Australian politics, society & culture

The Future of Fairfax

Crises of Faith

Then Fairfax CEO Brian McCarthy speaking at the company's head office in Sydney, 27 August 2010. © Lee Besford / AAP Image
Then Fairfax CEO Brian McCarthy speaking at the company's head office in Sydney, 27 August 2010. © Lee Besford / AAP Image

Margaret Simons

Long read6000 words
 

It was Jay Rosen, the New York University academic and new media pioneer, who declared some years ago that journalism was a kind of religion, and the average newsroom a nest of believers. “There is a religion of the press. There is also a priesthood. And there can be a crisis of faith,” he said. The public might be cynical about the media but journalists, or good ones in any case, tend to be idealistic, at least about themselves. They hold the romantic view that the world can be fixed, or at least improved a little, by the publication of information.

Cover: February 2011
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Crises of Faith
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Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz
The Destruction of Burrup Rock Art
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Kate Jennings

Perhaps the worst journalists are believers too – so convinced about the importance of their mission, their own special place as communicators of the Word, that they do awful things in their arrogance. Journalists can lack respect for the laity, otherwise known as the audience. It’s a common problem in institutionalised religions.

Find things out, tell people about them. It used to be a relatively straightforward, if difficult, task. But these days almost nothing about journalism is straightforward. One of the things we have to work out in the next few years is whether journalism and journalists still matter in a world where anyone can publish news and views. Do we still need the priesthood, the nests of believers?

Fairfax Media is the second most influential commercial media organisation in the country and one of our biggest employers of journalists. It publishes our main metropolitan broadsheet newspapers – the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald – as well as the Australian Financial Review and a host of suburban and regional titles. It also owns ‘transaction sites’, such as the internet introduction site RSVP, which have nothing to do with journalism. But as a news organisation, Fairfax is the main competitor to Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited, which controls the lion’s share of newspaper circulation. Fairfax therefore has an important place in the nation’s psyche and in its democratic health. It is a very particular nest of believers, and a crucible of crisis and opportunity in the new media world.

Articles in Murdoch’s Australian newspaper have claimed the Age will slide into the red next year, after losing $101 million in revenue and $68 million in profit over the last five years. Others say the position is even worse at the Sydney Morning Herald. The gloomy figures are hotly disputed by Fairfax management but they have not been corrected. Senior Fairfax sources would only tell me that, without the full picture, outsiders were merely playing guessing games. But they would not help foster more educated guesswork.

The figures published by Fairfax are not all that revealing. The company, in line with its competitors, never publishes figures by masthead. Overall profitability improved last year as advertising volumes increased after the global financial crisis, but structural problems remain. The company weathered the financial downturn largely by cutting costs, which may have been the only solution at the time, but which has left it arguably less robust.

Even the optimists within the company acknowledge that if the next few years are mismanaged, Fairfax might not survive as a publisher of quality journalism. To put it baldly, we may lose the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, or they might be sold off. Even if the names survive, the mastheads may cease to exist as large-scale employers of journalists.

The sad truth is that there have been very few periods in the last two decades in which the statement “Fairfax is in crisis” has not been true. As one close to the company observes, it is astonishing and a tribute to the journalists and their editors that the mastheads still look as good as they do, given the record of missed opportunity, corporate bungling, dysfunctional boards, infighting amongst senior management, family feuds, greed and sheer incompetence. But the effects, both of the self-inflicted damage and the tide of history, are clear to see. Journalism at Fairfax is struggling to matter as much as it once did.

An example: presently working at the Age is one of the most talented investigative journalism teams the nation has seen. Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker have published a string of stories on corruption and compromise, with perhaps the most important being the Securency scandal, in which a Reserve Bank subsidiary was shown to be involved in international bribery and corruption. Once, such stories on the front page of the Fairfax broadsheets would have rocked the nation. It is now possible for governments to ignore them, and the rival News Limited newspaper to behave as though nothing has happened. Journalism as practised at the Fairfax broadsheets has lost influence, and clout.

In recent months, we have seen the latest episodes in the continuing soapie of Fairfax management, with the sudden departure of CEO Brian McCarthy just days after he was meant to outline a brave new vision for the company at an investor briefing. That turned out, perhaps inevitably given the tensions he was managing, to be a damp squib.

One former senior editor, recently escaped, talks about Fairfax Media’s astonishingly consistent capacity to underwhelm. It employs many of our best journalists. There is talent as well as time-servers on its management team. Yet as an example of corporate governance and media vision, it is a long time since it has impressed.

Another former senior executive simply refuses to believe that the company has sufficient vision and talent to turn things around. The only ways forward involve risk and experiment. There is no guidebook or map. But to date, Fairfax has appeared more clueless than most.

Within Fairfax, it is widely believed that one of Murdoch’s chief aims is to destroy the Age and Sydney Morning Herald and transform Melbourne and Sydney into one-newspaper towns – a fate that has already befallen most other Australian capital cities. The belief was bolstered by a line in the recently published memoir of sacked Herald Sun editor-in-chief Bruce Guthrie, who recorded Murdoch as saying that destroying the Age “has to be our aim”. During research for this article, one senior Fairfax editor suggested that I and other media commentators should go easy on the company, because nobody who cares about media plurality wants to see Murdoch uncontested.

There are other worries. In recent months the mining magnate Gina Rinehart has bought into the Fairfax share register, as well as taking a stake in the Ten Network. Most commentators assume she wants influence, rather than merely profit. Rinehart has also set up a lobby group called the Australians for Northern Development & Economic Vision, which includes as members the former Western Mining boss Hugh Morgan and the prominent climate-change sceptic Ian Plimer. The group’s aims include the establishment of an investment-friendly northern economic zone with tax breaks for individuals and companies involved in mining development. But even without Murdoch’s ambitions and the new threats to independence, Fairfax Media is challenged.

Journalism in Australia has never been sustainable in its own right. Once, two businesses – sale of news and sale of advertising – were bound together by the physical product of a newspaper or the possession of a broadcasting licence. The sale of news never made a profit. It merely drew what the advertising industry refers to as “eyeballs”. Those eyeballs – the attention of the mass audience – were sold to the advertisers. Now the bond between the two businesses has been broken. The audience is all over the place – watching many different screens in the same home, rarely massing together. In newspaper land, the classified ads no longer come hot off the press on a Saturday morning. They are searchable online anytime, and the companies selling the advertising don’t necessarily have anything to do with journalism. All old media organisations are suffering from variations on the collapse of the business model but, because of its dependence on classifieds, Fairfax has had a faster and more fundamental reversal than most. Advertising online is cheap, and in the web-based world Fairfax does not have a monopoly, nor a premium position.

The conventional wisdom is that media companies do best when there is a dominant proprietor. Fairfax, once a family company with an ethos of noblesse oblige, now has no owner to defend and subsidise it come what may. Its share register is dominated by institutional investors with an obligation to focus only on the bottom line. “Everyone wants to write us off,” acknowledged one senior executive. “Nobody will listen to the hope.” He has a point.

Now, in the midst of the continuing crisis, there is also opportunity. For the first time in years, those running Fairfax Media believe there is a sustainable way forward that amounts to more than mining the vestiges of the company’s historical position. The new way will involve a complete re-alignment of the business model. There are dozens of ways in which it could fail. There are good reasons to doubt that this old media company has the smarts, the cohesion, the mission and the self-confidence to pull it off. Yet talking to senior Fairfax management, it is clear that they see the possibility of a new golden age for journalism.

*

The modern history of this once-grand old family company began in 1987, when young Warwick Fairfax launched a debt-fuelled bid to privatise the company against all advice and family counsel. Young Warwick forced out the older Fairfaxes, including his half-brother James Oswald Fairfax and cousin John Brehmer Fairfax. Then the stock market collapsed and the company was buried under debt. Fairfax passed into the hands of receivers. The company and its newspapers have never fully recovered.

Meanwhile, JB Fairfax took the money he had from selling his shares to Young Warwick and bought from him a stable of regional papers. While the Fairfax company lurched through a decade in which the top end of town was dominated by spivs and shonks, JB Fairfax and his right-hand man, CEO Brian McCarthy, built the rural papers into a quiet and very profitable empire – Rural Press – which came to dominate much of regional Australia. It was notorious for buying up independent, family-run country newspapers, many of them in monopoly markets, and cutting costs to the bone.

The company that bore the Fairfax family name went through repeated traumas, first at the mercy of the spivs brought in to advise Young Warwick, then through a period of receivership and attempted takeover by Kerry Packer in 1991 – fended off by a campaign run by the journalists. Fred Hilmer took over as CEO in 1998. He began the process of diversifying the company away from its broadsheet newspapers, acquiring suburban and regional titles and, in what he was later to remember as his biggest success, buying into New Zealand newspapers, making Fairfax a media giant in that country. But Hilmer was not a believer, or at least not in journalism. He offended the newsrooms by referring to them as “Content providers for advertising platforms”. He later stated that he had considered selling the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. Today most journalists regard his reign as one of lost opportunity. The classified ads began to disappear on his watch and he did nothing either to combat that or to re-invigorate journalism.

In mid 2005 a new team took over, with Ron Walker appointed chairman and David Kirk replacing Hilmer as CEO. There was, for a while, fresh energy. Like Hilmer, Kirk had made it clear that the future lay in diversification away from the broadsheets but he was quick and decisive where Hilmer had sometimes been hesitant. In his first 12 months he made a rush of acquisitions, including Trade Me, New Zealand’s largest online classifieds site, as well as expanding the New Zealand newspaper branch. It was Kirk who changed the company name from John Fairfax Holdings to Fairfax Media – to reflect that it no longer was, and could not be, only a newspaper company.

Then, in 2007, a merger was announced between Fairfax and Rural Press. JB Fairfax would return to the board of Fairfax Media, and McCarthy became Kirk’s deputy. Within one year it was clear that, far from a Fairfax Media takeover of Rural Press, Rural Press management had effectively taken over the running of Fairfax. McCarthy, a flinty yet fundamentally decent businessman with a bit of a reverse swagger to his pride in being a simple country man, was not cut out to be anyone’s deputy. The Rural Press money-men were shocked at what they saw as waste – the chauffer-driven cars for Kirk and senior management, the duplication in journalistic effort between the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age. McCarthy successfully undermined Kirk and replaced him, and then the Fairfax family forced out chairman Ron Walker in a very ugly boardroom coup. And all through this, there were redundancies. The nests of believers were besieged, with nobody in senior management or on the board who understood, or even liked, journalists.

Walker’s replacement as chairman was Roger Corbett, formerly the CEO of Woolworths, a dry and cautious man, with little natural empathy for the plain-speaking Rural Press men, led by McCarthy. The tensions between them grew. The scene was set for the most recent corporate agonies. Ever since Hilmer, Fairfax had been unusual in running the digital and print sides of its main mastheads as separate entities. The editors of the print editions of the Age and Sydney Morning Herald had no control over the websites, which took on a tabloid, populist character out of keeping with their print siblings.

As the newsrooms integrated, and journalists were told they had to do everything – write, record video and audio, update hourly for the web – the integration was not reflected in management. Meanwhile, the Australian Financial Review had been allowed to run its own race, developing an online presence based on a subscription model rather than free-to-air. It was generally believed to be a failure – expensive and with low subscriber numbers – yet was allowed to continue as a self-contained unit.

Fairfax Digital had become a separate fiefdom within the company. Under the leadership of Jack Matthews, a slick and charming operator with a background in the entertainment industry, it had taken on a Gen Y swagger, antagonistic both to McCarthy and those who ran the print versions of the newspaper. It was inevitable that eventually the digital and print arms of the business would be amalgamated. The only question was, who would come out on top? The Fairfax Digital people thought the old print hands simply couldn’t be trusted to ‘get’ the new media world but McCarthy saw to it that the development of the new applications for iPhones and mobile devices were overseen not by Fairfax Digital personnel but by Simon Dulhunty – a skilful editor drawn from the heart of the print side of the company.

So began the most recent turmoil. In the middle of last year, McCarthy presented a strategic plan for Fairfax to the board. It included an amalgamation of digital and print that would have left the print side of the business dominant. His plan was opposed by Matthews, and McCarthy failed to get the immediate backing of the board.

Stuck with two executives unable to agree, and apparently without many ideas of its own, the board called in external consultants Bain & Company. It was a move ridiculed by commentators and apparently deeply resented by McCarthy. Nor were Fairfax editors reassured. Sources within the company say that the Bain & Company consultants, when they interviewed senior editors, seemed not to have even a rudimentary idea of how newsrooms work. Nevertheless, Bain fulfilled the conventional role of consultants – reporting uncomfortable truths, spurring change and doing the dirty work that insiders are either unwilling or unable to do. The resulting brave new plan was to be presented at an investor briefing following the annual general meeting in November.

It was much anticipated, but once again Fairfax managed to underwhelm. McCarthy, never an impressive public speaker, presented a restructure, rather than a vision. Then, just days later, he suddenly resigned. To Fairfax-watchers it wasn’t a complete surprise. McCarthy’s social circle had been getting the impression for months that his commitment was waning, and his relationship with Corbett cooling. It was the third change of CEO in five years.

Yet amidst all the muck, things were actually happening. There were some ideas, though you would have had to dig deep in McCarthy’s words to see them. And they weren’t entirely original.

It was Rupert Murdoch, not anyone in Fairfax Media, who in 2009 first began to talk about a complete change to the business model for journalism on the internet. Virtually all mass news organisations had been making their content available free. Murdoch announced that instead, he would make walled gardens of his online mastheads. Readers would have to sign up for subscriptions to access news content.

By now the web had its own worldwide network of evangelists for whom the idea of free information was credo, and paywalls sacrilege. Paying for news was seen as essentially undemocratic. Others thought it couldn’t possibly work – particularly in countries such as Australia and the UK that had strong public broadcasters committed to providing news content free.

But more than a year after Murdoch announced his Australian newspapers would start charging for content, they have yet to do so. During that period it has been suggested by corporate insiders that he would be selling not mass news content but highly targeted niche content; others have suggested the reverse. Meanwhile, in the UK, Murdoch has already imposed a subscription model for the websites of the Times and Sunday Times, leading to a dramatic drop in circulation – although, some suggest, a nevertheless sustainable business model. At the same time, Fairfax was stumbling towards its own version of Murdoch’s vision.

In September last year, as the battles between Matthews and McCarthy dragged on, Age editor-in-chief Paul Ramadge addressed a small group at the New News 2010 conference. He opened a discussion by asking how many people had read an article in Wired magazine by Chris Anderson, published in August, that argued the very thing that brought the newspaper business model undone – the worldwide web – was itself in decline.

The same article was mentioned by nearly all of the Fairfax executives I spoke to when I was researching this essay. It has clearly profoundly influenced them, if only to convince them that they are on the right track. And that track is all about electronic tablet readers – the iPad and its competitors. The new hope is that such readers have completely changed the outlook for journalism, and that people will now pay handsomely for content delivered to their devices and that advertisers will once again pay premium prices to reach them.

In the article, titled ‘The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet’, Anderson argued that it was now clear the worldwide web was not the killer internet application but only one of many. The future lay not in the culture of free and searchable content but rather in ‘apps’ – applications, chiefly those on mobile devices such as the iPhone and, increasingly, mobile devices running Google’s Android software. Anderson wrote: “Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open web to semi-closed platforms that use the internet for transport but not the browser for display.”

Murdoch has declared he believes that almost everyone will soon own mobile tablet readers. Fairfax executives tell me they are watching for the time – surely less than months away – when telephone companies begin to bundle iPads with mobile plans, creating a critical mass of readers that will speed the day when the printing presses can be wound down, and print runs made smaller. The creation of the iPhone, iPad and their competitors has, the argument goes, created the first opportunity since the internet to ask people to pay for journalism, and for audience payments to be a source of significant revenue.

The vision is understandably attractive. Most of the costs of newspaper lie in big printing presses, raw materials and distribution – the huge costs of printing papers on dead trees and trucking them around the nation. Nobody is predicting the death of print any time soon but Fairfax executives have made a decision that the effort of the next few years will be toward smaller print runs, more cheaply delivered, while the internet-based and mobile apps are ramped up. Readers will be encouraged to make the switch to electronic readers.

The risks are enormous. As the Macquarie analyst Alex Pollak pointed out last August, at present only 28% of the company’s value is not in some way dependent on the printing press. The shift will represent an immense disruption in the business model. Pollak identified key issues as including  whether advertising on the mobile devices could be charged at full fixed odds, or at the miserable yields of the websites. How quickly could the cost of printing newspapers and distributing them nationally be reduced, and how quickly could readers be migrated to the mobile devices? The transition represents an immense management challenge. Pollak didn’t say this, but given the record of the last few months and years there is good reason to ask whether anyone inside the company is up to the task.

Unsurprisingly, little of this thinking has been explicitly confided to the market. A stock market–based company can hardly confess that its plan for the future involves a highly risky, and fundamental, realignment of its business model that may fail. On the one hand, investors want to know that Fairfax has a plan for the future. On the other, they don’t like risk. For an old media company it’s a catch 22 because the only alternative to risk is decline.

At the investor briefing in late November 2009, McCarthy gave only hints and general indications of direction. Nevertheless, for those with ears attuned, the excitement lay just beneath the surface. McCarthy declared that 16,000 apps of the Sydney Morning Herald had been downloaded, each representing someone who was at least prepared to try a free subscription that would soon evolve to paid. The figure is significant. As Pollak has commented, this would seem to mean that about 10% of the paper’s weekday circulation is now delivered online. This has happened at a time when iPad sales are only just beginning to take off and the competitor Google Android devices are yet to fully establish themselves. Whether the readers stick remains to be seen.

At both Fairfax and News Limited, the belief is that the future lies not so much in mass media – commoditised news available to all – but in deep news and information, unique enough to justify the price of a subscription.

It’s hard to overstate the fundamental nature of the change in thinking. Only a short while ago, Fairfax and News Limited were intent on getting the newspaper in front of as many eyeballs as possible, even if this meant giving it away virtually free. Fairfax was recently embarrassed by leaked documents published in Crikey that showed that as much as 20% of the Age’s claimed circulation came in the form of bulk copies dropped off to universities, offered to students for as little as $30 per year, but many of which were not picked up and read. It was all a numbers game, about convincing the advertisers that the audience was big enough for them to pay premiums. Former editor Andrew Jaspan once told me he would give the paper away free if he could: “I just want to get it into as many hands as possible.”

Now that thinking has been reversed. The future of Fairfax is no longer expressed in terms of numbers but payment; not quantity of audience, or not only quantity, but quality and intensity of connection.

News organisations have traditionally measured their success partly in terms of influence – front-page stories that rock a nation or change the course of a government. Now, a senior Fairfax source told me, “influence is not about how many. It’s about who.” The emphasis on high-quality content, he said, would be “good for journalism”.

Perhaps. The truth is that a paid model will call what some see as the journalists’ bluff – the idea that the information they gather and dispense is indispensable, and worth paying for. It will hold the nests of believers to their rhetoric.

*

In the senior levels of Fairfax, the new thinking has taken hold. Optimism has yet to filter down to the newsrooms but the senior levels are almost evangelistic. To the outsider, however, one thing sticks out. At the same time as contemplating a future built on asking people to pay for journalism, almost nobody in the company is talking about new ways of doing the journalism itself. They talk about the business model, but not so much about the product.

Overseas, in the newsrooms of the New York Times and the Guardian, experiments are underway on new ways of structuring and gathering the news. The Guardian is experimenting with making raw data drawn from public records available for use and mash-up by audience members. There are pilot projects involving collaborations with the audience – who can always be in more places, collectively knowing more, than even the most talented journalists. And all this is being done on a free-to-the-user model.

Even the structure of news is being played with. The Google-sponsored Living Stories project is exploring multi-layered ways of presenting the daily news in context, linked to a time line of developments and broad information contextualising the news.

Online hotlinks are being used to create news content that acts like a portal to the facts. And sites such as WikiLeaks have proved that providing raw data, making it available for use by all, is no longer only – or even mainly – the task of traditional media. Meanwhile, the public broadcaster ABC is experimenting with giving more away free, developing porous boundaries, becoming more of an organiser, commissioner and enabler of content than a broadcasting institution.

If anyone at Fairfax is thinking about these things then it is not apparent either from public statements or from the innovations introduced so far. A few weeks before Christmas, Fairfax released its new iPad application for the broadsheets, available free, and with a free introductory 30-day trial that could then commute to a paid subscription.

If viewed as a means of persuading existing print customers to change to iPad delivery, the app makes sense – just. It offers an exact facsimile of the print paper, complete with ads, and with the benefit of revealing what priority and layout editors have given to the news. This editorial curation is one of the things traditional readers say they miss about news delivered online.

Headlines can be clicked to view plain-text versions of the story. You can zoom in for a closer view. More innovations are promised. Yet as it stands the app looks inescapably old-fashioned and clunky. The image of the paper does not fit the iPad screen. You have to scroll to see the whole thing. When you click on a story to see the text version, you lose any graphics or pictures that go with the news. The crossword becomes a list of almost indecipherable clues with no squares able to be filled in. There is no audio or video content, and no hotlinks – not even in the ads that advertise the app itself. In other words, the app that delivers the content people will be asked to pay for has less functionality than the Fairfax Digital–developed websites of the broadsheets, which are rich with video and audio content.

So much for the delivery. What about the journalism? The last few years have depleted the newsrooms. While the broadsheets still publish much of the best journalism in the country, on a day-to-day basis the content can look thin and patchy. The idea of a newspaper as a journal of record died years ago. Broadsheet readers can no longer feel confident that they will find out about all the important events in the courts, parliaments and business forums of the nation. Much of what is published – some researchers have put it as high as 70% – is driven by public relations operators. Less chance, these days, for journalism to give voice to the powerless, to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

I asked one senior Fairfax editor whether the company was thinking about ways of interacting more with the audience, embracing citizen journalism, acting in collaboration with the public? He looked affronted. Journalism, he responded, was not a hobby.

That’s true. The kind of work done by Nick McKenzie, for example, is not likely to be performed by amateurs in their spare time – or, not consistently. Journalism is not a hobby. But it is becoming apparent that journalism is, more than ever before, a form of civic engagement, an act of citizenship. If mainstream media organisations don’t host and enable the civic engagement of citizens, then those citizens will go elsewhere.

I asked another senior editor whether he thought there might be room for a revival of the idea of news organisations as journals of record; using the capabilities of the internet, the ability to network, link and curate, as a means of providing the feeling of comprehensive coverage of society that one expected from a serious newspaper a generation ago. The American media analyst Jeff Jarvis has described a future for news organisations “doing what they do best, and linking to the rest”. Once again, this editor had little to say: “We just can’t do the journal of record stuff anymore,” he said. “That idea is dead.” There was no suggestion that there might be new ways of doing it.

There seems to be little visible thinking about innovative ways of doing journalism, as opposed to innovative means of delivery, going on at Fairfax. Perhaps this is the legacy of the last few years in which nobody running the company seems to have understood, or even cared much about, the nests of believers in the newsrooms. Embattlement can make people conservative, as they try to hang on to that which is threatened. Even the good editors at Fairfax have failed to keep up with new media innovation in journalism.

At various times over the last two decades, managers have alleged that the problems at Fairfax included the journalists running the joint. It isn’t true, of course. Perhaps the company would be in better shape if it were, since the journalists are the only ones who can feel a modicum of pride about the last few years. For too long they have been close to powerless to influence their own destiny. Fairfax editors have become ciphers, rarely speaking up in public for their staff or their publications.

It is Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited where journalists and ex-journalists hold sway. News Limited CEO John Hartigan still proudly describes himself as a journalist and aspires to industry leadership. News Limited invests resources into annual editorial conferences, at which editors from the humblest suburban weekly giveaways meet and interact with the heavy-hitters from the metropolitan and national titles. There is a talent development program. News Limited has a powerful journalistic culture that it devotes time and resources to perpetuating and strengthening. There is no more powerful position within News Limited than that of editor of one of the metropolitan titles. They run the joint, speak on the company’s behalf and exercise formidable power.

The result of all this is a corporate culture that resembles a rugby team in its uncritical self-congratulation but also in its true belief in journalism. At its worst, it is like a cult, with the thinking in the newsrooms distorted by the corporate ego. Perhaps, though, Fairfax needs to take a leaf from the News Limited book. Annual editors’ conferences might be a good idea, to encourage new thinking and new ideas. Journalists need to feel valued again if they are to innovate.

There is lots of potential. Since the merger with Rural Press five years ago, Fairfax has been the only commercial media organisation in the country with both depth of journalistic talent and real regional and local presence. There are states of Australia where almost every town has a Fairfax Media masthead. Yet there is no sign of them benefiting individually or collectively from this fact. It is not hard to imagine how the coverage of an issue – such as the future of the Murray–Darling Basin or Indigenous affairs – might be enriched by journalists in Canberra being briefed by journalists on the ground, or if a newspaper in Griffith was also aware of what was happening in South Australia’s Riverland.

Instead, Fairfax Media talks about commitment to quality journalism while presiding over dozens of regional papers in which press releases are run verbatim on the front page and local politicians are rarely questioned, let alone critically assessed. For much of country Australia, courts go unreported. Council meetings are reported only via anodyne post-mortems from the mayor. State MPs may be asked tough questions by their electors but not, it seems, by their local journalists. The tale of the country newspapers suggests that Fairfax Media has had no idea how to unify its business, and no journalistic vision that it wishes to impart.

But there is hope. After the most recent agonies of change at the top, the company now has a new CEO, Greg Hywood, who actually understands journalism and is talking up the opportunities and hitting back when the company is attacked; for years it has been close to impossible to find anyone within Fairfax capable of talking to the media at all. Hywood’s background is in journalism. He is a believer. Yet, at the time of writing, Hywood is only acting in the position. The board has yet to give him its unqualified backing, claiming to be conducting an international search for a new permanent CEO. There seems to be little sense of urgency.

At Fairfax, everything depends on the next couple of years. If they are mismanaged, the mission of the true believers may fail, or perhaps pass on to new hands. Nobody who cares about Australian public life can afford to be indifferent to the outcome. If Fairfax fails, it may be that the future lies not so much with the priesthood but with a reformation. That’s the optimistic view. Others point out that when empires fail, dark ages often follow.

Margaret Simons

Margaret Simons is an award-winning freelance journalist, author and convenor of journalism at Swinburne University of Technology. She is the author of numerous essays and articles and ten books, including The Content Makers.
More by Margaret Simons @Margaretsimons