Options were open to Fairfax management that could have kept BRW going, but they weren’t tested.
One could be forgiven for ignoring the small sidebar in the Fairfax’s business section on Saturday proclaiming the death of the magazine version of the iconic BRW magazine. But that would be to downplay the impact of Australia’s last home-grown business rag. Despite its meagre circulation (around 30,000), BRW and its eponymous rich lists are more than household names — they’re institutions, reflecting Australia’s greatest business achievements and providing a pretty useful source of inspiration to budding entrepreneurs.
My own love affair with the BRW Rich List began in 1998 — I picked up a copy of the magazine at an airport as a young university student and was hooked. Many of the names at the top of that list remain there today: Packer (James, not Kerry), Lowy, Lew, Gandel, Hains, Triguboff, almost all self-made and some, like Frank Lowy, who left war torn Hungary on a rickety boat, are truly inspirational. The list provided a roadmap to success, and while the pathways may no longer be apt (many of the list got there through leveraged property investments), the notion of building a business from scratch with hard work and guile hasn’t. Since 1998 I’ve bought every single Rich List (I keep them on a bookshelf at home and not infrequently refer to them in articles). While the issues became thinner, the business people and their stories remained as fascinating as ever.
The Young Rich List, a more recent innovation, is an even purer roll call of business success. Unlike the Rich 200, the Young Rich List only features self-made success stories (but it does include sportspeople and divorcees). Names like Ruslan Kogan, Gaby, Hezi Leibovich, Mike Cannon-Brookes, Scott Farquhar and Mark Harbottle have become mainstays of the list. All started from nothing in the last decade to create some of Australia’s best technology businesses. Most had to compete with well-established and cash-rich incumbents with huge advantages over the young upstarts. In virtually every case, it was the young upstarts who have come up tops. Had it not been for BRW, we probably would never have heard about those young stars until their businesses eventually floated on the stock exchange.
On Friday, Fairfax announced BRW would stop printing its hard copy (the website will remain live). Fairfax noted that the Rich editions may continue in some form as part of The Australian Financial Review, although their lustre will dim somewhat without the backing of the weekly hard copy magazine.
Founding editor of BRW, Robert Gottliebsen, was quick to blame Fairfax management for BRW’s fate. Writing in Business Spectator, Gottie noted that “in 2000 Fairfax effectively decided that innovation should be centralised at head office. BRW Asia was shut down and the BRW website trashed. Without that innovation drive BRW never really recovered.”
Gottie is right, in a way — like almost everything, under the leadership of former consultant Fred Hilmer, Fairfax trashed BRW like it did pretty much all the venerable media company’s assets. But Gottie was wrong to note that closing the website was the cause of BRW’s woes. Media websites (even the highly trafficked ones) are notoriously unprofitable, largely because digital generates a fraction of the revenue that print display does.
BRW is partially a victim of Fairfax management incompetence, but also of a new digital world. While it will continue in some form online and perhaps occasionally in the AFR, perhaps a better solution could have been for Fairfax to fill BRW with a content share from Fortune, Bloomberg or Forbes, each of which continue to produce outstanding long form business journalism, with contributions from the likes of James Thomson, Andrew Heathcote, Michael Bailey and Ben Hurley. Either way, there is no doubt Australia is poorer for the loss.
*Adam Schwab is a business writer and the founder and CEO of the AussieCommerce Group, which has featured in several BRW fast-growing lists