tip off

Does Fairfax need a 67-year-old grocer at the helm?

The last time I saw Roger Corbett was five years ago, inside the Fairfax boardroom. I was there because the Fairfax board had asked me to develop my ideas about the company, its newspapers and its future.

I spent an hour or so presenting my thoughts to the board meeting, starting with what I described as a “Catastrophe Scenario” based on the loss of classified advertising at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald (which, five years on, has turned out to be sadly accurate) and ending with a range of possible ideas to try to avoid such a scenario (all of which were ignored). My argument was that if the board rated the risk of such a scenario at more than around 15%, it should take swift and decisive action as an insurance policy.

Throughout most of the hour I talked, Roger Corbett prowled the back of the Fairfax boardroom like a caged tiger, his body language suggesting a disdain for me and for what I was saying.

After I finished speaking, Corbett moved to the head of the board table. Picking up a copy of one of Fairfax’s hefty Saturday broadsheets from a nearby pile, he told his fellow directors that he didn’t want anyone coming into the Fairfax boardroom again suggesting that people will buy houses or cars or look for jobs without “this”, as he held up the newspaper bulging with classified ads.

Five years later Roger Corbett is poised to become chairman of Fairfax. If he takes that job — and it is apparently his to take — one assumes it will be because he believes he is the best person to steer Australia’s venerable newspaper publisher through the most challenging period in its history; to create the strategies and culture needed to save it from the fate that threatens the fortunes of most big newspaper companies; to repair the dysfunctionality that has turned the Fairfax board into a laughing stock; to attract smart new media operators into the boardroom; to formulate ways to preserve its important journalism; and to reinvigorate a staff jaded and disillusioned by the Keystone Cops antics of the board.

Roger Corbett was an outstandingly successful CEO of Woolworths supermarkets. He was reputed to be a retailing maestro and a very tough businessman.

But if he really thinks the great Fairfax editorial and publishing institutions need his leadership now, it suggests the 67-year-old former grocer is someone who, when it comes to media and journalism, doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

Eric Beecher is Publisher of Crikey.

6
  • 1
    Raymond
    Posted Wednesday, 30 September 2009 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Eric,

    This sounds all a bit know-all after-the-event wisdom for me. Given how indiscreet you’re being about your private conversations in board-rooms, why not share with us what you actually suggested they do to put the fingers in the dyke of escaping revenue.

    That will help us decide whether the above observations are wise or just wise-ass.

    Would you accept the job of Chairman if asked?

  • 2
    R Gilley
    Posted Wednesday, 30 September 2009 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Just my 2 bobs worth: I also know Roger Corbett from a business perspective.
    If anyone can fix Fairfax I think he can.
    And by the way to describe him as a “grocer” doesn’t in any way tell the Corbett story - he is a fixer of businesses which is exactly what Fairfax needs. Anyone who has religiously gone out each Saturday and bought the the SMH would have to agree that the broadsheet needs to be rejuvenated.

  • 3
    Bullmore's Ghost
    Posted Wednesday, 30 September 2009 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    Corbett is a grocer first and foremost and a director of the competition killing steam roller called Wal-Mart.

    Let him try to run Fairfax like Wal-Mart. He’ll be tugging on the reins of a dinosaur as it charges off into extinction.

  • 4
    Smithee
    Posted Thursday, 1 October 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    That boardroom scenario sounds right to me. Media execs from editors to publishers make most of their decisions based on what the internal political ramifications will be rather than what’s good for the product.

    For years bow it has been impossible to suggest web strategies to these people because they simply don’t know anything about the web. They’re not likely to venture into terrain that they know nothing about, and hand over power to people who talk in unfamilar acronyms. They’d much rather keep sitting in their disintegrating castle hoping for some deus ex machina event.

  • 5
    Patrick
    Posted Thursday, 1 October 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    yes, corbett to work wonders at fairfax!
    sure, in a duopolistic industry like groceries when the only other competitor drops the ball ( coles ) you can shine as none others may.

    what’s his journalistic background, experience, strategies etc? to me it’s just another fred hilmer being brought in ( ok, maybe not quite as bad ) or another example of getting your name on as many boards etc.

    and for someone who is on the walmart board, does that bode well for a newspaper we want to remain quality ( they are already going down that slippery slope online )…..?

  • 6
    Posted Thursday, 1 October 2009 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Raymond I think you are probably reading some of the ‘finger in the dyke’ right here. As well as Business Spectator and a few other projects Beecher is in to.

    Of course the other possibility from Eric’s parable is that he wasn’t quite the advocate he wants to be.

    And the third possibility of that multidimensional situation is how indeed does one explain the modern version of the Guttenberg Press to those before such existed? Or even post GFC to pre GFC? Reality would appear to have a credibility gap, just like 4 degrees climate change and the end of civilisation as we know it is unprecedented. Reminds one of fictional Jason Bourne ‘this is real’, another three worder like ‘yes we can’.

    Seeing is believing but that’s too late. It’s a Singapore WWII sort of quandary. Cassandra even.

    I suppose the best thing for peace of mind is just don’t look back as the bridge crumbles behind you with various precious things and people stranded on the wrong side. Survivor guilt perhaps. Grieve the past, compost/re-manufacture the present with the flotsam and jetsam of destruction and grow the future.

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