couple of thoughts about that last question.

  • If Fairfax had bought all these firms, it wouldn’t have made any difference to the thing Hills really dislikes: the collapse of the economic underpinnings for news reporting. It would have merely made Fairfax a business concentrating on online advertising and not very interested in editorial.
  • If Fairfax had bought all these firms, it wouldn’t have run them very well. It would have had roughly the same success with them that News Ltd has had with MySpace.

“What is Fairfax today?” complained Hills on Jon Faine’s ABC Radio show yesterday. “It’s a dating site …” But if it had bought Seek and carsales.com.au and realestate.com.au as well, it would be a job ads site and a car ads site and a real estate site. And that sort of site doesn’t do news either. Fairfax today might be bigger if it had somehow been run by Internet visionaries, but its newspapers probably would not be; they’d be in just as much trouble. And Hills might well be complaining about how Fairfax was neglecting them.

“One just cannot fathom their strategy,” he says of Fairfax management. Well, Ben Hills can’t fathom it. It’s possible that this is because he doesn’t understand economic history. This would be a failing in a journalist writing about business. At least he has plenty of company in the journalism profession.

Hills is gloomy about the future of journalism. “You’ll never get the doings of Eddie Obeid exposed in a Twitter feed,” Hills said on Faine’s show. I understand his gloom. But has he heard of Wikileaks? (On ABC Radio in Melbourne, Jon Faine – to his credit – challenged Hills on this point. His guest, media academic Andrea Carson, also sounded doubtful about various Hills claims.)

Hills’ book seems really to be a book-length version of a whinge I have been hearing from Fairfax journalists for more than 15 years. It stands mostly as a monument to some newspaper journalists’ lasting inability to accept the changing economic realities on which they report.

About David Walker

David Walker runs editorial consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net), editing and advising business and government on reports and other editorial content. David has previously edited Acuity magazine and the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has qualifications in law and corporate finance. He has written on economics, business and public policy from Melbourne, Adelaide and the Canberra Press Gallery.
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