Inexorably winnowed: Fairfax: The Rise and Fall & Killing Fairfax

Fairfax: The Rise and Fall  by Colleen Ryan 
Melbourne University Publishing 
$32.99 AU 
Published July, 2013 
ISBN 9780522862454

Killing Fairfax: Packer, Murdoch & the Ultimate Revenge 
by Pamela Williams 
Harper Collins 
$39.99 AU 
Published July, 2013 
ISBN 9780732297664

Matthew Ricketson




19 November, 2013

There is a pungent irony in the publication of these two books about the declining fortunes of the Fairfax Media company written by two of its most experienced and respected journalists. Media companies matter and journalism matters, but it is entirely possible that Fairfax, which was founded in Sydney in 1841, will in the next year or two be dissolved or broken up or taken over by Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart. And it is certainly true that the tradition of big city newsroom journalism that bred the authors of these books is being inexorably winnowed.

Good riddance, some would no doubt say. Media moguls both here and overseas have not exactly covered themselves in glory of late, and journalists, historically an unloved tribe, have had the rushed and superficial nature of much of their work exposed by the instant and ubiquitous transparency of the internet.

The demise or even continued bleeding of the Fairfax Media company, though, would worsen an already heavily concentrated news media landscape. An international study being coordinated by Columbia University in the United States has found that Australia has the most highly concentrated print media ownership among the 26 countries surveyed. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation owns fourteen of the 22 national, metropolitan daily and Sunday newspapers published in Australia; Fairfax Media owns seven; West Australian Newspapers owns one.

It is commonplace to deride newspapers as a dinosaur medium, but their online arms still routinely head the lists of the most popular news websites in Australia, with Fairfax Media’s usually in top spot. Newspapers have long been the engine room of what Eric Beecher, proprietor of Private Media Partners, calls ‘public interest’ journalism – that is, journalism that keeps a watching brief on society’s main institutions. This role may be diminishing as the big city newsrooms are hollowed out, but it remains important for journalism and by extension for democratic societies.

It is a role that has been in some ways supplanted or even augmented by the new forms of journalism that have flourished in the internet age: blogs, small independent start-ups, special interest websites. This certainly has been a welcome development, but it is highly unlikely that any of the numerous outlets scattered through cyberspace can command the attention of governments in the way that the Murdoch name does. It is true that the ability in recent years of WikiLeaks to publish instantly and globally vast tranches of documents that governments and military leaders would like to keep hidden has exponentially expanded the scale and impact of the traditional ‘leak’ or ‘scoop’. But the threat posed to governments by the WikiLeaks model has provoked a ferocious campaign to stifle it, which is one of the reasons the organisation’s founding editor, Julian Assange, remains holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. A similar challenge to governments, and a similarly fierce response, has played out this year since the Guardian reported the revelations by Edward Snowden about government overreach of eavesdropping powers.

What all this suggests is, first, that whatever changes the new communication technologies have wrought, there remains a need for independent scrutiny of those in positions of power and authority and, second, that whatever advances these new technologies have made in bringing about greater transparency need to be balanced against what is being lost through the winnowing of what is termed the legacy media.

The two books under review, then, are important for their subject matter and for what they have to tell us about the fate of Fairfax Media and those who sail within it. The fortunes of other media companies, such as Seven West Media and Foxtel, and of other media proprietors, such as James Packer, Lachlan Murdoch and Kerry Stokes, are brought in at the points they intersect with Fairfax. The way the authors tell their stories exemplifies much that is good about twentieth century journalism; the parts of the story they don’t tell illustrates its blind spots. But I am getting ahead of myself. First, you need a sense of the story that Ryan and Williams do tell.

The print media has always been a hybrid business. It is about selling space to advertisers to reach prospective customers. But early on newspaper proprietors realised that those prospective customers were more likely to read the ads if they were surrounded by interesting and entertaining information. News is perennially interesting. Media historian Mitchell Stephens has written that he has not been able to find a society, past or present, that lacked a hunger for news.

To find the news, to verify it, to print and distribute it costs money in wages for journalists, in paper, and in the trucks to deliver what was called ‘the daily miracle’. Media companies like Fairfax earned a portion of their revenue from the price of the newspaper, but the bulk of it they earned from advertising. The public, beginning as long ago as the mid-nineteenth century, became accustomed to receiving their daily paper for next to nothing, which worked for them. It worked for the newspaper companies, too, who earned plump profits. Handsome rates for advertisements could be charged because the hefty costs of production and distribution ensured there were few, if any, competitors to the main newspaper companies.

Successive generations of the Fairfax family combined a deep and abiding interest in the affairs of the day with commercial acumen, or at least the sense to hire people with commercial acumen. This has been well documented in Gavin Souter’s two histories of the Fairfax company, Company of Heralds (1981) and Heralds and Angels (1991), and is reprised in Ryan’s book. The family was conservative, patrician and not above meddling in the coverage of a federal election, as they did in 1961 when, angered by the Menzies government’s economic policies, Warwick Fairfax took the rare step of siding with the ALP. His managing director, Rupert Henderson, virtually became Labor leader Arthur Calwell’s campaign manager.

When James Fairfax became chairman in 1976, he encouraged greater autonomy among editors and so developed the robust journalistic culture that reached its zenith and then overreached itself in the 1980s. In 1987, Warwick Fairfax Jr. launched his disastrous bid to take over the company, which blew apart the family and then imploded when the share market crashed later that year. In 1991, just two months short of a sesquicentenary, the oldest media dynasty in the world was put into receivership. Several books were written chronicling Young Warwick’s folly; what could not be seen then was how vulnerable the company would be when it was re-formed without a dominant proprietor but as a publicly listed company with an open and volatile share register. The collapse in recent years of the company’s share price and the laying off of 1900 staff in 2012 has prompted another rash of books. In addition to Ryan’s Fairfax: The Rise and Fall and Williams’ Killing Fairfax, another book by another veteran Fairfax journalist, Ben Hills, is still in the offing.

For much of its long history, classified advertisments afforded Fairfax a level of profitability that was envied by other media proprietors, such as the Packer family and Rupert Murdoch, who famously dubbed them the ‘rivers of gold’. Under the stern stewardship of Rupert ‘Rags’ Henderson, Fairfax protected this territory against all comers so successfully that competitors had all but given up on wresting it from the company.

Illustrating the maxim that sometimes your greatest strength can be your greatest weakness, Fairfax failed to protect its classified advertising revenue when the internet arrived and tore apart the print media’s longstanding business model. The elegantly compiled bundle of news, entertainment, service information and advertisements that was the twentieth century newspaper, was unstitched by the internet, which enabled the creation of stand alone websites meeting customers’ individual needs. By the mid-2000s, if you wanted to hunt for a house or a car or a job you could do that for free.  Instead of wading through pages of newsprint, you could narrow your search and quickly turn up precise information. The new online classified advertising sites could undercut Fairfax’s rates because they were in that business only and so had none of the other costs associated with gathering and distributing news.

Hindsight is of course a handy tool, but the executive leadership, including the managing director between 1998 and 2005 Fred Hilmer (but not only him), comes across in these two books as an unhappy combination of arrogant, complacent and slow-footed. Their moves into the internet, such as the search directory Citysearch, were overtaken by all-encompassing search engines like Google, and they were stymied at various critical points by the continual factionalised in-fighting on the Fairfax board and what Williams describes as the Machiavellian culture in the company’s Sydney headquarters.

It is easy to heap scorn, especially on Hilmer, but no mainstream print media company in the English-speaking world has yet found a successful replacement for the previous business model. Even acknowledged media business giants, like Murdoch, for many years misread the potential importance of the internet. Even so, it is a sobering fact laid before readers by both Williams and Ryan that John B. Fairfax, who left the company in disgust after Warwick Fairfax Jr.’s takeover bid, and who rode back into it in late-2006 when Rural Press merged with Fairfax to become Fairfax Media, eventually lost more money than young Warwick. Some $900 million was wiped from the value of his investment between 2006 and when he sold out of the company five years later.

It took about a decade for the changes made possible by the internet to unfold, but they are now irreversible. As Daniel Petre, a new media pioneer who was managing director of Kerry Packer’s internet offshoot company, Ecorp, told Ryan: ‘Eight billion dollars of market cap [stock market valuation] is now tied up in REA [], Carsales and Seek. That has basically come out of Fairfax. And Fairfax is worth $1.3 billion. That is the scale of the tragedy’. At its peak, in March 2000, the Fairfax share price was $6.24; its lowest ebb so far has been 38 cents, in November 2012. For much of 2013, it has hovered around 60 cents.

In the end, it is hard to disagree with Ryan’s blunt assessment that ‘incompetent management and lacklustre boards’ saw the revenue streams from classified advertisements flow to online start-ups. She is particularly scathing about the back-biting at the company’s most senior levels, which she likens to the nastiness of ten-year-old schoolboys.

These two books are the work of accomplished journalists. They know their topic, they have a strong sense of the stakes involved in Fairfax Media’s troubles, and they have made good use of the time and space afforded by a book, as distinct from a newspaper feature, to go back to the key board members and senior executives to extract their accounts of events and their reflections on them. Accordingly, readers are offered a good deal more than was revealed at the time about what was happening in the Fairfax boardroom and greater insight into how the fledgling internet companies developed. Newspaper accounts of events as they are unfolding are necessarily incremental and, to a greater or lesser degree, cryptic, as daily journalists are rarely afforded the time to make sense of contested and clouded developments. I know because I reported on many of the events Ryan and Williams cover when I was working as Media and Communications editor for the Age. What was hinted at, or what I intuited at the time, has here been put on the record and fleshed out.

Williams and Ryan make important contributions to our understanding of Fairfax’s current state, though in my view both books have shortcomings. Ryan is virtually absent as a narrator in Fairfax: The Rise and Fall, even though she has been a senior editorial executive at Fairfax for many years. It is not clear how much she knows first-hand and how much she has gathered subsequently. She has followed the newsroom lore of not making herself the story, and it may well be that the reader does not need to know any more about her role in Fairfax’s recent history. But the veil she draws across what she thinks and feels about her time at Fairfax seems to me ill-suited to a book about a media company in which she worked for 35 years.

Williams is a star reporter for the Financial Review but has not been an editorial executive. She practices a form of what is known as source journalism: she has assiduously courted an extraordinary array of highly placed media and business executives, who talked to her both on the record and, it would appear, even more on background. The endnotes are sprinkled with their names. Williams even obtained an interview with Rupert Murdoch – rare for a journalist employed by Fairfax. What this means is that she can give readers enticing accounts of what the rich and powerful said to one another as they contemplated their next move. This is territory that in the United States Bob Woodward has made his own. Source journalism offers the reader material they almost never get in the daily media, but the trade-off for the exclusive access is that you need to keep your powerful sources happy, and that means you risk becoming their mouthpiece.

Readers do not know what has been left out, but they can perhaps glean it by seeing who is treated well in Williams’ account (James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch especially so). The seams also show in the two-dimensional characterisations of the main people who figure in Killing Fairfax. The text is garlanded with descriptions of the colour of men’s ties and of meetings between key players in exclusive eateries like Rockpool, or on yachts and private planes.

Both books are Sydney-centric and treat the Sydney Morning Heraldas the centre of the journalistic universe. As a former journalist with the Age (for two stints), I am happy to declare a bias, but I have read enough media history to know this approach undervalues the contribution of a broad range of Fairfax outlets other than the Sydney Morning Herald. Similarly, both books emphasise the activities of the Fairfax board at the expense of other parts of the company’s activities.

In this, Fairfax: The Rise and Fall and especially Killing Fairfax are, as Sybil Nolan has put it, ‘business procedurals’. It is worrying that two senior journalists underplay the role of journalism and the news media in a democratic society. As the title of Julieanne Schultz’s 1994 book pointed out, the media is ‘not just another business’.

Of course, journalism is a business and one of the key lessons of the events chronicled in these two books is that without a sound business model it is impossible to properly resource newsrooms. There is no doubt that much of the journalism produced every day is ephemeral or about diverting the reader, but the free flow of information and ideas in society is vital and a robust news media is integral to that process. The quickest way to see this is to look at what happens in countries where information does not flow, like North Korea, or is tightly controlled, like China, or where vigorous scrutiny of those in power is punished, like Russia, where investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered some years ago.

Such appalling events have not happened in Australia, but these issues exist along a continuum. The struggle between government and media over information is still an important issue in Australia, as is illustrated in the weekly ‘briefings’ by the newly appointed Immigration Minister Scott Morrison about unauthorised boat arrivals.

Fairfax Media may be in its death throes, or it may be slowly making the transition to a digital media company. I certainly do not want to see the end of a company that has made such an important contribution to Australian life, but if in making that transition Fairfax has to reduce its journalistic workforce to skeletal levels, which is what has been happening for the past few years, what is the point? You are not able to impose much journalistic muscle or editorial heft on an issue like government treatment of asylum seekers, and you are no longer making much money because Seek and Carsales and REA have gobbled up that market. And you are probably not having much fun either.

The Age Newspaper

Front page of the Age Newspaper 4th March, 2013

The Age Newspaper

The Age is a daily newspaper that has been published in Melbourne, Australia, since 1854. Owned and published by Fairfax MediaThe Age primarily serves Victoria but is also available for purchase in Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory  and border regions of South Australia and southern New South Wales.  It is delivered in both hardcopy and online formats. The newspaper shares many articles with other Fairfax Media metropolitan daily newspapers, such as The Sydney Morning Herald.

As at February 2017, The Age had an average weekday circulation  of 88,000, increasing to 152,000 on Saturdays (in a city of 4.2 million).  The Sunday Age had a circulation of 123,000.  These represented year-on-year declines of somewhere from 8% to 9%. The Age's website, according to third-party web analytics providers Alexa and Similar Web , is the 44th and 58th most visited website in Australia respectively, as of July 2015. Similar Web rates the site as the seventh most visited news website in Australia, attracting more than 7 million visitors per month.

The Age was founded by three Melbourne businessmen, the brothers John and Henry Cooke, who had arrived from New Zealand in the 1840s, and Walter Powell. The first edition appeared on 17 October 1854.

Syme family

The venture was not initially a success, and in June 1856 the Cookes sold the paper to Ebenezer Syme, a Scottish-born businessman, and James McEwan, an ironmonger and founder of McEwans & Co, for 2,000 pounds at auction. The first edition under the new owners was on 17 June 1856. From its foundation the paper was self-consciously liberal in its politics: "aiming at a wide extension of the rights of free citizenship and a full development of representative institutions," and supporting "the removal of all restrictions upon freedom of commerce, freedom of religion and—to the utmost extent that is compatible with public morality—upon freedom of personal action."

Ebenezer Syme was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly  shortly after buying The Age, and his brother David Syme  soon came to dominate the paper, editorially and managerially. When Ebenezer died in 1860, David became editor-in-chief, a position he retained until his death in 1908, although a succession of editors did the day-to-day editorial work. In 1891, Syme bought out Ebenezer's heirs and McEwan's and became sole proprietor. He built up The Age into Victoria’s  leading newspaper. In circulation, it soon overtook its rivals The Herald and The Argus , and by 1890 it was selling 100,000 copies a day, making it one of the world's most successful newspapers.

Under Syme's control The Age exercised enormous political power in Victoria. It supported liberal politicians such as Graham BerryGeorge Higinbotham and George Turner, and other leading liberals such as Alfred Deakin and Charles Pearson furthered their careers as The Age journalists. Syme was originally a free trader, but converted to protectionism through his belief that Victoria needed to develop its manufacturing industries behind tariff barriers. In the 1890s, The Age was a leading supporter of Australian federation and of the White Australia policy.

After Syme's death the paper remained in the hands of his three sons, with his eldest son Herbert Syme becoming general manager until his death in 1939. Syme's will prevented the sale of any equity in the paper during his sons' lifetimes, an arrangement designed to protect family control but which had the effect of starving the paper of investment capital for 40 years. Under the management of Sir Geoffrey Syme (1908–42), and his chosen editors Gottlieb Schuler and Harold CampbellThe Age failed to modernise, and gradually lost market share to The Argus and to the tabloid The Sun News-Pictorial, although its classified advertisement sections kept the paper profitable. By the 1940s, the paper's circulation was smaller than it had been in 1900, and its political influence also declined. Although it remained more liberal than the extremely conservative Argus, it lost much of its distinct political identity.

The historian Sybil Nolan writes: "Accounts of The Age in these years generally suggest that the paper was second-rate, outdated in both its outlook and appearance. Walker described a newspaper which had fallen asleep in the embrace of the Liberal Party; "querulous," "doddery" and "turgid" are some of the epithets applied by other journalists. It is inevitably criticised not only for its increasing conservatism, but for its failure to keep pace with innovations in layout and editorial technique so dramatically demonstrated in papers like The Sun News-Pictorial and The Herald."

In 1942, David Syme's last surviving son, Oswald Syme, took over the paper. He modernised the paper's appearance and standards of news coverage (removing classified advertisements from the front page and introducing photographs, long after other papers had done so). In 1948, convinced the paper needed outside capital, he persuaded the courts to overturn his father's will and floated David Syme and Co. as a public company, selling 400,000 pounds worth of shares, enabling a badly needed technical modernisation of the newspaper's production. A takeover attempt by the Warwick Fairfax family, publishers of The Sydney Morning Herald, was beaten off. This new lease on life allowed The Age to recover commercially, and in 1957 it received a great boost when The Argus ceased publication.


Oswald Syme retired in 1964, and his grandson Ranald Macdonald became chairman of the company. He was the first chairman to hand over full control of the paper to a professional editor from outside the Syme family. This was Graham Perkin, appointed in 1966, who radically changed the paper's format and shifted its editorial line from the rather conservative liberalism of the Symes to a new "left liberalism" characterised by attention to issues such as race, gender and the environment, and opposition to White Australia and the death penalty. It also became more supportive of the Australian Labor Party after years of having usually supported the Coalition. The Liberal Premier of VictoriaHenry Bolte, called The Age "that pinko rag," a view conservatives have maintained ever since. Former editor Michael Gawenda in his book American Notebook wrote that the "default position of most journalists at The Age was on the political Left."[7] Also in 1966, Macdonald took the fateful step of allowing Fairfax to acquire a minority stake in The Age, although an agreement was signed guaranteeing the paper's editorial independence. Fairfax bought controlling interest in 1972.

Perkin's editorship coincided with Gough Whitlam's reforms of the Labor Party, and The Age became a key supporter of the Whitlam government, which came to power in 1972. Contrary to subsequent mythology, however, The Age was not an uncritical supporter of Whitlam, and played a leading role in exposing the Loans Affair, one of the scandals which contributed to the demise of the Whitlam government. It was one of many papers to call for Whitlam's resignation on 15 October 1975. Its editorial that day, "Go now, go decently", began, "We will say it straight, and clear, and at once. The Whitlam Government has run its course." It would be Perkin's last editorial; he died the next day.

After Perkin's death, The Age returned to a more moderate liberal position. While it criticised Whitlam's dismissal later that year, it supported Malcolm Fraser's Liberal government in its early years. However, after 1980 it became increasingly critical and was a leading supporter of Bob Hawke's reforming government after 1983. But from the 1970s, the political influence of The Age, as with other broadsheet newspapers, derived less from what it said in its editorial columns (which relatively few people read) than from the opinions expressed by journalists, cartoonists, feature writers and guest columnists. The Age has always kept a stable of leading editorial cartoonists, notably Les TannerBruce PettyRon Tandberg and Michael Leunig.

In 1983, Fairfax bought out the remaining shares in David Syme and Co., which became a subsidiary of John Fairfax and Co. Macdonald was denounced as a traitor by the remaining members of the Syme family (who nevertheless accepted Fairfax's generous offer for their shares), but he argued that The Age was a natural partner for Fairfax' flagship property, The Sydney Morning Herald. He believed the greater resources of the Fairfax group would enable The Age to remain competitive. By the 1980s a new competitor had appeared in Rupert Murdoch's national daily The Australian. In 1999 David Syme and Co. became The Age Company Ltd, finally ending the Syme connection.

The Age was published from offices in Collins Street until 1969, when it moved to 250 Spencer Street (hence the nickname "The Spencer Street Soviet" favoured by some critics). In 2003, The Age opened a new printing centre at Tullamarine. The Headquarters moved again in 2009 to Collins Street opposite Southern Cross station.

As of 2012, three editions of The Age are printed nightly: the NAA edition, for interstate and country Victorian readers, the MEA edition, for metropolitan areas and a final late metropolitan edition, the THA.

Like its Fairfax stablemate The Sydney Morning HeraldThe Age announced in early 2007 that it would be moving from a broadsheet format to the smaller Berliner size, in the footsteps of The Guardian and The Courier-Mail.[8]

In December 2016, editor-in-chief Mark Forbes was stood down from his position pending the result of a sexual harassment investigation.

The Age headquarters, named Media House, is located at 655 Collins St, Docklands, Melbourne, Victoria. It is shared with other Fairfax business units including: 3AW radioMagic1278 radio, the Australian Financial Review, and Fairfax Community Network.  Media House was designed by Bates Smart and built by Grocon for $110 million.  The building was formally opened in October 2009.

The Age masthead (nameplate) has received a number of updates since 1854. The most recent update to the design was made in 2002. The current masthead features a stylised version of the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom and "The Age" in Electra Bold type. The crest features the French words Dieu et mon droit ("God and my right"). According to The Age's art director, Bill Farr: "No one knows why they picked the royal crest. But I guess we were a colony at the time, and to be seen to be linked with the Empire would be a positive thing." The original 1854 masthead included the Colony of Victoria crest. In 1856, that crest was removed and in 1861, the royal coat of arms was introduced. This was changed again in 1967, with the shield and decoration altered and the lion crowned. In 1971, a bold typeface was introduced and the crest shield rounded and less ornate. In 1997, the masthead was stacked and contained in a blue box (with the logo in white). In 2002, in conjunction with an overall revamp of the paper, the masthead was redesigned in its present form

In 1972, John Fairfax Holdings bought a majority of David Syme shares, and in 1983 bought out all the remaining shares. A recent development for the company has seen the purchase of shares by Western Australian mining company Hancock Prospecting which presently controls just below 15% of the shares of The Age parent company Fairfax Media.
The Age was published from its office in Collins Street until 1969, when the newspaper moved to 250 Spencer Street. In July 2003, the $220m 5-storey Age Print Centre was opened at Tullamarine. The centre produced a wide range of publications for both Fairfax and commercial clients. Among its stable of daily print publications are The AgeThe Australian Financial Review and The Bendigo Advertiser. The building was sold in 2014, and printing will transferred to "regional Presses".

In 2004, Gawenda was succeeded as editor by British journalist Andrew Jaspan. Jaspan aroused controversy by initially appearing to not know that The Age was published in Melbourne, sacking Gerard Henderson,[citation needed] a prominent conservative columnist, from the paper and by making remarks critical of Douglas Wood, an Australian engineer who was held hostage and tortured in Iraq. Jaspan accused Wood on ABC radio of being boorish and coarse for speaking harshly about those who kidnapped and tortured him.

In February 2007, The Age took a prominent role to publicly advocate on behalf of the Free David Hicks campaign (when Hicks was a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay).

In 2009, The Age suspended its columnist Michael Backman after one of his columns condemned Israeli tourists as greedy and badly behaved, prompting criticism that he was anti-semitic. A Press Council complaint against The Age for its handling of the complaints against Backman was dismissed.

Reporting on 19 March 2010 on alleged corruption in religion, The Age claimed that the Vienna Boys Choir "has been caught up in accusations that pedophile priests systematically abused their choristers", even though the complaints were made against teachers and older pupils of the choir, which is a private organisation. Reviewing the matter, journalist Paul Mees in Crikey accused The Age of outright "fabrication".

In 2014 The Age put a photograph of an innocent man, Abu Bakar Alam, on the front page mistakenly identifying him as the perpetrator of 2014 Endeavour Hills stabbings. As part of the settlement the newspaper donated $20,000 towards building a mosque in Doveton, Victoria.

The Sydney Morning Herald Newspaper

The Sydney Morning Herald is a daily compact newspaper owned by Nine in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Founded in 1831 as the Sydney Herald, the SMH is the oldest continuously published newspaper in Australia and a national online news brand. The newspaper is published six days a week. 

The front page of The Sydney Morning Herald(9 May 2016),

occupied with a report on the start of the 2016 Australian Federal Election  campaign

Sister newspapersThe Sun-Herald (Sunday edition); The Age(Melbourne)

EditorLisa Davies

HeadquartersDarling Island RoadPyrmontNew South Wales

Circulation104,000 (February 2016)

Founder(s)Ward Stephens, Frederick Stokes and William McGarvie

First issue date1831


The Sydney Morning Herald includes a variety of supplements, including the magazines Good Weekend (which is included in the Saturday edition of The Sydney Morning Herald); and Sunday Life. #

There are a variety of lift-outs, some of them co-branded with online classified advertising sites:

  • The Guide (television) on Monday
  • Good Food (food) and Domain (real estate) on Tuesday
  • Money (personal finance) on Wednesday
  • Drive (motor), Shortlist (entertainment) on Friday
  • News Review, Spectrum (arts and entertainment guide), Domain (real estate), Drive (motoring) and MyCareer (employment) on Saturday

As of February 2016, average week-day print circulation of the paper was 104,000.[5] The editor is Lisa Davies.

Former editors include Darren Goodsir, Judith Whelan, Sean Aylmer, Peter Fray, Meryl Constance, Amanda Wilson (the first female editor, appointed in 2011), William Curnow, Andrew GarranFrederick William WardCharles Brunsdon Fletcher, Colin Bingham, Max Prisk, John Alexander, Paul McGeough, Alan Revell and Alan Oakley.

The February 2016 average circulation of the paper was 104,000.[5] In December 2013, the Audit Bureau of Circulations's audit on newspaper circulation states a monthly average of 132,000 copies were sold, Monday to Friday, and 228,000 copies on Saturday, both having declined 16% in 12 months.

According to Roy Morgan Research Readership Surveys, in the twelve months to March 2011, the paper was read 766,000 times on Monday to Friday, and read 1,014,000 times on Saturdays.

The newspaper's website was rated by third-party web analytics providers Alexa and Similar Web as the 17th and 32nd most visited website in Australia respectively, as of July 2015.  

Similar Web rates the site as the fifth most visited news website in Australia and as the 42nd newspaper's website globally, attracting more than 15 million visitors per month.

In 1831 three employees of the now-defunct Sydney Gazette, Ward Stephens, Frederick Stokes and William McGarvie, founded The Sydney Herald. In 1931 a Centenary Supplement (since digitised) was published.  

The original four-page weekly had a print run of 750. In 1840, the newspaper began to publish daily.

 In 1841, an Englishman named John Fairfax purchased the operation, renaming it The Sydney Morning Herald the following year. Fairfax, whose family were to control the newspaper for almost 150 years, based his editorial policies "upon principles of candour, honesty and honour. We have no wish to mislead; no interest to gratify by unsparing abuse or indiscriminate approbation."

During the decade 1890, Donald Murray worked there.

The SMH was late to the trend of printing news rather than just advertising on the front page, doing so from 15 April 1944.

Of the country's metropolitan dailies, only The West Australian was later in making the switch. In 1949, the newspaper launched a Sunday edition, The Sunday Herald.

Four years later, this was merged with the newly acquired Sun newspaper to create The Sun-Herald, which continues to this day.

In 1995, the company launched the newspaper's web edition 

The site has since grown to include interactive and multimedia features beyond the content in the print edition.

Around the same time, the organisation moved from Jones Street to new offices at Darling Park and built a new printing press at Chullora, in the city's west.

The SMH has since moved with other Sydney Fairfax divisions to a building at Darling Island.

In May 2007, Fairfax Media announced it would be moving from a broadsheet format to the smaller compact or tabloid-size, in the footsteps of The Times, for both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.  

Fairfax Media dumped these plans later in the year. However, in June 2012, Fairfax Media again announced it planned to shift both broadsheet newspapers to tabloid size, in March 2013.  

Fairfax also announced it would cut staff across the entire group by 1,900 over three years and erect paywalls around the papers' websites.  

The subscription type is to be a freemium model, limiting readers to a number of free stories per month, with a payment required for further access.

 The announcement was part of an overall "digital first" strategy of increasingly digital or on-line content over printed delivery, to "increase sharing of editorial content", and to assist the management's wish for "full integration of its online, print and mobile platforms".

In July 2013 it was announced that the SMH 's news director, Darren Goodsir, would become Editor-in-Chief, replacing Sean Aylmer.

On 22 February 2014, the final Saturday edition was produced in broadsheet format with this too converted to compact format on 1 March 2014, ahead of the decommissioning of the printing plant at Chullora in June 2014

The newspaper's editorial stance is generally centrist.

 It is seen as the most centrist among the three major Australian non-tabloids (the other two being the Australian and the Age). 

In 2004, the newspaper's editorial page stated: "market libertarianism and social liberalism" were the two "broad themes" that guided the Herald's editorial stance. 

During the 1999 referendum on whether Australia should become a republic, the Herald (like the other two major papers) strongly supported a "yes" vote.

The newspaper did not endorse the Labor Party for federal office in the first six decades of Federation, but did endorse the party in 19611984, and 1987. During the 2004 Australian federal election, the Herald announced it would "no longer endorse one party or another at election time" but that this policy might yet be revised in the future: "A truly awful government of any colour, for example, would bring reappraisal."

The Herald subsequently endorsed the conservative Coalition at the 2007 New South Wales state election,  but endorsed Labor at the 2007 and 2010 federal elections, before endorsing the Coalition again at the 2013 federal elections.

Notable Contributions

Waleed Aly,  Julia Baird,  Lucian Boz,  Mike Carlton,  Anne Davies,  Elizabeth Farrelly, Peter FitzSimons,  Ross Gittins,  Richard Glover, Peter Hartcher,, Amanda Hooton,, Adele Horin,  H. G. Kippax,  Roy Masters,  Anne Summers, m Kate McClymont

Notable illustrators

Simon Letch, named as one of the year's best illustrators on four consecutive occasions.

Fairfax went public in 1957 and grew to acquire interests in magazines, radio and television.

The group collapsed spectacularly on 11 December 1990 when Warwick Fairfax, great-great-grandson of John Fairfax, attempted to privatise the group by borrowing $1.8 billion.

The group was bought by Conrad Black before being re-listed in 1992.

In 2006, Fairfax announced a merger with Rural Press, which brought in a Fairfax family member, John B. Fairfax, as a significant player in the company

Column 8

Column 8 is a short column to which Herald readers send their observations of interesting happenings. It was first published on 11 January 1947. 

The name comes from the fact that it originally occupied the final (8th) column of the broadsheet newspaper's front page. In a front-page redesign in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, Column 8 moved to the back page of the first section from 31 July 2000.

The content tends to the quirky, typically involving strange urban occurrences, instances of confusing signs (often in Engrish), word play, and discussion of more or less esoteric topics.

The column is also sometimes affectionately known as Granny, after a fictional grandmother who supposedly edited it.

The old Granny logo was used for the first 20 years of the column and is occasionally resurrected for a special retrospective. 

The logo was a caricature of Sydney Deamer, originator of the column and its author for 14 years.

It was edited for 15 years by George Richards, who retired on 31 January 2004. 

Other editors besides Deamer and Richards have been Duncan Thompson, Bill Fitter, Col Allison, Jim Cunningham, Pat Sheil, and briefly, Peter Bowers and Lenore Nicklin.[38] The column is, as of March 2017, edited by Tim Barlass.


The Opinion section is a regular of the daily newspaper, containing opinion on a wide range of issues.

Mostly concerned with relevant political, legal and cultural issues, the section presents work by regular columnists, including Herald political editor Peter HartcherRoss Gittins and Elizabeth Farrelly, as well as occasional reader-submitted content. Iconoclastic Sydney barrister Charles C. Waterstreet, upon whose life the television workplace comedy Rake is loosely based, had a regular humour column in this section.

Good Weekend

Good Weekend is a liftout magazine that is distributed with both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Saturday editions.

It contains, on average, four feature articles written by its stable of writers and others syndicated from overseas as well as sections on food, wine and fashion.

Writers include Stephanie Wood, Jane Cadzow, Melissa Fyfe, Tim Elliott, Konrad Marshall and Amanda Hooton.

Other sections include "Modern Guru", which features humorous columnists including Danny Katz responding to the everyday dilemmas of readers; a regular column by writer Benjamin Law; a Samurai Sudoku; and "The Two Of Us", containing interviews with a pair of close friends, relatives or colleagues.

Good Weekend is edited by Amelia Lester. Previous editors include Ben Naparstek, Judith Whelan and Fenella Souter.

The paper has been partially digitised as part of the Australian Newspapers Digitisation Program project of the National Library of Australia

Fairfax Media

Fairfax Media reports loss of $63m ahead of takeover by Nine

CEO says there could be some cooperation across platforms between mastheads and Nine after merger

Michael McGowan


Wed 15 Aug 2018 

 Fairfax Media has announced its last full-year results under its own name, recording a net loss of $63.8m. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Fairfax Media has announced a full-year net loss of $63.8m ahead of its takeover by Nine Entertainment.

The company revealed its last full-year results under its own name on Wednesday, recording a fall in revenue of about 3.1% to $1.69bn. The loss compares with a net profit of $83.9m in the prior corresponding period.

Fairfax is the publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review. In July, the company announced a merger with Nine Entertainment in a surprise deal worth an estimated $4bn.

The merger, which will give Nine a controlling stake in the company and lead to the disappearance of the Fairfax name, is being reviewed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. It is due to be completed by December.

Revenues at the company’s real estate spinoff Domain increased 11.5%, while streaming service Stan – jointly owned with Nine – now has more than 1.1m subscribers.

The company recorded a $36m charge for restructuring and redundancy costs. Revenues at the metro publications fell 6.1%, while pre-tax profit was up 8%.

But the metro publications now boast 313,000 digital subscribers, driving digital growth of 9%.

The Fairfax chief executive, Greg Hywood, said the metro part of the business was now a “remarkable transformation success story” and the results showed “the strong position of the Fairfax Media portfolio”.

“Each of our businesses has maintained a growth focus and delivered good cost outcomes which will underpin future performance,” he said.

“Over the past seven years, we have taken the big decisions. We have built businesses such as Domain and Stan. We have maximised the growth drivers of our core assets. We have addressed legacy cost issues to give our business time to adjust to the structural change it confronted. We have hit our stride going for growth.”

However, the story is not as positive for the company’s regional publications, which have come under increased focus since Nine chief executive Hugh Marks indicated the new company may look to offload them.

Fairfax recorded a 9% decline in revenue and a 22% drop in profits in its community media section, which Hywood blamed in part on drought conditions affecting the performance of its regional titles.

In a call to investors, the outgoing chief executive said the regionals were “bearing the brunt” of the drought. However, the company’s statement on the results also pointed to “weakness in regional advertising and circulation” and “declines in local and real-estate print revenue”. The company said the circulation declines reflected lower retail volumes.

The mooted takeover of Fairfax by Nine has raised concerns about the concentration of Australia’s media landscape and fears about the editorial independence of the company’s flagship print mastheads.

The CEOs of both companies have said they will not look to merge newsrooms, but when asked about finding “synergies” between journalistic operations during the investors’ call on Wednesday, Hywood said there would probably be “cooperation” across platforms.

“TV journalism and the process of putting a TV bulletin together [is] a lot different to putting out 24-7 websites and newspapers, so sure it’s journalism and sure they provide news but the process is very, very different,” he said.

“That’s not to say there wont be cooperation which will benefit both groups in terms of the use of video, in terms of cooperation where the mastheads’ stories translate into TV.”

 Clancy Dackbulge and Senator Potato toast the Fairfax takeover

First Dog on the Moon

First Dog on the Moon

What is all the fuss about? This merger is just the next evolutionary stage. Inevitable really

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Fri 27 Jul 2018

James Fairfax, architect of independent news, dies at 83


By Neil Chenoweth   January 2017 

James Fairfax, the philanthropist and former chairman of media group John Fairfax & Sons, who helped establish the independence of its newspapers, died on Wednesday, aged 83, at his home at Retford Park, Bowral.

"James has made an immense contribution to Australian society," Fairfax Media CEO Greg Hywood said on Thursday. "His generous spirit and philanthropy has created a legacy that will continue to enrich the lives of Australians for many generations to come. Our thoughts are with his family and friends."

Gallery of NSW director Michael Brand said the gallery's staff and board were "deeply saddened" by the news, describing Mr Fairfax as "an incredibly generous benefactor of the arts".

James Fairfax at his Woollahra home. Robert Pearce

Mr Fairfax, the second child and eldest son of Sir Warwick Oswald Fairfax, was an active director on the Fairfax board from 1957, and from 1977 succeeded his father as chairman during a tumultuous period when the historic newspaper company diversified into television, magazines and regional publications powered by the "rivers of gold" that flowed from The Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age. It also saw the development of Fairfax newspapers as an independent voice.

He resigned in December 1987 when his younger step-brother, Warwick, staged an ill-fated takeover. Four years later receivers were appointed to the business, which was refloated as Fairfax Media.

Mr Fairfax's account of these years, in his 2001 book, My Regards to Broadway, showed him to be "a man of modesty and discretion", Max Suich, who was chief editorial executive for Fairfax from 1980 to 1987, wrote in the foreword.

"James, with tact and guile, led a group of deeply conservative men to recognise that their responsibilities required them not merely to allow, but to encourage, diversity of opinion, comment and reporting in the extraordinary portfolio of media outlets the company owned," Mr Suich said.

Last year Mr Fairfax gave the 120-hectare Retford Park with its 1887 mansion to the National Trust, a gift worth more than $20 million.

"I know that I am transferring the property into safe hands to be preserved for future generations of Australians," Mr Fairfax told The Australian Financial Review last year.


Retford Park, Bowral, which James Fairfax gave to the National Trust. Picasa

Mr Fairfax was made an officer in the Order of Australia in 1993 and a Companion of the Order in 2010 for support for art as well as conservation, medical research and education.

He built a remarkable private collection of classical European art in the course of his extensive travels, before a series of heart attacks in recent years curtailed his journeys.

Mr Fairfax donated artworks worth more than $30 million to the Art Gallery of NSW, where he was a life governor.

"He was an incredibly generous benefactor of the arts whose passion for collecting resulted in one of the greatest collections of European old master paintings in the country," director Michael Brand said.

The gallery's collection "has been transformed through his generosity and commitment, with our 15th – 19th century European galleries bearing Mr Fairfax's name", he said.

"Over the decades he enriched our collection with a magnificent array of works by artists such as Tiepolo, Rubens, Ingres, Canaletto, and Watteau. He will be greatly missed by the Gallery and our thoughts are with his family at this time."

Mr Fairfax is survived by his half brothers, Warwick and Charles Fairfax, his half sisters, Annalise Thomas and Anna Cleary and his stepmother, Lady Mary Fairfax.




Shock of the deal

Australia’s Fairfax Media and Nine Entertainment will merge

A television network absorbs a newspaper empire in a joint bid to survive

Business and finance

Jul 27th 2018| SYDNEY

Ever since John Fairfax took over the fledgling Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in 1841, the Fairfax name has straddled Australia’s media. After 177 years, it is to disappear. On July 26th Fairfax Media and Nine Entertainment, Australia’s oldest television network, announced they would merge in a deal worth A$4.2bn ($3.1bn). Nine will take control with 51.1% of the new company. One of the biggest media conglomerates Australia has seen, it will be known simply as Nine.

The merger is the first big result of changes to the law on media-ownership that the conservative coalition government, under Malcolm Turnbull, made last year. Dating from before the internet, it had included a “two out of three” rule: proprietors were banned from owning more than two of a newspaper, radio or television outlet in the same city. With the arrival of Facebook, Google and other global media outfits, Australia’s firms complained the rule left them handicapped. Mr Turnbull’s government abolished it. It also scrapped the “reach rule”, which had stopped any commercial television network from broadcasting to more than three-quarters of the population.

Australia’s media industry was once dominated by three powerful dynasties: the Fairfax, Packer and Murdoch families. One by one, the dynasties have declined. The late Kerry Packer built Channel Nine, founded by his father, into Australia’s most successful television network. His son, James, later sold control to a private-equity group.

The Fairfax family lost control of its newspaper empire 28 years ago, after a bid by Warwick Fairfax, a descendant of its founder, to privatise the company saddled it with debt and sent it into receivership. Revenue from classified advertising once made Fairfax newspapers among the world’s richest titles, but the shift of advertising to the internet hit them hard. On July 18th Fairfax said that it would share printing presses with News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch’s company and its biggest rival. Not long ago, such a deal would have been unthinkable.

Before he entered politics, Mr Turnbull once worked for Kerry Packer, as both a journalist and a lawyer. A market champion, he started the process of changing media-ownership laws after becoming prime minister three years ago. Mr Turnbull thinks the Nine-Fairfax merger will make both businesses stronger competitors and put them “in a stronger position to support quality journalism”.

The merger certainly offers Fairfax a financial lifeline. But some worry that the new media law that made it possible will make both media ownership and opinion less diverse. At 87, and the last of Australia’s earlier dynasty moguls on the scene, Mr Murdoch already controls about two-thirds of newspaper circulation in the country’s big cities. Editorially, they are right of centre. Fairfax’s three papers, the Herald, the Age and the Australian Financial Review, mostly occupy the political centre ground. Channel Nine takes a more tabloid approach to news.

Hugh Marks, currently Nine Entertainment’s chief executive and expected to keep that role in the new company, has pledged that Nine will adopt a Fairfax charter that guarantees its journalists independence from commercial or management interference. But Paul Keating, a former Labor prime minister who helped introduce the rule limiting “cross-media” ownership that Mr Turnbull has abolished, dismisses this as worthless. As the laws stood, he says, they guaranteed “various streams and alternatives within which to think”. He reckons Nine’s majority stake in the merged company means it will set editorial policy. “The problem with this is that, in terms of news management, Channel Nine, for over half a century, has never other than displayed the opportunism and ethics of an alley cat.”

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, a regulator, will review the planned merger to see if it is “likely to substantially lessen competition in any market”. It says the “impact of technology on the media sector” will be central to its analysis. It is already conducting a separate inquiry into the effect of digital platforms, such as Facebook and Google, on competition and the supply of news. If it clears the Nine merger, as most think it will, the effects could be far-reaching. More mergers may follow. Tim Dwyer, of the University of Sydney, predicts a cut in diversity, and the loss of some regional papers that have “played a key civic journalism role”.

Fairfax Media reports loss of $63m ahead of takeover by Nine

CEO says there could be some cooperation across platforms between mastheads and Nine after merger

 Fairfax Media has announced its last full-year results under its own name, recording a net loss of $63.8m. 

Fairfax Media has announced a full-year net loss of $63.8m ahead of its takeover by Nine Entertainment.

The company revealed its last full-year results under its own name on Wednesday, recording a fall in revenue of about 3.1% to $1.69bn. The loss compares with a net profit of $83.9m in the prior corresponding period.

Fairfax is the publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review. In July, the company announced a merger with Nine Entertainment in a surprise deal worth an estimated $4bn.

From butlers and booze-ups to a humiliating end – the sad demise of Fairfax

The merger, which will give Nine a controlling stake in the company and lead to the disappearance of the Fairfax name, is being reviewed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. It is due to be completed by December.

Revenues at the company’s real estate spinoff Domain increased 11.5%, while streaming service Stan – jointly owned with Nine – now has more than 1.1m subscribers.

The company recorded a $36m charge for restructuring and redundancy costs. Revenues at the metro publications fell 6.1%, while pre-tax profit was up 8%.

But the metro publications now boast 313,000 digital subscribers, driving digital growth of 9%.

The Fairfax chief executive, Greg Hywood, said the metro part of the business was now a “remarkable transformation success story” and the results showed “the strong position of the Fairfax Media portfolio”.

“Each of our businesses has maintained a growth focus and delivered good cost outcomes which will underpin future performance,” he said.

How the Fairfax takeover will further concentrate Australia's media

“Over the past seven years, we have taken the big decisions. We have built businesses such as Domain and Stan. We have maximised the growth drivers of our core assets. We have addressed legacy cost issues to give our business time to adjust to the structural change it confronted. We have hit our stride going for growth.”

However, the story is not as positive for the company’s regional publications, which have come under increased focus since Nine chief executive Hugh Marks indicated the new company may look to offload them.

Fairfax recorded a 9% decline in revenue and a 22% drop in profits in its community media section, which Hywood blamed in part on drought conditions affecting the performance of its regional titles.

In a call to investors, the outgoing chief executive said the regionals were “bearing the brunt” of the drought. However, the company’s statement on the results also pointed to “weakness in regional advertising and circulation” and “declines in local and real-estate print revenue”. The company said the circulation declines reflected lower retail volumes.

The mooted takeover of Fairfax by Nine has raised concerns about the concentration of Australia’s media landscape and fears about the editorial independence of the company’s flagship print mastheads.

Clancy Dackbulge and Senator Potato toast the Fairfax takeover

The CEOs of both companies have said they will not look to merge newsrooms, but when asked about finding “synergies” between journalistic operations during the investors’ call on Wednesday, Hywood said there would probably be “cooperation” across platforms.

“TV journalism and the process of putting a TV bulletin together [is] a lot different to putting out 24-7 websites and newspapers, so sure it’s journalism and sure they provide news but the process is very, very different,” he said.

“That’s not to say there wont be cooperation which will benefit both groups in terms of the use of video, in terms of cooperation where the mastheads’ stories translate into TV.”

How the Fairfax takeover will further concentrate Australia's media

Data shows industry was already one of the most concentrated in the world

 The takeover of Fairfax Media by Nine will significantly increase the concentration of the online news market, with the C4 value increasing by 8%. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

The takeover of Fairfax Media by Nine further concentrates the Australian media, which, data shows, was already one of the more concentrated media industries in the world.

In 2016, a landmark study on media ownership and concentration, Who Owns the World Media?, was published. The study was a collaboration between academics in 30 countries, and it collated and analysed data on the ownership and concentration of media in each nation.

For each country, the researchers calculated a number of different measures of market concentration across 13 “media” industries.

They looked at which companies controlled how much of any given market using two key measures of concentration. The first is the C4 index, which is the sum of the market share of the top four companies, and the second is the Herfindahl-Hirschman index (HHI), which sums the square of the market share of all companies in the market.

The research further differentiated “content media” – newspapers, magazines, books, radio, TV and film – and “platform media”, which consists of sectors like telecom and internet service providers.

The results show that, in 2011, Australia’s content media industry was among the most concentrated in the world, and had been getting steadily more concentrated over time.

Media ownership concentration for selected countries, 2011 or most recent

Showing the HHI concentration index for a country's content media industry against the trend in the HHI index. The HHI index is a measure of media concentration derived from the market shares of companies, and ranges between 0 and 10,000 (where one company holds 100% of the market). The value shown here is the average HHI across each country's content media industry (newspapers, magazines, books, radio, broadcast TV and film). A market is considered highly concentrated if it has a HHI value above 2,500

The authors described this combination of high concentration with an upward trend as “problematic”, highlighting Australia alongside Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, France and Russia.

Australia had the 10th most concentrated content media industry by this measure. For news media, it ranked as the 11th most concentrated. It is also worth pointing out that the media of several of the countries that ranked more highly are largely state-owned, such as in China and Egypt.

The research also looked at another way of measuring media diversity by counting the number of “voices” in a media market. So, two radio stations, three newspapers and a television channel would all each count as unique “voices”, and a large number of different voices would indicate a diverse market with a range of choices and views, particularly once adjusted for ownership.

Counting the proportion of these voices that are part of multivoice companies gives a measure of media cross-ownership for each country:

Cross-ownership of media in selected countries, 2011 or most recent

This measurement of media cross-ownership looks at media voices (eg. newspapers, radio stations) owned by a multi-voice firm as a percentage of the overall number of voices in a market. Higher values mean higher cross-ownership

Australia ranks toward the higher end, a result of “a combination of the strong position of the private companies and of the public broadcasters in a tight oligopoly”, according to the authors.

Australia also had the most concentrated newspaper industry out of any country studied, again with the exception of China and Egypt:

Newspaper ownership concentration by country, 2011 or most recent

The HHI index measures market concentration, ranging from 0 (least concentrated) to 10,000 (market dominated by single owner).I

This concentration is largely due to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which, at the time, controlled 57% of the newspaper market by circulation.

Since this research was carried out, the market has become even more concentrated – APN News & Media was bought by News Corp in December 2016. Based on the 2011 figures, News Corp would have then controlled more than 60% of the market by circulation.

Unfortunately it is difficult to update these figures as News Corp has withdrawn all its print titles from circulation auditing in favour of a new metric that measures readership across all platforms.

However, it is possible to look at the impact of the Fairfax takeover on the online news market.

Using the January 2018 “unique audience” figures from Nielsen as a measure of market share, we can calculate the C4 and HHI for news and current affairs websites with a significant Australian presence:

Estimated online news market concentration change following Fairfax takeover by Nine

Showing the online news 'market share' of the four largest media companies, based on Nielsen unique audience figures for January 2018

This analysis shows the Fairfax takeover will significantly increase the concentration of the online news market, with the C4 value going from 68% to 73.4% – an 8% increase, and an indication of a fairly concentrated market. The HHI would increase from 1,619 to 1,961 post-takeover.

Note: I’ve used Nielsen’s January unique audience figures to calculate the C4 and HHI, changing the ownership of Fairfax properties from Fairfax Media to Nine Entertainment to approximate the post-takeover concentration figure. I’m counting any site that has an Australian-specific homepage or edition, and a substantial editorial staff presence in Australia. You can check the working here, please let me know if you spot any errors.

A modern tragedy: Nine-Fairfax merger a disaster for quality media

July 26, 2018 4.58am BST Updated July 26, 2018

The Consersation _Academic-Rigour-Journalistic Flair

All deaths are sudden, even if long expected.

Appropriately enough, this is the opening sentence of a book called Journalism in a Culture of Grief.

And if ever there was a time of grief for journalism in Australia, it is today, with the announcement that Nine Entertainment is taking over Fairfax Media.

It means the death of Fairfax and is the most consequential change in All deaths are sudden, even if long expected.

Appropriately enough, this is the opening sentence of a book called Journalism in a Culture of Grief.

And if ever there was a time of grief for journalism in Australia, it is today, with the announcement that Nine Entertainment is taking over Fairfax Media.

It means the death of Fairfax and is the most consequential change in Australian media ownership in 31 years.

It also means that three of Australia’s best and biggest newspapers – The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review – are now subsumed into a media conglomerate whose editorial culture is characterised by mediocre journalism.

Nine’s news bulletins consist largely of police stories with a tincture of politics, and highlights of colourful or violent events overseas.

Australian media ownership in 31 years.

It also means that three of Australia’s best and biggest newspapers – The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review – are now subsumed into a media conglomerate whose editorial culture is characterised by mediocre journalism.

Nine’s news bulletins consist largely of police stories with a tincture of politics, and highlights of colourful or violent events overseas.

Its current affairs program, A Current Affair, is a formulaic procession of stories about consumer rorts and personal tragedies.

So there is a huge question mark over the future editorial quality of the newspapers.

A particularly pressing question is: what will happen to The Age’s investigative unit?

It is led by two of the best investigative reporters Australia has produced, Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker.

In addition to breaking an extraordinary range of major stories on subjects like organised crime and scandals in the banking industry, they have developed a highly successful collaboration with the ABC’s Four Corners team.

It seems very unlikely Nine would allow this collaboration to continue, since it involves a rival television channel.

There is also a question about editorial independence.

Fairfax has a charter of editorial independence, which all owners since 1990 have signed up to. Will Nine sign up to it? Will the charter have any meaning when the newspapers are owned by a company whose chairman, Peter Costello, was treasurer in the Liberal-National Coalition government of former Prime Minister John Howard?

The answers to these questions will not be known for some time. They will depend largely on who is given editorial control of the combined operation. Since the Nine CEO, Hugh Marks, is to be CEO of the combined operation, it seems more likely than not that it will be a Nine executive who calls the editorial shots, too.

The takeover also means a further loss of diversity in an already highly concentrated media-ownership landscape. The big players are now down to four: News Corp, Nine, Seven West Media and the ABC.

And it is almost certain to mean the loss of yet more journalists’ jobs.

Since 2012, more than 3,000 jobs have been lost across Australian journalism. Yet, if the takeover is really going to represent “compelling value” for shareholders, as Fairfax chairman Nick Falloon says, then newsroom “synergies” – to borrow the corporate jargon – are likely to be essential.

The Fairfax company’s death throes have been painful and prolonged.

They began in 1987, when the younger son of Sir Warwick Fairfax, “young Warwick”, privatised it. That meant buying out all the public shareholders, for which purpose “young Warwick” borrowed AU$1.6 billion from the National Australia Bank.

Even with the revenue from the “rivers of gold” then flowing in from the classified ads of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, “young Warwick” could not meet his debts to the bank, which promptly sold him up.

In a highly politicised auction, during which Paul Keating and the then-Labor prime minister, Bob Hawke, sought assurances from prospective buyers concerning political outlook, the company fell into the hands of a London-based Canadian, Conrad Black.

There followed a procession of ownership changes, board reshuffles and short-lived chief executives that left the company rudderless and vulnerable.

Shortly after the turn of the millennium, when the digital revolution began to engulf the media, a weakened and incompetently managed Fairfax was ill-equipped to respond.

A series of disastrous mistakes by successive boards resulted in Fairfax missing out on opportunities to buy into the new online advertising platforms in cars, jobs and real estate.

Hubris and arrogance led incumbent board members to believe that these markets could not function without the mountains of classified advertisements carried by The Age and Herald on Saturdays.

By 2005, the shift in revenue to online platforms was discernible, and the trend has been accelerating ever since.

As a result, the company was increasingly unable to meet the demands of the share market for profit growth, and so became the object of sustained takeover speculation.

When the federal government changed the laws in September last year to allow once again cross-media ownership between newspapers, radio, television and online, speculation about a merger between Nine and Fairfax grew stronger.

Today that speculation became a reality.

The Fairfax story has all the elements of Greek tragedy: heroism in the creation of the company, then a combination of comedy, pride, stupidity, greed, arrogance and hubris to bring it down.

Australian media at a crossroads amid threats to diversity and survival

May 10, 2017

Striking Fairfax journalists protest out the front of Parliament House, Canberra.

Instead of just writing the headlines, the Australian media have been busy making them this week. Striking Fairfax journalists boycotted the federal budget coverage in protest at their bosses cutting 120 editorial jobs, while their bosses flirt with selling the newspapers to an American capital equity giant.

Meanwhile, the federal government again promises to overhaul the media landscape, beginning in the budget by rewarding Australia’s biggest media players with slashed broadcast licence fees.

It would also seem the cordiality of media billionaire Rupert Murdoch, who introduced Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to US President Donald Trump at their first face-to-face meeting in New York last week, was returned in yesterday’s budget.

Treasurer Scott Morrison confirmed the leak that A$30 million will be provided over four years to encourage subscription TV networks (read: Murdoch’s Foxtel) to increase coverage of lower-profile events like women’s sports.

Murdoch’s son, News Corporation’s co-chairman and Channel Ten investor Lachlan Murdoch, was a budget winner too. Loaded with debt, Channel Ten’s pleas to replace the $130 million licence fees for TV and radio networks with a flat fee totalling $40 million were answered.

The budget loser in this instance is the taxpayer, who owns the spectrum the commercial free-to-air broadcasters use. On the upside for Channel Ten viewers, this gives the network a little more breathing space as it works to restructure debt – or face an unlikely future – by the end of the year.

The budget dividends for Australia’s commercial media follows Communications Minister Mitch Fifield’s renewed calls on the weekend to change the Australian media landscape by scrapping some ownership restrictions.

The first restriction Fifield wants to scrap is the 75% reach rule, which prevents TV networks from broadcasting to more than three-quarters of the population. The second is the much-discussed “two-out-of-three” rule, which prohibits a company owning more than two of print, TV or radio in one market.

The government’s arguments that these rules have been outdated by technology is timely for Fairfax, as it seeks to sell off its online real estate money-making powerhouse Domain. This week, the highest bidder was a consortium led by US-based TPG Capital, more renowned for its investment in Airbnb and Uber than quality journalism.

So far, the offshore consortium has failed to convince Fairfax shareholders that its $2.2 billion bid for Domain and the publisher’s major metropolitan titles (The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review), plus events and digital ventures, is a good enough deal for Fairfax shareholders.

So, what does this busy week in the headlines mean for Australia’s quality news journalism? Nothing positive.

History shows us every time there is significant reform of media regulations, the biggest media proprietors benefit at the expense of news diversity.

Cross-media ownership law changes in the late 1980s resulted in a frenzy of print media company acquisitions and mergers. Twelve of the 19 metropolitan daily newspapers changed hands; three of them changed ownership twice. And it hastened the death of all evening papers.

Certainly that was in a different time, well before the existence of the commercial internet and digital news sites like Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. Yet this century, Australia still has one of the most concentrated media news ownership environments of any developed democracy.

While there might be a reasonable argument that the internet has theoretically made redundant the 75% reach rule, the same cannot be said for the two-out-of-three rule.

The two-out-of-three rule is pro-competition policy designed to ensure media ownership diversity. Advocates for changing this rule commonly argue that news content already crosses these mediums: publishers are broadcasting, printing, tweeting, snapchatting, pod and vodcasting all thanks to digital technologies and the internet.

These advocates also argue that new entrants like The Guardian, Daily Mail and The Conversation offer greater diversity than before. This is all true, and these different news voices are good for Australian democracy.

But this argument underplays the role of audience fragmentation and proprietorial media power. These digital media entrants are not a substitute for law changes that would likely result in fewer big media operators in Australia’s most dominant news media markets: radio, television and print.

The US provides a good example of why caution is needed in any changes to the Australian media landscape. The US, like Australia, appears to have many and diverse news voices. But scratch the surface and the vertical integration of its major media companies has seen rapid consolidation of ownership over recent decades.

For example, in 1983, 90% of American media was owned by 50 companies. By the second decade of this century, that proportion is owned by just six companies. Among the biggest of the US-based media titans is Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

This concern about concentration of media ownership is premised on a public interest notion that news media is not a commodity like other products. It is ascribed a special role in society that is important to a healthy democracy – to provide a well-informed citizenry, and to enable critical scrutiny of political and other elites in their exercise of power.

Fewer voices means more power to a few, more convergence of content and less diversity, and a real danger of less scrutiny.

Critical scrutiny involves having a variety of perspectives and diverse viewpoints that are evidence-based, so that citizens can make up their own minds. The quality of a democracy relies on the idea that voters have every opportunity to be well informed when they cast their vote.

Fifield’s proposed changes to Australia’s media regulations need to pass the Senate first. At this point, opposing parties like the Greens and Labor have raised concerns about altering the two-out-of-three rule. Without their backing this leaves the Coalition government requiring the support of ten out of 12 crossbenchers.

Debate on the bill is expected next week. Together with Fairfax’s uncertain future, it is sure to generate more headlines.

Mixed media: how Australia’s newspapers became locked in a war of left versus right

June 18, 2017 8

The Australian media’s lack of diversity puts significant strain on our democracy

We are living through a period of fragmentation and polarisation in public discourse on a scale mankind has not before experienced. By far the greatest fragmenting and polarising force is social media.

An increasing proportion of the population, especially those under 40, get their news from social media, overwhelmingly from Facebook. The algorithms that tailor what Facebook prioritises for each individual allow users to choose only those topics or opinions that they want to hear. This has led to the formation of echo chambers or information cocoons.

So we have the paradox of the internet: the technology that provides a global village square also provides the means by which people in the square can block their ears and shut their eyes to things they don’t want to hear or see.

This places great strain on democracy. In the words of William Butler Yeats, things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.

In Australia, the effects of this phenomenon are made worse by the increased polarisation of the country’s two main newspaper companies, News Corporation and Fairfax Media.

Australia has very little diversity in its traditional media sector, especially its newspapers. News Corp controls roughly 70% of daily circulation and Fairfax roughly 20%. And for all their cutbacks in journalistic capacity, it is still the newspapers that inject the most new material into the 24/7 news cycle.

So when these two companies become polarised to the extent they have, there is a void at the centre. Notably, this is where The Guardian Australia has positioned itself (in reporting, at least – its opinions still lean to the left).

Sharp differences in political outlook among newspapers are nothing new, of course.

In Melbourne, The Argus was conservative, the paper of the squattocracy and the merchant class. It opposed land reform and favoured free trade, while The Age was progressive, supportive of the miners at Eureka, in favour of land reform and a crusader for protectionist trade policy.

In Sydney, The Sydney Morning Herald was profoundly conservative. The paper was opposed to democracy (which it called mobocracy) and supportive of a property franchise for the New South Wales parliament. By contrast, The Empire, founded and edited by Henry Parkes, was guided by the principle that, in a colonial society, the working classes were the nucleus and makers of a democratic nation.

So there has never been a golden age when newspapers were heroically detached from interests and ideologies.

However, in the post-war period, the ideal of impartiality in news coverage gained a strong hold on the journalistic mind. American newspapers were the exemplars of this ideal. They were heavily influenced by the 1947 report of the US Commission on the Freedom of the Press

The commission had been set up to try to rebuild public confidence in the media after a period of corrosive sensationalism and propagandising in the early 20th century. Appointed and paid for by the media itself, it consisted of intelligent and high-minded people from the media, government and academia. Its intellectual leader was a Harvard philosopher, William Ernest Hocking.

The commission’s report laid a solemn duty on the media to render a reliable account of the events of the day: factual, impartial and accurate. Comment was to play no part in news reporting and was to be confined to pages set aside for it.

Generations of journalists in Western democracies – including me – were trained in this ideal.

Over time, however, it reduced news stories to a desiccated collection of unexplained facts, devoid of context and analysis. And, anyway, the idea of a completely impartial and detached reporter came to be seen as fanciful, not to say fraudulent.

Gradually, news stories became more analytical, which introduced an overt element of subjectivity. Comment began to infiltrate news pages, so that now we have reached a point where news reportage, analysis and comment are commonly woven together.

Alongside these developments, ideological fissures were opening up in Australian society. The period of post-war social unity around a white Australia, opposition to communism, and other components of the Australian Settlement, such as wage arbitration and industry protection, began to crack.

Newspaper ownership also became more concentrated. In 1983, the Syme family sold The Age to Fairfax. In 1987, changes to media ownership laws introduced by Paul Keating enabled Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp to swallow up the huge but ailing Herald and Weekly Times.

Meanwhile, in Britain, Murdoch was getting a taste of what it was like to wield power over governments. Margaret Thatcher in particular was in thrall to him, as scholars such as David McKnight and Rod Tiffen have shown in their biographies of Murdoch.

His stable of newspapers in Britain included populist tabloids appealing to conservative blue-collar voters and influential broadsheets such as The Times and Sunday Times. These became increasingly conservative under his control, as the distinguished editor of those papers, Harold Evans, pointed out in his memoirs.

It seems Murdoch wanted to replicate this model in Australia. He had already started out with populist tabloids, yet his national broadsheet, The Australian, had begun life in 1964 as a vibrant small-l liberal newspaper.

However, as Murdoch’s vehicle for exerting influence on policymakers, it became increasingly conservative. By 1975 The Australian had become so biased to the right in its political coverage that its own journalists went on strike in protest.

Murdoch makes no bones about his right to control what goes in his papers, and his editorial staff have to accommodate themselves to this – or exercise the privilege of resignation.

At Fairfax, the internal culture has been entirely different. In 1988, journalists at The Age persuaded Fairfax management to sign a charter of editorial independence guaranteeing no improper interference in editorial decision-making. Over the following three or four years, the company’s other titles adopted this charter.

These contrasting cultures are reflected in the editorial values of the companies’ newspapers. As the News Corp papers have become more stridently conservative, the Fairfax journalists seem to have taken it on themselves to provide at least some ideological counterweight.

It can be seen any day in the choice of stories given prominence and in the contrasting angles taken on political stories.

A good example was the treatment given to the controversy last year and early this year over the Australian Human Rights Commission. The Australian was campaigning vigorously to have the commission president, Professor Gillian Triggs, removed. The Fairfax newspapers focused on sustaining her position, particularly in respect of refugees and asylum seekers.

Similarly, with climate change, deniers get a prominence in News Corp papers that they never get in Fairfax.

This polarisation also reflects the deep divisions in the composition of the federal parliament, which in turn reflect deep divisions in the community over issues such as climate change and asylum seekers.

The fragmentation of political discourse brought about by social media only serves to heighten these divisions.

In these circumstances, the body politic would benefit from a renewed commitment by journalists to the qualities that underpinned the ideal of impartiality: accuracy, fairness, open-mindedness and above all balance, which follows the weight of evidence, not the bias of ideology.

The death of Fairfax and the end of newspapers

The Monthly

The Age offices in Collins Street, Melbourne c. 1903

Where is the journalism we need going to come from now?

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead. When we shift our attention from “save newspapers” to “save society”, the imperative changes from “preserve the current institutions” to “do whatever works”. And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work. For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14-year-olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.

Late one Friday night almost 40 years ago, I was standing on the footpath in a seedy part of Melbourne’s CBD, waiting to buy one of the first copies of the marquee Saturday edition of The Age as it rolled off the giant Goss presses that lined the bowels of the paper’s building. I had just written my first by-lined story on the front page of the newspaper then regarded as the best in Australia, and as an ambitious young reporter I was too impatient to wait until the next morning to see it in print.

In those days, every Friday around midnight, the streets outside the Agebuilding overflowed with people who came to buy an early copy of the paper with its thousands of classified ads for jobs, cars and properties. To see them pick up their newspapers that night, keeping the classified ads and dumping the rest into rubbish bins placed along the street by Age staff, was a dose of reality for an idealistic journalist. I now realise I was seeing evidence for a prediction made a decade earlier by media savant Marshall McLuhan. “The classified ads (and stock-market quotations) are the bedrock of the press,” he observed. “Should an alternative source of easy access to such diverse daily information be found, the press will fold.”

The incongruity in that business model – profits from ads for jobs, houses and cars bankrolling the journalism that is vital to a functioning democracy – took several decades to play out. The “newspaper business model”, as it’s now derisively known, has imploded. People no longer line the streets outside newspaper presses at night to be the first to see the ads. The internet has poached most of Australia’s newspaper classified advertising. The money that financed quality journalism for a century is disappearing, with no likely replacement.

The story of how Australian quality journalism fell victim to a commercial market failure has been known to insiders for years, but it has largely been withheld from consumers of Australian journalism because the mainstream media has conspired to censor and spin the truth. 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. They have shown a deep reluctance to disclose or explain that large-scale commercial journalism has become unviable, and no one has yet found a formula to subsidise “public trust” journalism in the way newspaper advertising did.

For Australia, the story is more significant than just the demise of an industry business model. In a small robust democracy with relatively little commercial quality journalism, it has the makings of a civic catastrophe. That’s because the serious journalism of influence in Australia, apart from the government-funded ABC, resides mainly in four newspapers – the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, the Australian Financial Review and the Australian. Between them, these four mastheads provide most of Australia’s coverage of politics, justice, economics, business, science, health, welfare, public policy, international affairs, arts, culture and ideas. Until recently, these four employed around 1500 journalists. Today that number is closer to 1000. Within two years it could be as few as 500.

For most of their existence these papers have been pillars of the Australian democratic infrastructure, sitting alongside the parliament, the bureaucracy and the courts as the enforcement agencies of public accountability and scrutiny. They are the ones who have done the shoe-leather reporting, invested in thoughtful analysis, exposed corruption and maladministration, campaigned on issues they believed in and undertaken the expensive and risky investigative reporting that has held power to account.

Yet the owners and managers of those newspapers knew (but didn’t disclose) something important about their public interest journalism: it always lost money. It was (and is) expensive to produce, appealed to relatively small audiences and so attracted little advertising revenue of its own. Over the past century, media owners prepared to cross-subsidise this higher form of journalism were rewarded with power and prestige, and it was all funded by the vast tracts of classifieds that generated profit-to-revenue margins of close to 90%. (Just do the calculation: in their heyday, less than ten years ago, the SMHand Age were selling hundreds of classified pages every Saturday at around $40,000 each, with few costs other than newsprint and ink.) Now that source of funding is rapidly drying up and the editorial bill – an estimated $150 million a year across the four newspapers – is an expense that shareholders can no longer afford.

Those four newspapers are rapidly going broke. For every dollar they lose in newspaper advertising they gain less than 10 cents in online advertising. In the US last year, daily newspapers lost $1.50 in print advertising for every 10 cents they gained online, according to the latest State of the Media report from the Pew Research Centre. The internet is at once the greatest and the most destructive commercial invention in media history, as newspaper owners have discovered.

As advertising revenue disappears, so do readers. The SMH and the Age have lost close to a third of their circulation in the past three years. The SMH sells 186,000 weekday copies in a state with a population of over 7 million; the Age157,000 copies in a population of 5.6 million. Roughly seven of every hundred Australians buy a metropolitan daily newspaper; in 1947 it was 38.

Even when confronted with such data, the custodians of Australian journalism seem unable, or embarrassed, to acknowledge the threat to the source of their editorial funding. Instead, they paint a glowing picture of the future of journalism. “There is much to be positive about,” said News Limited CEO Kim Williams in his AN Smith journalism lecture at Melbourne University late last year. “Robust continuing and truly great journalism; sustainable business models for print and shiny new business models in digital media; and a heightened and voracious appetite from consumers for diverse news and information across their spectrum of passions and interests.” A year earlier, on the same platform, Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood declared that “the future of journalism has never looked stronger”. He said this was because of the internet, not despite it. “Our readers want our journalism in a variety of formats. Tracking and fussing about print circulation is an outdated and nearing irrelevant form of measurement in the world media companies now inhabit.”

But is the transition from newsprint to online journalism, as the newspapermen assert, just a platform change from one train to the next? Will the $150 million that our four leading newspapers spend annually on public interest journalism move seamlessly from print to digital when those papers fade away?

A fact-checker would quickly confirm that there are no digital media models capable of funding anything like that $150 million. Even though big savings are made by not printing and distributing newsprint, online advertising and subscription revenues are tiny compared to the barrowloads of money that rolled into newspapers during their glory days. No stand-alone news website in the world can support even a fraction of the journalistic resources that currently reside in any one of these four newspapers. Without subsidy or charity, there is no safe crossing.

Newspaper executives also try to deflect discussion of their print problems by boasting about the vast size of their online audiences compared to newspaper readerships. Again, they are being disingenuous. The reason the SMH and the Age have four or five times as many readers online as in print is that the overwhelming majority of those website visitors come to consume commoditised free information like weather, property listings, transactions, sharemarket prices, dating opportunities, recipes and a constant stream of “clickbait” celebrity, lifestyle and oddball stories. Few are there for the “quality” journalism.

The very idea of a large-scale digital newspaper that replicates the ethos and economics of its newsprint predecessors is nonsense. The internet is at heart a niche medium. Even large websites, including social media sites, are built around small communities of interest and individual preferences. This is the antithesis of the newspaper “bundle”, a brilliant concept when it was created 400 years ago after the invention of movable type and the printing press, and then refined over the past century into a grand money-making, power-generating machine. The bundle combined and curated content across a range of reader interests, from politics to sport and everything in between, at a time in history when the public had no way of doing that themselves. The cost of creating this daily mass-market multi-layered package of newsprint was so high that it created a formidable barrier to entry; the resulting scarcity in turn made newspaper proprietors rich and powerful.

The internet has changed all that. It is the first mass medium in history with almost no barriers to entry and practically unlimited content-carrying capacity. These two factors have converged to create millions of websites and blogs, and billions of web pages, resulting in the collapse of online advertising rates for all but highly specialist or unique websites. And that has created another dilemma you won’t read about in the press – the commodification of news. There’s news everywhere on the internet, most of it free, so why would readers pay for an old-style, all-purpose newspaper “bundle” on a website when they can access content that is often deeper and richer on niche sites?

The online world provides a wonderful new platform for journalism, bringing the reader inside the tent and, to the dismay of old-school media barons, removing the power of the gatekeepers to use (and abuse) their media to influence society. Kim Williams is right when he talks about the shiny new business models in digital media, but what he fails to explain is that these are shiny new yachts compared with the ocean liners that the world’s great newspapers once were.

When he talks about “sustainable” business models for print media, he is surely only referring to his own and his competitors’ current model of relentless cost-cutting in a race to match the rapid decline in readership and revenues. The SMH and the Age have been converted from broadsheet to tabloid this year so they can be printed on smaller presses to save money. Hundreds of their journalists, including many of the best, have been pushed out the door in recent years. Investment bank Goldman Sachs predicts that those two papers will incur heavy losses next year and will close their print editions in 2015. Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood acknowledges as much. “We know that at some time in the future, we will be predominantly digital or digital-only in our metropolitan markets,” he recently told the International News Media Association World Congress. “We can’t say whether it’s three, five or ten years. That depends upon print revenue trajectories, but it will happen.”

Over at the Australian, which loses an estimated $20–30 million annually, there is another kind of business model. Under the KRM (Keith Rupert Murdoch) model (like the Kerry Packer model before it, which used to sustain the Bulletin) the proprietor cross-subsidises loss-making newspapers like the Australian, the Times of London and the New York Post with the hefty profits from News Corp’s other businesses. This strategy underpins Rupert Murdoch’s political and social power in three countries, and also buys time in case a new financially sustainable business model for journalism does emerge.

As Clay Shirky, an American media theorist, wrote in a seminal essay called ‘Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable’ a few years ago:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead. When we shift our attention from “save newspapers” to “save society”, the imperative changes from “preserve the current institutions” to “do whatever works”. And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work. For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14-year-olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.

Of all the world’s newspaper companies fighting for survival, few are as vulnerable as Australia’s 172-year-old Fairfax Media, publisher of the Age, the SMH and the AFR. No other major global newspapers depended as much on profits from classified advertising as the SMH and the Age when the internet arrived. Ten years ago its flagship newspapers were generating 56% of their revenues from classified ads, compared with 18% at the New York Timesand London Daily Telegraph, and 25% at the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.

As recently as a few years ago, the two Fairfax flagship newspapers earnt combined profits of around $200 million. Today they barely make a cent. A decade ago they each carried around 200 pages of classified advertising a week; that’s now down to some 50 pages, and still falling. The company’s market capitalisation is billions less than it was a few years ago. The giant Sydney and Melbourne printing plants are in the process of being closed down.

At the centre of this tragedy is the Fairfax board of directors. In the absence of either a proprietor or a majority shareholder – the common ingredients of most successful media companies throughout history – Fairfax has been run by a board with one distinguishing feature: lack of industry knowledge or expertise. The board has never understood the scale of the challenge posed by the internet. It never saw the size of the looming crisis and never made plans for a worst-case scenario. If it had, the mindset of the whole company, from chairman to copy kid, might have been radically different. The company would have tried new and different strategies to adapt. Some would have failed and some succeeded, but simply acknowledging the dilemma would have made a huge difference to the outcome.

Over the past decade, the most challenging of its history, Fairfax has been led by three chairmen – a soft drink executive, a property developer and a supermarket boss, respectively – with literally no media industry or journalism experience. The last of these, Roger Corbett, now leads the company through its denouement. A conservative businessman in his early 70s, Corbett was CEO of Woolworths for 16 years after a successful 40-year retail career. Then he retired as a grocer and became a newspaper director.

On the day he was appointed chairman of Fairfax in 2009, Corbett gave an upbeat assessment of his new empire. “This is a company with real importance to our national culture and democracy and I am honoured by the opportunity,” he said. “Fairfax, like most companies, has challenges ahead, but the decisions taken in the last few years by management and the board have, I believe, put Fairfax in a position which is envied by media companies around the world.”

Fairfax shares closed that day at $1.73, having fallen from above $5 a few years earlier. Now the share price sits at around 60 cents. Under Corbett’s chairmanship the company has lost almost two thirds of its value, and by the 2012 annual report his main focus was laying off 1900 staff (“every job matters and your Board and management wish these redundancies were avoidable”), slashing costs (“we will achieve annual cost savings of $235 million by June 2015”) and asset write-downs of more than $2 billion (“this is a non-cash decision and does not affect the company on a day-to-day basis”).

I last saw Roger Corbett almost nine years ago, inside the Fairfax boardroom. As a former SMH editor who had just sold my publishing business to Fairfax, I had been asked by the board to develop a report about the company’s business model and future. I spent an hour or so presenting my thoughts to the board, starting with a hypothetical “catastrophe scenario”, which I suggested could result from a large migration of classified advertising to the internet. (This subsequently occurred, to a much greater degree than I had predicted.) My key argument was that if the board rated the risk of such a scenario at any more than 10%, it should take decisive action as an insurance policy. I explained to the directors that the financial success of Fairfax “directly subsidises the health and effectiveness of the most important quality journalism in this country”, and that I believed the board should act quickly because “there is now a realistic possibility of the ‘catastrophe scenario’ occurring over the next two to four years”.

After I finished, Corbett walked to the head of the board table and picked up a copy of one of Fairfax’s hefty Saturday broadsheets, bulging with classified ads, from a nearby pile. He didn’t want anyone coming into that boardroom again saying that people will buy houses or cars or look for jobs without “this”, he told his fellow directors. He then dropped the paper onto the table with a thud.

When it comes to the question of who will pay for “accountability journalism”, the light at the end of tunnel appears to be an oncoming train. Maybe someone will conjure up a workable configuration to pay for the thousand-plus journalists who cover the beats that underpin Australia’s civil society. Maybe the ABC will fill the missing gaps with more funding from governments who understand the importance of investing in well-resourced journalism to protect the democratic system. Maybe universities (as with online-only The Conversation) or philanthropists (the Guardian) will become the next Murdochs and Fairfaxes.

Or perhaps what looks like an impending train wreck is actually more like the other great media revolution in history, the period of uncertainty in Europe around 1500 at the juncture before and immediately after the invention of the printing press, when even the revolutionaries couldn’t predict what would happen next.

The outcome of that media revolution was a golden age. The arc from Gutenberg to Google, extending over five centuries, saw the invention, refinement and institutionalisation of journalism, supported by an unconventional funding mechanism, that secured its central place in civilised society for a long time.

What happens next will profoundly affect journalism and society. As Shirky notes, “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model.


Eric Beecher is the publisher of Crikey. He is a former editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and former editor in chief of the Herald and Weekly Times.

Fairfax to continue printing daily newspapers for now, but demise 'inevitable' as circulation drops


By RN Breakfast's business editor Sheryle Bagwell 12 Aug 2016,

Fairfax Media chief executive Greg Hywood has confirmed the mid-week print editions of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, as well as the Saturday Australian Financial Review, will "inevitably" close as circulation of the newspapers continues to decline.

PHOTO: Greg Hywood's Fairfax Media has posted a net loss of $894 million for the year. (Getty/AFP: Greg Wood)

RELATED STORY: Fairfax posts $1b loss despite Domain real estate profit

But in an interview with RN Breakfast, the Fairfax boss said that the company was not at that stage yet.

"We are not close at all because the metro publishing businesses, of which those mastheads are a part, are still very profitable," Hywood said.

"But we wanted to point a way forward and not just say each year, 'yes we are going through structural change', 'yes print revenues are down', and not give people a sense of what that inevitably meant. I guess that's being frank and honest."

Fairfax Media posted a net loss of $894 million for the year as it continues to write down the value of its mastheads, a process that has seen hundreds of Fairfax journalists retrenched over the past five years.

Pre-tax earnings for the division which houses the capital city newspapers were down 45 per cent in 2016 to $39 million, while profits for the company's successful real estate listings website Domain jumped 40 per cent to $120 million.

Domain has now been separated out from the Metro publishing division in a move seen as the first stage towards a possible listing or sale.

Mr Hywood said the business would remain as a "core" part of the group, but he said the underlying results were proof that the transformation of Fairfax Media over recent years had succeeded.

"If you look at the component parts of where those earnings came from, three years ago we got 20 per cent of our profits from our 'digital plus' businesses. That's improved to 42 per cent this year and it will rise to 60 per cent next year," he said.

"This is a 185-year-old newspaper business that had to transform itself into a digital business and that's what we've done."

Hywood 'confident' of surviving social media

The Fairfax chief said he was "absolutely confident" the company could survive the challenge of Facebook and Google which were not only snapping an increasing amount of digital advertising revenue, but were now becoming the main source of news and information for more and more people.

One recent survey found almost half of Australians now use social media as a source of news, with almost a fifth saying it is their main source.

"We reach well over 11 million Australians — nearly half the population — every month. Our audiences have never been larger," Mr Hywood said.

"We get the advertising because we put a better product out. We also use that audience and that marketing inventory ... to drive other businesses."

No changes planned for sponsored content

Mr Hywood also defended the company's increasing use of "sponsored" content — or advertising presented as news items.

Fairfax has this year done a commercial deal with the Chinese government that will see it insert into Fairfax publications what's been described as a two-page propaganda sheet called China Watch.

"Many newspapers around the world, including The New York Times, do similar inserts," he said.

"I don't see any difference between a company inserting their material and a country inserting their material — as long as people know what they are reading.

'There is no doubt it's Chinese government material."

Topics: print-mediainformation-and-com

Fairfax posts $1b loss despite Domain real estate advertising profit

By business reporter Sue Lannin  10 Aug 2016,

Fairfax Media has made a nearly $1 billion loss for the 2016 financial year because of more write-downs and redundancies.

The media company, which owns mastheads including The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, made an $893.5 million loss for financial year 2016.

The loss was mainly due to net charges of $1.02 billion for write-downs including plant and equipment, which also includes nearly $63 million in redundancy costs for the year.

Revenue fell 2 per cent to $1.8 billion.

Fairfax made an $87 million profit in 2015.

Domain brings home the profits

Revenue at real estate arm Domain Group increased by one third to $296 million.

Before tax earnings rose by 40 per cent at Domain, boosted by online.

Fairfax chief executive Greg Hywood said Domain performed strongly, despite the uncertainty caused by the two-month long federal election campaign.

"Domain delivered strong double-digit growth in the second half, despite the dampening effect on June of the longest federal election in modern history," he said.

Domain continued to deliver gains to market share.

But Mr Hywood said revenue at Metro Media, which includes The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, dropped.

"Metro experienced a 5 per cent decline in revenue and 45 per cent decline in EBITDA [earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation], reflecting ongoing structural shifts in advertising spend and investment in growth areas, digital ventures and events," he added.

Metropolitan publishing advertising revenue in Australia dropped 15 per cent.

Fairfax said digital subscriptions increased 17 per cent which "largely offset" declines in revenue from print circulation.

At the end of June 2016, there were 209,000 paid digital subscribers for the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Financial Review.

Fairfax fingers digital for growth

Mr Hywood said earnings from digital were driving growth.

"Non-print earnings, made up largely of digital earnings, now constitute more than 40 per cent of this company's EBITDA," Mr Hywood told an analyst briefing.

On current trends next year this will be closer to 60 per cent reflecting the continued growth in digital earnings.

He said Fairfax and Nine's jointly-owned on-demand TV business, STAN, reached more than 500,000 active subscribers.

Revenue declined 10 per cent at Community Media, which includes local papers and the company's New Zealand media arm, the owner of the New Zealand Herald.

Investors will get a final dividend payout of 2 cents per share, partially franked, bringing the full-year dividend to 4 cents a share, partially franked.

Fairfax has net debt of $88.7 million.

At 10:30am (AEST) Fairfax shares were down more than 6 per cent to $0.93.

They fell as much as 9 per cent in early trade.

Topics: company-newsmediaprint-mediaaustralia

Merger signals downfall of a once great legacy

THE Fairfax clan were as close as we could get to homegrown royalty. Now the path they laid out could be a mere memory.

Malcolm Farr

The younger Warwick Fairfax. Picture: John Feder/The AustralianSource:News Corp Australia

The decades-old ambitions of the Nine network to own Fairfax have finally been blessed. Picture: William West/AFP PhotoSource:AFP

About as close to royalty as you can get. Sir Warwick Fairfax and Lady Mary Fairfax.Source:News Corp Australia

The merger could mean the end of what have come to be known as ‘the venerable mastheads’. Picture: William West/AFP PhotoSource:AFP

THE path accidentally laid out by “young” Warwick Fairfax just over 30 years ago has reached a dismal terminus.

But the decades-old ambitions of the Nine network to own Fairfax have finally been blessed, in one of the most dramatic and significant media deals of our history.

The great and elegant Fairfax galleons will become an offshoot of Nine Entertainment. Once a company with TV stations as subsidiaries, Fairfax is now the junior partner of a network.

The driving strategy of its senior executives has been to strip the unnecessary elements of the company — sometimes its most distinctive features — to prepare it for a takeover.

In a corporate sense, to save the Fairfax fleet it had to be sunk.

The Nine Entertainment ownership will have some obvious consequences. For example, the future of joint ABC/Fairfax investigative journalism exercises would appear doubtful.

And there is apprehension over the fate of “the venerable mastheads” as daily events in print. They could become online products Monday-to-Friday and only appear as newspapers on weekends.

The titles include the Sydney Morning HeraldThe Age in Melbourne, and the Australian Financial Review.

In terms of history, the door has been slammed shut on the great Fairfax family as important participants in the nation’s political and social parade.

The Fairfax clan were as close as we could get to homegrown royalty, with a Sydney harbourside mansions as its palace.

One of the last links to that era was Lady Mary Fairfax who died last year aged 95.

In 1987, after the death of Sir Warwick Fairfax, young Warwick, 26, his son by his third wife Mary, launched a bold bid to privatise John Fairfax Holdings and resume full family ownership.

A declining market and botched handling saw the plan for a brighter Fairfax future turn into disaster, and by December, 1990 the company was in receivership. A year later young Warwick left for the United States were he has lived and worked since.

Owner of Nine at the time, the late Kerry Packer, wanted to buy the crumbled remains of Fairfax and his imported American corporate gunslinger, Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap, was poised to enter the newspaper offices to slash expenses.

It didn’t happen. Nine back then was fended off.

What Fairfax got was Conrad Moffat Black, a British newspaper executive with big plans for Fairfax, news of which reached here before he did in 1991 to scout out purchase options.

“I hope that my arrival will dispel the notion that I have cloven feet and pointy ears,” Mr Black joked.

Many were never convinced, particularly after the Black takeover in 1994.

He had his own “Chainsaw” Al, a South African named Stephen Mulholland who roused considerable Australian hostility.

The Black experiment lasted just five years during which circulations dropped alarmingly and after which he moved on. The man who became Baron Black of Crossharbour was later jailed in the US on charges related to fraud.

Then came an unsettled period in which all media outlets struggled with the brutal dynamics of the internet, digital commerce, and the fracturing of advertising sources. Fairfax was less successful in this adjustment and realignment than others.

But it continued to produce journalism of substance, and helped maintain diversity in the industry.

After the Nine takeover, all that could be a mere memory.

Keeping company: encountering the Fairfax Media archive


Pivotal: the Sydney Morning Herald library in 1931. 

Fairfax Media Business Archive, State Library of New South Wales

While Fairfax’s future seems likely to be in the hands of Nine, much of its past has recently been made accessible at the State Library of New South Wales. At a symposium earlier this month, Bridget Griffen-Foley introduced the company archive.

The headline advice I received twenty-five years ago was “Don’t do it!” I had just graduated from Macquarie University with an honours degree in modern history along with — as one thesis examiner joshed — “endless enthusiasm.” My passion for history was increasingly focused on the media.

I had been introduced to primary sources in a second-year Australian history course by Frank Clarke, who had encouraged me to read “old newspapers.” This was the analogue era, well before Trove and digitised newspapers, and so I went in search of political cartoons  using the microfilms in the bowels of the old Macquarie University Library. I spent a good deal more time there in my 1992 honours year, as well as in the newspaper section of the State Library of New South Wales, researching how the press had portrayed former Labor leader Dr H.V. Evatt.

During my honours year I had encountered Company of Heralds, Gavin Souter’s superb 1981 history of the Fairfax media corporation, which he followed up a decade later with Company of Heralds: The House of Fairfax 1841–1992. I was struck by the fact that there was no equivalent history of the other big Sydney publisher, Australian Consolidated Press, and the only biography of its founder, Frank Packer (1906–74), was a hagiography written while he was still alive.

And so my honours and PhD supervisor, Duncan Waterson, suggested that I talk to a retired colleague, then the finest historian of the New South Wales press, about my interest in writing a biography of Sir Frank or a history of ACP. The telephone conversation was dispiriting — with the best of intentions, the historian expressed concern that there was no ACP archive (as there was for Fairfax) and no known Packer family papers. The fearsome reputation of the intensely private Kerry Packer (Sir Frank’s son and heir, and the richest person in Australia at the time) may also have been mentioned.

By early 1993, following a polite “no” from Kerry Packer’s office, I was increasingly concerned about how I would research aspects of his father’s private life. But Sir Frank’s public career, and his business, still seemed to have potential. At the very least, I could probe ACP’s own magazines and newspapers — led by the Australian Women’s Weekly, the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, and the Bulletin.

As I began wading through oceans of microfilm, I convinced myself that a company history would be possible, with additional material available in the form of journalists’ and editors’ manuscript collections (some of them in the State Library of New South Wales); the records of journalist and printers’ unions (principally in the Noel Butlin Archives Centre in Canberra); regulatory material, ranging from the Department of Information to the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (in the National Archives of Australia); and oral history interviews.

By mid 1993, having mined Gavin Souter’s first volume and talked to him about my project, it was clear to me that relevant material was held in the Fairfax archive. It was hard to know how much, given I was in the early stages of working on the history of a rival company. But for me (and, I dare say, Gavin), the stories of the knights of the Sydney press — the Fairfaxes and the Packers — have always been imbricated and inseparable.

In July 1993 I wrote my first letter to Fairfax’s chief legal counsel and company secretary, Gail Hambly, requesting access to the collection. Within weeks, I was walking from Central Station to Mountain Street, Ultimo, where the archive was housed, not far from Fairfax headquarters in Jones Street. The company’s first archivist, Eileen Dwyer, had recently retired, leaving her successor, Louise Preston, to continue attempting to compile detailed listings of the collection’s 1400 boxes. I occupied one of the two desks in the archive, making notes in pencil, while Louise occupied the other.

It became increasingly clear that the archive would be pivotal to my PhD thesis. Last weekend I retrieved from my own archive the folders of pencilled notes I took as I researched first a company history and then a biography of Sir Frank. In the book based on my thesis, The House of Packer: The Making of a Media Empire (1999), I acknowledged the debt I owed to the Fairfax archive. Some of the material I found there also helped to flesh out the biography of Sir Frank. The NSW working party of the Australian Dictionary of Biographyhad decided to take a punt on a young historian by inviting me to write the major Packer entry, and this undertaking, leading as it did to research on ancestry, schooling, sport, marriages and children, helped to convince me that a full-scale biography, encompassing the personal as well as the public, was viable. Both were published in 2000.

Dipping into my folders, I thought I might pull out some examples of the sorts of Fairfax material that helped to inform my Packer books. It’s important to note that the archive contains the records of many companies and outlets acquired by Fairfax.

Of particular value to me were the records of Associated Newspapers Ltd, which Peter Arfanis from the State Library of New South Wales wrote about in a blog about the Fairfax archive late last year. This corporate octopus was created by Sir Hugh Denison in 1929, when he merged the Sun, the Sunday Sun, the Daily Telegraph Pictorial, the Sunday Pictorial, the Newcastle SunWorld’s News and Wireless Weekly with the holdings of S. Bennett Ltd — the Evening News, the Sunday NewsWoman’s Budget and Sporting and Dramatic News.

The Sydney Morning Herald building on the corner of Pitt and Hunter streets, c 1920s. Fairfax Media Business Archive, State Library of New South Wales

Through the chairman’s correspondence, the board’s minute books, and legal agreements — all held in the archive — we can trace the machinations behind the chain’s purchase of the Daily and Sunday Guardians in 1930; the slide in the share price as the company published titles that competed with each other during the Great Depression; and the closure and mergers of several titles.

I found concrete evidence of Robert Clyde Packer’s attempt to protect his shareholding by moving from Smith’s Newspapers to become managing editor of Associated Newspapers’ remaining papers, and his fight against NSW premier Jack Lang’s legislation designed to bankrupt Packer and his son, Frank. The archive contains rich details of Packer senior’s authorising of Associated Newspapers to pay Packer junior and E.G. Theodore £86,500 notto publish an afternoon newspaper for three years. This extraordinary 1932 deal seeded the creation of the Australian Women’s Weekly, and the formation of the Packer media empire.

Minutes of staff conferences from mid 1933 onwards show John Fairfax and Sons, as well as Associated Newspapers, monitoring the circulation and interstate launches of the Women’s Weekly, a new and virile competitor for Woman’s Budget. The Telegraph’s editor, Thomas Dunbabin, also observed that the Women’s Weekly’s effect “on the Women’s Sections of our Dailies should be closely watched, and… a careful note made of what it demonstrated in respect of what women want.” The success of the Weekly, he went on, “shows a tremendous demand for certain things on the part of women.”

The Fairfax archive documents the negotiations that led to Frank Packer’s company, Sydney Newspapers Ltd, joining with Associated Newspapers in 1935 to form a new company, Consolidated Press Ltd, and relaunch the morning Telegraph as the Daily Telegraph the following year. The intricacies of calculating the value of their respective titles are recorded, including notes of phone calls to Packer, and discussions about what should (and shouldn’t) be revealed to shareholders. The files include agreements to contain competition in order to protect the jewels in the respective companies’ crowns: the Women’s Weekly on one side, and the afternoon Sunand the Sunday Sun on the other.

Thanks to the State Library team headed by Peter Arfanis, I now know that the Fairfax archive also contains files on competitors throughout the decades, including ACP and the Daily Telegraph in Sydney; the Herald and Weekly Times, headed by Sir Keith Murdoch; and News Limited, headed by Murdoch’s son Rupert. I’m intrigued to look at a file entitled “Daily Telegraph — Misdemeanours, 1957–1962,” which apparently contains “memos and newspaper clippings of lifting of stories etc.” Back in the 1990s, I found in the records of successive Fairfax general managers particularly valuable accounts of the competition, and intermittent collaborations, between Fairfax, ACP and their mastheads.

The big publishing companies in Australia realised that it was indeed sometimes beneficial to work with each other. In 1932 Warwick Fairfax (later Sir Warwick) and Keith Murdoch formed a company in Tasmania with the aim of producing Australian newsprint. The result, six years later, was a new business, Australian Newsprint Mills, owned by eight publishing companies. Well over a dozen boxes in the Fairfax archive document the operations of this endeavour, in which the two Herald groups were the dominant, if not always harmonious, partners, as they battled to deal with restrictions on their lifeblood during the war and postwar periods.

Meanwhile, Australian Associated Press was created in 1935 out of an amalgamation of the Australian Press Association, run by Fairfax and the Melbourne Argus, and the Sun Herald Cable Service. Numerous boxes in the Fairfax archive show the operations of the Australian Press Association and AAP, as well as negotiations with Reuters in London.

From the mid 1920s the Australian Newspapers Conference also considered matters of mutual interest, such as cover prices, advertising rates and industrial negotiations. Following a dispute involving the 1941 launch of a new afternoon paper, the Daily Mirror, during acute newsprint rationing, the ANC was disbanded and replaced by the Australian Newspaper Proprietors Association. The Fairfax archive contains substantial records of the ANPA, especially concerning the operation of its newsprint pool during the second world war, with periodical eruptions from the volatile Packer, and delegations to Canberra. Likewise, the archive documents the operations of the reconstituted Australian Newspapers Conference that was formed in 1955. I look forward to ordering up the files containing annual reports of the ANC’s “Joint Committee on Disparaging Copy,” which seemed to run until the 1980s.

Through the archive we can trace the April 1944 dispute that saw the Curtin Labor government censor, before publication, the articles of several Sydney newspapers; Packer’s subsequent decision to print the Sunday Telegraph with blank spaces; and a High Court challenge.

I went back to the Fairfax archive to research my third book, Party Games: Australian Politicians and the Media from War to Dismissal (2003), as well as my Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on Sir Warwick Fairfax. By now the archive had moved to Alexandria, where the City to Surf organisers were headquartered.

One particularly rich file I identified with the help of Fairfax library staff was called “Herald & Weekly Times Ltd from Jan. ’33 onwards.” Running until the death of Keith Murdoch (“Lord Southcliffe,” as he was sometimes called) in 1952, it provided insights into his health battles; the newspaper companies’ hostility to the prospect of an independent news service being run by the ABC; the regulation of commercial radio broadcasting; and discussions with politicians and party officials. Here is Murdoch in 1935 corresponding with Sir John Butters, chairman of Associated Newspapers, about the ABC:

Thank you for your confidential letter… I am so glad that you are moving in this matter. It is high time that we took serious notice of it. The A.B.C. is regarding even its legal agreements with us as trifling. It is spreading itself into many areas of news…

I think our movement should be a quiet one. We should put our views confidentially to the Prime Minister, and also to one or two other Ministers, particularly McLachlan, Parkhill, and Menzies.

Shades of the current inquiry into the competitive neutrality of the ABC and SBS…

Likewise, a 1954–67 file about Sir Warwick Fairfax yielded a rich seam of gold, with observations such as this from 1957: “I heard [Harold] Holt speak in the Foreign Affairs debate and he was dull, pompous, boring and irrelevant to the last degree. I completely fail to see him as a possible Prime Minister.”

The fourth chapter of Party Games, entitled “The Labor Ward: The Fairfax Dynasty and the 1961 Election,” dealt with the company turning against the Robert Menzies’s Coalition government over its deflationary measures, and working closely with the Labor leader, Arthur Calwell, on his campaign. Few Australian historians could fail to be intrigued by some of the titles of files in the archive Gavin and later I worked on, including “Liberal Party 1944–1969” and “Labor Party 1950–1969.” These contained details of private discussions, donations, internal company debates, election coverage and political broadcasts. Thanks to the work of Peter and his team, I now have a better sense of just how much material there is in the archive concerning federal and state politics and elections, including this file covering 1940 to 1984: “Correspondence Prime Ministers and Departments.”

Since my research in the Fairfax archive in the 1990s, I have been intrigued by the evolution and fate of Associated Newspapers, a company and a name that few may remember. I chose to write the entry on the company for my edited collection, A Companion to the Australian Media, drawing on the research that Gavin and I had undertaken for our company histories. We had each traced the offers of Fairfax and Consolidated Press to buy the ordinary shares in Associated Newspapers in 1953, motivated by the desire to be in a position to use idle printing capacity by publishing an afternoon newspaper (the Sun) as well as their existing morning paper (the Sydney Morning Heraldor the Daily Telegraph). In other words, to borrow the words of Greg Hywood and Hugh Marks, they wanted “scale.” The board of Associated Newspapers, remembering how two generations of the Packer family had exploited their fears about competition in the 1930s, accepted the Fairfax offer.

Tiles from the Sun Newspapers Ltd building, Sydney, c 1929,

depicting Phoebus Apollo driving a seven-horse chariot out of the rising sun. 

Fairfax Media Business Archive, State Library of New South Wales

Frank Packer spent three years unsuccessfully challenging the validity of the merger. Amid the documentation in the archive is humour, such as in an exchange of several sly telegrams between Rupert Henderson and Packer in the Spring of 1953. The last one from Packer, addressed to Henderson at “ASSASSINATED NEWSPAPERS LTD,” read, “CONGRATULATIONS ROUND ONE STOP BY THE WAY DID YOU PLAY WITH THE JUDGE OVER THE WEEKEND.”

As I recently wrote in the Conversation, competition may seem an obvious — perhaps the obvious — feature of the Australian media landscape, but it has gone hand in hand with pragmatic cooperation. Even if the Fairfaxes, and Keith Murdoch in Melbourne, failed to regard the pugnacious Frank Packer as a gentleman, there was a kind of gentlemanly code of honour, and understanding, between the knights of the Australian media. If the early relationships between the three groups focused on daily and Sunday newspapers, and magazines, their ancillary, and expanding, media interests led to cooperative agreements. In Souter’s work on Fairfax, and my work on Packer, we were able to draw on the Fairfax archive to help trace how the media groups obtained television licences from 1956 onwards.

Before the Australian Broadcasting Control Board’s 1958 hearings for applications for licences in Brisbane and Adelaide, the main Sydney and Melbourne television proprietors — Packer, “Rags” Henderson from Fairfax, and Sir John Williams from the Herald and Weekly Times — met at Fairfax headquarters to “carve up the empire.” The archive helps to demonstrate how they reached an agreement to combine their interests to ensure an equitable program-sharing arrangement if there should only be one licence awarded in each city.

In 1960 Murdoch’s only son, Rupert, entered Sydney through the back door by buying the suburban newspaper chain Cumberland Newspapers Pty Ltd for £1 million. Vowing not to let this invasion go unchallenged, Fairfax and Packer contributed equal capital to form a new joint company, Suburban Publications Pty Ltd, whose records are held in the Fairfax archive. The vigorous, at times farcical, competition between the two suburban chains did not last; as Souter deftly noted, “war was being waged in the suburbs, but it was limited war.” In 1961 Cumberland Newspapers and Suburban Publications concluded a “Brisbane Line” non-compete agreement that would not have been permitted under the Trade Practices Act that became law in 1974.

The Fairfax archive also documents aspects of the history of Australian radio and television. It holds the paper records of the powerful Macquarie Broadcasting Network and ATN-7, which was one of Sydney’s two original television stations. (Frank Packer’s TCN-9 was the other.)

So I was back in the archive to research my fourth book, Changing Stations: The Story of Australian Commercial Radio, which was published in 2009. Having progressed to a laptop, I made 283 pages of single-spaced notes ranging across the Herald’s supply of news to the Macquarie News Service; the appointment of commercial radio’s first cadet journalist, Brian White; arrangements for sports, finance and election coverage; the pre-election blackout; hours of transmission; the spread of midnight-to-dawn programs; the emergence of Top 40, talkback and FM radio; advertising; and ratings.

Station strategies and overhauls are documented in candid (at times amusing) detail. In mid 1981 Mike Carlton and Nigel Milan, 2GB’s young and ambitious general manager, outlined the problems they perceived. The “We Know What You Want” slogan smacked of arrogance, inviting the retort “Oh no you don’t,” they wrote. The station’s programming policy and image were “fuddy-duddy” and a “mish-mash.” Ancient, unreliable equipment caused technical problems, including the dreaded “dead air.” Accurate clocks were scarce. Morale was low. A typical employee arrived at 9.15am to find that the lift wasn’t working.

The archive also shows the role of big personalities in Sydney’s commercial radio, as evidenced by the “saga” of million-dollar contract negotiations with one John Laws. Even if personnel records may be restricted, the volume and range of other material in the archive help to illuminate the careers of Laws and fellow inductees into the newly national Australian Media Hall of Fame, including John Fairfax, Eric Baume, J.D. Pringle, Rags Henderson, Brian White, Margaret Jones, Max Suich and Vic Carroll.

I have done rather less work on television records in the Fairfax archive, which the State Library’s work shows cover the 1953 royal commission that examined the introduction of TV; the allocation of metropolitan and regional licences; the purchase of equipment; profits and losses; market research; overseas study tours; program-buying deals; the emergence of the Seven Network; and relationships with, and inquiries by, successive regulators. A box covers Bruce Gyngell’s term as managing director of the Seven network after he quit Frank Packer’s Nine network in 1969. In what was dubbed the “Seven Revolution,” Gyngell went on a buying spree and masterminded an aggressive publicity campaign that catapulted Seven to ratings supremacy.

This major Australian business and media archive will enrich so many studies of the media and beyond. There are files on Sydney Morning Heraldliterary competitions to delight the literary historian; in-house publications, and files on the Herald chapel, cadet training, award negotiations and strikes, for historians of labour and even of women; files on typefaces, and the move from hot metal to cold type and from typewriters to VDUs, for historians of technology; files on libel and defamation for legal historians; files on overseas offices and foreign correspondents, for international and war historians; and files on the Pitt Street Congregational Church for religious historians.

The archive will also enable new work on seriously neglected aspects of the history of the Australian media, including David Syme & Co., newsagents, suburban newspapers, popular magazines, local government reporting, printing, and news and journalism. It has unparalleled riches for the Australian press historian, with Fairfax publishing, at various times, the Sydney MailPixWoman’s Day, the Australian Financial Review, the Canberra Times, the National TimesBusiness Review Weekly, the Illawarra Mercury, the Newcastle Herald — and of course, by increments between the 1960s and the 1980s, the Age. Individual nuggets leap out in the catalogue, including memos about the resignation of David Marr as the editor of the National Times in 1982, and File 11 in Box 1284, entitled “Goanna (Mr Kerry Packer) and The National Times Apology, 1983–1984.”

Of course, other substantial collections complement the holdings of the Fairfax archive. These include the papers (around 160 boxes) of Caroline Simpson, Sir Warwick Fairfax’s eldest child, held at the State Library of New South Wales. The National Film and Sound Archive holds the 127-box collection of Frederick W. Daniell, an executive with Associated Newspapers and Macquarie Broadcasting. The National Library of Australia is home to the papers of Gavin Souter, as well as of Angus McLachlan, a long-time general manager and managing director of Fairfax, and in 2012 obtained an archive of around 18,000 glass plate negatives of Fairfax photos. The ACP magazines archive, which came to the State Library of New South Wales in 2008, is substantially made up of photonegatives and prints from Pix which, following its establishment in 1938, moved from the control of Associated Newspapers to Fairfax and finally to ACP.

How has Fairfax’s history been memorialised by the company itself? In 1991, the archive records, the staff of John Fairfax and Sons signed and presented James Reading Fairfax with a leather-bound illuminated address to mark his proposed departure from the colony for “a visit to the old world.” In 1912, the staffs of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sydney Mailpresented a diamond jubilee illuminated address to Fairfax — now Sir James — to mark his sixty years of service to the company. The address, which included photographs of Sir James and his family, as well as photos of staff members arranged by department, recorded:

The gift is intended not only for an expression of our esteem for you as Senior Proprietor of the Journals… It serves also to mark our personal regard for you as an employer whose kindly consideration has always been at the disposal of those engaged in your service, and… a sense of the value to Australia of your long and eminent service to the community.

Five years later, the staff presented Sir James with another illuminated address, this time marking his sixty years of marriage to his wife Lucy.

In 1929 the company published The Sydney Morning Herald and the Sydney Mail: The Two Greatest Papers in Australia, compiled by Percy S. Allen, who had been placed in charge of the office library two years earlier. For the next two years the influential librarian worked with S. Elliott Napier, a Heraldleader writer, to compile A Century of Journalism: The Sydney Morning Herald and its Record of Australian Life 1831–1931, published by the company under the editorship of Warwick Fairfax.

In 1936 a dinner was held, and a booklet was produced, to mark the ninetieth anniversary of the Herald chapel, which had been formed in 1836 for the printers, type-setters, composers and other staff who worked in production. The centenary of the Fairfax proprietary of the Herald in 1941 was marked by the publication of The Story of John Fairfax, written by his great-grandson, John Fitzgerald Fairfax, as well as the establishment of a staff superannuation fund.

A special edition of the Sydney Morning Herald marking its 140th anniversary appeared in April 1971. In 1977 a long-service retirement fund was established to commemorate the centenary of the death of the original John Fairfax and was open to all members who had completed fifteen years’ service. The archive also documents the company’s involvement in 1978 the 150th anniversary of the Leamington Spa Courier, founded by John Fairfax in Warwickshire in 1828, a decade before he arrived in Sydney.

Fairfax’s biggest celebrations were reserved for the sesquicentenary of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1981, with Souter rightly noting that sesquicentenaries were rare for a settlement that was not yet 200 years old. Around three years before the anniversary, a special committee was formed under the direction of Ross Campbell Jones, the company’s marketing manager. Several archive boxes contain correspondence between management and executives, and with various companies and personalities who would be involved in the celebrations, and also document the various functions to be held and donations that would be made by the company to mark the occasion.

Among the ideas considered were a time capsule and a limited edition commemorative plate and placemats; a vinyl gramophone recording, Australian Musical Heritage, beginning with Lieutenant G.D. Callen’s “The Sydney Morning Herald Polka” from 1863; a church service, an Australian production of the opera Otello starring Joan Sutherland, a Rugby Union team, and a rodeo at the SCG; commissioning a painting by Lloyd Rees, and a television documentary by John Pilger; arranging a greeting from the Prince of Wales; and a trans-Australian hot air balloon flight. Ideas for employees’ celebrations included a function at Taronga Zoo or a staff picnic, and the purchase of holiday units for the use of retired employees. A bumper supplement appeared on 18 April 1981, and a dinner was held at the Hilton Hotel, with speeches by the governor-general, Sir Zelman Cowen, and James Fairfax captured on cassette tape in the archive.

Sculptor Stephen Walker was also commissioned “to create an association of water and bronze” in a landscaped area to be known as Herald Square, on the corner of George and Alfred Streets near Circular Quay, in 1981. Walker connected the fountain to the Tank Stream, the European settlement’s first water supply, highlighting a union between the Herald and Sydney’s European history. Correspondence, sketches and photographs document how the fountain came to feature a series of figurative and non-figurative forms made in bronze and connected by separate, linked pools. From the central cascading fountain, four columns in bronze rise out of the pool. An array of Australian flora and fauna, including frogs, snakes, goannas, echidnas, crabs, birds and tortoises appear to be playing in the pools.

The company also donated more than $100,000 towards the construction of a clifftop Fairfax walkway and lookout on Sydney’s North Head. Fairfax also, of course, commissioned Souter to write Company of Heralds, a wonderfully enduring legacy that also led to the creation of the Fairfax archive. And the Herald’s assistant editor, Lou Kepert, edited History as it Happened, based on 150 years of reporting in the paper.

Other milestones have been celebrated, such as 175 years of news in the Herald (2006), a century of Herald photography (2008), the 20th anniversary of the Herald and Age websites (2015), and the Herald’s 185th anniversary (2016), as well as anniversaries of other Fairfax titles.

In a message from the editor in the weekend Herald on 4–5 September, Lisa Davies remarked:

Many have bemoaned the looming loss of the Fairfax name from Australian publishing as the regrettable end of an era, but such nostalgia should not be exaggerated …

Readers don’t identify with a Fairfax story — it’s the mastheads like the Herald that simultaneously give consumers the story and the history, strength and power of those publishing it.

I beg to differ. It is the “Fairfax” archive that has been given to the State Library. The anniversary commemorations I’ve outlined in the last few minutes show the close relationship between the Fairfax family and their staff, and the way in which both publishing and family milestones have been marked for more than a century. Since at least the 1930s the company was connecting its own story with the story of Australia, and it’s a story that we must not forget. While the rupture caused by young Warwick Fairfax’s disastrous privatisation attempt has been much commentated on and lamented, and the death of Fairfax has been foretold in books with titles including Killing Fairfax and Stop the Presses!, it is up to us to keep the story and the history alive. A sequel, or a prequel, to the Power Games: The Packer-Murdoch Story mini-series, perhaps?

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