tip off

If I ran Fairfax … I’d fling ‘underperformers and fairy-floss makers’

Bagging Fairfax has long been a favourite pastime for  those who pontificate on media matters — but never more so than over recent weeks. Since Greg Hywood announced plans to slash staff, close the company’s printing plants and reorganise reporting structures, there’s been plenty of analysis about where it all went wrong for Fairfax (including in several pieces in Crikey). Many commentators have also questioned whether Hywood’s strategy offers a long-term solution to the company’s woes.

But there’s been little debate about what measures Fairfax could realistically implement to transform itself into a thriving business once again. That’s not a surprise: it’s easier to point out others’ mistakes than come up with your own ideas.

That’s why we’ve asked an assortment of veteran Fairfax watchers what they would do if they were running the company. We’ve roped in stockbrokers, media analysts, former editors, the journalists’ union and readers. We even asked Paul Keating — a long-time critic of The Sydney Morning Herald — but, alas, he didn’t bite.

Still, our respondents have come up with plenty of interesting ideas — from ditching the charter of editorial independence to teaming with The Huffington Post.

The stockbroker: Roger Colman (Director of Media at CCZ Statton Equities)

I would get Fairfax debt down to the proposed News Publishing division’s debt — zero — as fast as possible to compete and level the playing field in financial resources. They have worldwide editorial resources and a bigger Australian metro footprint than Fairfax. I would sell the NZ newspapers and Trade Me immediately, and sell radio into a joint venture with Macquarie Radio Network. I would keep everything else. Size counts.

To prevent further metro market share losses to News, I would terminate the charter of editorial independence and therefore the editorial slackness and left-wing bias. Since 1992 in Sydney and Melbourne, Fairfax has lost at least 10-20% circulation and display advertising shares — hundreds of millions of dollars of revenues per annum — against News because of the charter. Seventy per cent of the wealthiest metro electorates voted Coalition in 2010, and Fairfax editorial policies are ceding this audience to News. Like successful political parties do to win elections, winning this centre ground means the metro Fairfax newspapers, the fountainheads of the group, become the last standing in Sydney and Melbourne, and lengthen their support for my online assets. It gives me an extra 5-10 years of print newspaper cash flow and cripples News Australia to boot.

I need a proprietor holding more than 35% of capital, and with board control, who can call the shots. Fairfax took gobs of market share off News in Australia from the time James Oswald took over the ailing family leadership in the 1970s, until the 1987 privatisation.

From these three simple requirements, success follows, as higher levels of competence flow downwards throughout the whole company.

The ex-editor: Mike Smith (former editor of The Age, now CEO of Inside Public Relations)

Step 1: Find a patient investor with deep pockets who has a dream to provide and own Australia’s best journalism. It will take time to repair the damage caused by 25 years of wrecking balls, beginning with Warwick Fairfax and then a succession of directors, CEOs (present one excepted) and editors (with several notable exceptions) who knew not what they were doing.

Step 2: Headhunt the top 50 journalists from the competition — say 20 from News, 15 from the ABC, five from commercial broadcasting and 10 from other media.  Push out 50 under-performers and fairy-floss makers .

Step 3: Focus on hardcore journalism and data — politics, bureaucracy, secrecy, crime, business, education, health, transport, global issues. Let the “fairy floss” go to the other media. One travel writer, one food critic, one movie reviewer, one TV writer, one fashion writer — all best in class. No coffee tasters or souffle samplers.

Step 4: Set new standards in credibility and accountability — the most powerful environment for advertising and readership. Appoint an ombudsman with real power and authority. Expose and punish unethical and incompetent journalists — at Fairfax and elsewhere. Create a culture where the public interest comes first and the size of the picture byline comes last.

Step 5: Make the mantra “story first” rather than “digital First”. Most stories should go online first, but there are many great scoops created by that one last phone call … and sometimes it takes 100 more calls.

Step 6: Invest in improved education and training of journalists through universities. Integrate the best journalistic role models into the courses.

Step 7: Reduce the number of pages in the printed product as well as the size. Edit it very tightly with multiple references to more information online. Journalism is supposed to edit information for consumers, not drown them in it.

Step 8: Invest in creating, developing or taking over the best financial information services in the world. This is the fast track to the monetising of internet-based news. Fairfax is way behind and needs to catch up.

Step 9: Create a “skunk works” to identify and develop new ways of delivering and creating quality information on line, especially in the future demand areas of health, aged care,  superannuation/investment and travel. Establish projects such as how to reach some of China’s 2,700,000 millionaires for editorial and advertising purposes (we know they like Australia and love to travel, shop for expensive brands and send their children to top schools overseas — and they are a fast-growing group).

Step 10: By creating premium journalism with high credibility and relevance — and shutting out irrelevant noise in a crowded media environment — the audience comes with a willingness to pay a premium price. Our benevolent investor realises he/she would be crazy to interfere.

The reader: Shelley Meagher (a Melbourne-based writer, strategist and evaluator who regularly reads The Australian Financial Review and The Age)

To make Fairfax more attractive to readers and bring in more money, I would return to core news delivery and editorial. I’d streamline peripherals — fashion, lifestyle, travel — especially on weekends. Model Fairfax papers on The Guardian’s high-standard reporting. Journalists should use language accurately, precisely and thoughtfully. They should speak to readers thoughtfully, with a quiet confidence born of knowledge combined with tolerance, and without hectoring — so that readers want to spend time with them.

Reach an agreement with The Guardian and The Huffington Post for better cross-post options to stop users from leaving the site, and aggregate them onto the Fairfax sites.

Subsidise high quality news reporting and opinion pieces with a magazine-style tabloid companion but keep the two separate. A tabloid that resembled the current paper weekend magazines, with a blog-style commentary as well as news, would make money.

Dramatically enhance and expand the online platform, especially the mobile version. Start with an AAP/Reuters real-time ticker feed. Increase the number of Age-tagged journalists who contribute to the Twitter feed: at present they contribute as private individuals.

Show readers Fairfax papers are part of their community by getting rid of plastic packaging, delivering the papers via teenagers on bicycles and foot, and bringing back wrapping fish and chips in Fairfax newspapers.

*More responses tomorrow. We’d love to hear your ideas — let us know what you would do if you ran Fairfax

33
  • 1
    puddleduck
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Well for a start, I’d get rid of gems like “I stole my mother’s boyfriend”, a charming piece that appeared in yesterday’s Sunday Life “magazine” (I use the latter word lightly). A piece of crap I’d expect to have seen in The Sunday Truth, but presumably considered worthy for inclusion because it was written by “an author”?

    On the other hand, Bruce Guthrie’s opinion piece in the main section of the paper, about his appearance on QandA (with a nice skewering of Sophie Mirabella and her “performance” on same show when Simon Sheikh fainted) was good stuff.

    Why can’t The Age get it right? This drive to the bottom is thoroughly depressing and makes me want to throw the paper straight in the bin without reading it.

  • 2
    Michael de Angelos
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Jesus H Christ : you ask a money man and we get this crap :”editorial slackness and left-wing bias.”

    He really believes those wealthy electorates lap up the News Ltd rubbish about Lara Bingle yet sales of their tabloids and The Australian would prove otherwise (except for the infamous Shire).

    The ‘doctor’s wives” electorates may vote Liberal but that is purely for selfish financial reasons (and why stockbrokers, thank God don’t run the country.). They still want honest comment and news.

    Shelley Meagher is spot on.

  • 3
    Stiofan
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Piece of p*ss: if I owned Fairfax, I’d give Alan Bond a call ;-)

    Seriously, Fairfax is in a death spin. In Sydney, the Daily Telegraph is a far better local paper (ie, it talks to people outside the Eastern Suburbs and Newtown, while only The Australian has both the footprint and the resources to be a truly national paper.

  • 4
    Stiofan
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Newtown)

  • 5
    Jason Mountney
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Left-wing bias? Yeah, ditch those Trotskyite columnists Gerard Henderson, Peter Costello, Paul Sheehan, Ross Cameron and Chris Whatsisname from the IPA.

  • 6
    Colin Scott
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    The right wing audience is already fully served by News and friends. To suggest Fairfax will succeed by trending in their direction is folly. Such a move is sure to accelerate the loss of their current readers and is unlikely to pick up a significant portion of new readers to compensate for such a loss. I hope “go complete against a dominant incumbent on their home turf” isn’t typical of financial market wisdom.

  • 7
    geomac62
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Jason Mountney
    Chris Berg from the not so independent IPA . There is a perfect example of a fluff article by Vanstone in the Age that makes one wonder why they bothered to put it in at all . Costello is bad enough but at least he pretends , not successfully , to write informative opinion pieces . Would that term be an oxymoron , informative opinion pieces ?

  • 8
    tinman_au
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    I’d buy Mike Smiths paper just for step 4 (though I’d add something about keeping opinion separate from the story).

    Step 4: Set new standards in credibility and accountability — the most powerful environment for advertising and readership. Appoint an ombudsman with real power and authority. Expose and punish unethical and incompetent journalists — at Fairfax and elsewhere. Create a culture where the public interest comes first and the size of the picture byline comes last.”

    I stopped buying the Oz when it was obvious they were trying to sell opinions framed as “news”…

  • 9
    john2066
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Get rid of the glorified gossip columnist rubbish that poses for press gallery ‘journalism’ and actually write about policies.

  • 10
    Recalcitrant.Rick
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely >>>>>>>>>> “Step 4: Set new standards in credibility and accountability — the most powerful environment for advertising and readership. Appoint an ombudsman with real power and authority. Expose and punish unethical and incompetent journalists — at Fairfax and elsewhere. Create a culture where the public interest comes first and the size of the picture byline comes last.”

    The problem is that when you do this you are immediately accused of a Left Wing bias, I wonder why that is?

  • 11
    rubiginosa
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Phase 1. Push out:
    • Grattan, Hartcher, Henderson, Sheehan, Murphy
    • Whoever is responsible for autoplay videos still existing
    • All the flossy failures that show up in the National Times L&S blogs; Hornery and de Brito
    • Whoever makes sure there is a photo of Miranda Kerr/Nicole Kidman on Fairfax websites
    Phase 2. ?
    Phase 3. Profit.

  • 12
    Microseris
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Does Roger Colman actually read Fairfax? Left wing bias, what with Fairfax filling content with almost daily articles from former liberal politicians or printing every thought bubble from IPA hacks. You don’t even need to read these articles anymore as you know what the content will be.

    I would pay for content if there was any quality in the content, however sadly that is mostly gone. If I read The Age these days I find the letters to the editor have the most insight.

  • 13
    geomac62
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Microseris
    ” You don’t even need to read these articles anymore as you know what the content will be.”
    Exactly . Vanstone and Costello top that list .

  • 14
    Suzanne Blake
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    The problem at Fairfax is they have taken a huge leap to the LEFT. I cancelled my subscription after almost 30 years.

  • 15
    Frank Campbell
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Rubiginosa says:

    Phase 1. Push out:
    • …
    • Whoever is responsible for autoplay videos still existing”

    Spot on Rubi. My laptop still has a bullet hole from the time I tried to stop a Fairfax video…when all ele fails, think Ozark…

  • 16
    geomac62
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    The problem with SB is a huge leap to fantasyland . There is no mainstream media that is even left of centre much less actually of the left .

  • 17
    Frank Campbell
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Sally Meagher says:

    They should speak to readers thoughtfully, with a quiet confidence born of knowledge combined with tolerance, and without hectoring — so that readers want to spend time with them.”

    This should be read aloud- instead of the Lord’s Prayer - before Crikey’s daily editorial meeting….

  • 18
    Michael de Angelos
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    It says much about our financial workers when one goes on record as wanting Fairfax to become more like an outfit that hacked phones of murdered people and bribed British police and whose local gutter rag today runs a non-tale of an ex-jailbird selling RSPCA goods as though some almighty scandal has erupted.

    He might admire that tosh but there is a significant market, which is surely obvious even to Blind Freddie, that wants intelligent discussion on politics and good investigative reporting. Perhaps he enjoys reading sordid and intrusive details of other’s sex lives but many of us want The News.

    A great example was the dastardly attacks on Kevin Rudd’s mining tax with all media reporting an advertising campaign against endlessly, as though it were news. Ross Gittins at Fairfax was one of the few to do in-depth pieces on what the tax was all about, the rest parroted drivel.

    If anything, Fairfax needs to move back to the centre and hire real writers, not the coterie of opinion pieces they now publish. There is only room for one gutter rag like the Tele. Leave them to it and cater for nearly 4 million people in Sydney who don;t read that tosh.

  • 19
    IC-1101
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    In my opinion the left-wing bias has created a cloud of smug over Fairfax and The Age, and has made profitability tough in an environment where the “editorial independence” moral argument takes precedence over a functioning business model.

  • 20
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    If The Age ever actually displayed any tendencies toward left-wing bias whatsoever, I’d probably buy it.

  • 21
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Mike Smith’s steps 2 and 3 are on the money, I’d buy that paper until my toes curled up.

    Nice one.

  • 22
    zut alors
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Mike Smith’s newspaper would get an instant subscription from me.

    Did anyone else notice that Roger Colman didn’t use the words ‘quality’ or ‘investigative’ in his response.

  • 23
    Hamis Hill
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    The public press is not public anymore, insofar as it serves private not public interests.
    This is being done deliberately so which private interests they are will not be identified.
    And the public interest? Needs a definition?
    Adam Smith writing on the Wealth of Nation’s warned that when the financial affairs of a nation become subverted to the narrow interests of bank shareholders the whole nation is at risk.
    Come to pass yet again in the GFC,
    So in conclusion private interests are being served by the Public Press. Who are these people and what are their plans?

  • 24
    Jon Wardle
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    The big reason Fairfax loses out on advertising revenue to News? The Weekend Australian can allow companies to tick the box for ‘ad in national media’ with just one ad, separate ads in Fairfax papers get you Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra and miss everyone else. Why would organisations that are forced (yes, forced) to advertise in newspapers choose the hard way out?

  • 25
    Roberto Tedesco
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Left wing bias at the SMH? ‘king Ada!? The SMH is the paper where not writing tendentious right-wing drivel makes you a demon leftist. As has already been said: can a paper that employs Henderson, Sheehan, Costello, Cameron, the infant child Berg and, in the past, the Devine Miranda be in any way “guilty” of left wing bias?

    No. And it is ridiculous to even think such nonsense.

  • 26
    mattholden
    Posted Monday, 9 July 2012 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Mike Smith’s vision sounds like the fantasy paper for grumpy old white men … Fairfax’s (fast-demising) core readers.
    The real problem is that Young People Don’t Read Newspapers.

  • 27
    Seasprite
    Posted Tuesday, 10 July 2012 at 2:32 am | Permalink

    Mattholden

    Mike Smith’s vision sounds like the fantasy paper for grumpy old white men … Fairfax’s (fast-demising) core readers.
    The real problem is that Young People Don’t Read Newspapers.

    Exactly, most of the suggestions are garbage, plenty of websites cater to quality Journalism now and are struggling to get hits.

    Fairfax has to make a choice about which markets they want to sell their product, high quality journalism is a niche market, maybe they can compete on the web against free sites and get a small number of subscribers.

    I don’t know if it is possible for Fairfax to do, but I would be looking at sports coverage, I made this comment before about it, Australians love sport, punters buy the Herald-Sun for the sport in the back pages.

    Fairfax can keep the same papers and website and have a sister site called http://www.fairfaxsports.com.au/ (sorry if you don’t already have that domain name yet Fairfax, better get in quick) , team up with AFL and sell an IPTV subscription service and get exclusive access through AFL media division to players, coaches and tips for the punters, the newspapers can have large back section for sports coverage in tabloid size newspapers with liftouts and posters for the kids.

    IPTV is the future of media streaming, it offers more flexibility than cable does, the subscriber could click on the link to a cam in the coaches box or a cam watching the interchange, the viewer no longer at the mercy of the TV producer deciding on what area to have the camera fixed on.

  • 28
    Son of foro
    Posted Tuesday, 10 July 2012 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    If anyone at the Age can tell me why they think I want to pay to read anti-government rantings from Peter Costello, Amanda Vanstone and Gerard Henderson, then I’d love to hear the reasoning.

    I don’t know if it is possible for Fairfax to do, but I would be looking at sports coverage, I made this comment before about it, Australians love sport, punters buy the Herald-Sun for the sport in the back pages.

    Spot on.

  • 29
    sickofitall
    Posted Tuesday, 10 July 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Fair fax. Dump the fluff. Not only the lifestyle columnists, but how about some political journalists who know there were prime ministers before whitlam. Heck, how about those who know how you become prime minister. And that there is a chief justice.

    Certainly dump glover, de Briton, alderson. Scrap the good weekend. Naperstak has dumbed it down even further (following his pattern at the monthly). Scrap the sun herald. And the sat herald too, actually. Dump the sport commentary. It’s pointless.

  • 30
    Nici
    Posted Tuesday, 10 July 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Young people rarely read newspapers full stop. Is this really a new phenomenon? I’ve been hearing it for decades. Do people start to read newspapers as they get older? Why not create newspapers for the people who actually read them instead of trying to second-guess and lure those who don’t. You just piss off your core readers.

  • 31
    Steve777
    Posted Wednesday, 11 July 2012 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I think that reading newspapers is a habit that one acquires when young, like drinking and smoking. If you don’t start by a certain age, you never start. So while I and many of my contemporaries read newspapers from our teens or twenties, young people today don’t seem to, apart from the free papers handed out at railway stations (MX). Physical printed papers are becoming an increasingly niche product with the future being online, especially with increasing penetration of portable internet access (iphones, etc).

    As for trying to move in on the Murdochracy’s turf, as Roger Colman is suggesting, many of Fairfax’s current readers would drop it like a hot potato, hastening its demise.

  • 32
    mattholden
    Posted Wednesday, 11 July 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    @STEVE77 – I agree entirely. I was 19 when I started reading The Age … airmail copies in another city that didn’t have a broadsheet (well, we had The Oz …). That’s when the newspaper habit starts.
    Also agree re the assessment of Roger Colman’s strategy – why would you dump your core market to go chasing someone else’s? Or do you need an MBA to understand that kind of ‘strategy’?
    Fairfax aren’t losing advertising because they’re losing readers. They lost advertising when classifieds went online, and then they lost readers because people no longer needed to buy the paper for the classifieds (jobs, cars, houses – remember those days?)
    How hard to figure out is that? As a Fairfax manager recently said, they thought they were in the news delivery business, but they discovered that they were in the classified advertising delivery business …

  • 33
    Phaser Norton
    Posted Wednesday, 11 July 2012 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    What a collection. Mike Smith, the man who single-handedly led The Age up the creek into boredom, downhill into irrelevance and around the corner to the pub. Roger Colman, the self-promoting stockbroking irrelevance whose main role seems to be in sucking up to journalists and their prejudices. And someone whose expertise is in reading papers.

    Where is the mastermind - Eric The Creature Beecher?

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