Fairfax's obituary pages

News Corporation delightedly broke the news this week that Fairfax chief executive Greg Hywood declined to run a print ad campaign for a book published by News Corporation, chronicling the decline of Fairfax. Within this elaborate brain-twister lies an interesting test of openness.

On the face of it, it seems that Fairfax’s decision not to run an ad in a Fairfax publication for a book titled “Killing Fairfax,” seems to have been a fairly simple one.

The twist in the tale is that the author, the Australian Financial Review’s Pamela Williams, is a Fairfax employee who was given six months leave, by Fairfax, to write the book.

Why appear to support the book, but refuse to do so publicly? And why, when reports of this about-face popped up in rival publications, spin around again and decide to run the ads after all?

According to early reviews, the chief criticism that Williams has leveled at Fairfax is its failure to compete with, or buy out, lucrative online classified advertising businesses. Could it be that the decision to knock back a reported $30,000 advertising fee for Killing Fairfax was finally seen to be the stupidest of ways to prove the author’s point?

In his piece for the Monthly last month, Eric Beecher noted that, “Australia’s newspapers of record have deliberately ignored the story of their own decline, and its impact on their own readers and the health of society, instead of covering it as they would the decline of any other important industry or profession.”

Fairfax’s initial decision, which according to an email sent to HarperCollins had been made not once, but twice, is a pretty fine example of the newspaper deliberately ignoring its own decline.

Had Fairfax immediately accepted the much-needed advertising revenue, run the ads and put on a brave face, it may have been interpreted as a sign that a culture of openness and fairness within the newspaper was alive and well. By failing to acknowledge the decline of print media when everyone else could see it coming, and refusing to adequately adapt its online publications before it was too late, Fairfax has already revealed a deep misunderstanding of its own mortality.

Judging by this week’s events, that culture of “fierce, independent media” that Fairfax declared to be alive and well in its own ad just a week ago seems to be not in the process of being killed, but already dead.

If Killing Fairfax is everything its publishers claim, the book will ignite debate about how much of Fairfax’s decline is owed to “a decade and a half of lost opportunity and mismanagement,” and how many of the media organisation’s woes can be attributed to the online savvy of James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch, who grin triumphantly from the book’s cover. That debate seems to have been settled early and definitively. 

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.

@michaelamcguire

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