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Sliding doors: why Fairfax let BRW die in print

Fairfax business magazine BRW will publish its final print edition next week. Why did it come to this?

The print edition of BRW had several close encounters with survival before Fairfax condemned it to death in October.

Rumours the 33-year old business magazine would be shut down or sold off had been circulating since June when Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood announced a sweeping product review. Word was that five titles — BRW, the (sydney) and (melbourne) magazines, the weekend Australian Financial Review and The Sun-Herald — had question marks hanging over them.

BRW publisher Amanda Gome wasn’t just going to sit back and watch the publication die. This wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows Gome, a famously energetic, entrepreneurial character. After a decade at BRW, she left to launch her own website SmartCompany in 2006 and became CEO of Private Media (whose publications include Crikey). When she left the company last September, following differences with the board, Fairfax snapped her up a month later to run its business magazines.

Gome argued internally that the print edition of BRW should be kept alive, with 15 editions a year. And if Fairfax wasn’t on board, she was willing to do it herself. Backed by a cashed-up cohort of investors, Gome offered to buy the publication from Fairfax. But the company said no: BRW wasn’t for sale. Rather than allow a competitor a shot at reviving the magazine, Fairfax decided to close the print edition.

Gome declined to comment when contacted by Crikey about the buy-out offer, which has been widely discussed among current staffers — including at reunion drinks held at Melbourne’s Saint & Rogue pub this week.

There’s no doubt BRW, even by the standards of the troubled magazine sector, has been struggling to shift copies recently. In the June quarter, circulation dropped 17.4% year-on-year to 33,900 (down from a peak of 80,000 in the 1980s). Circulation dived by 27.9% in the following quarter.

But founding BRW editor Robert Gottliebsen insists the demise of the magazine’s print edition was “not at all inevitable — quite the reverse”.

BRW has great pull among medium-sized businesses,” he told Crikey. “It could be an extremely valuable asset. I don’t know why Fairfax didn’t make it a monthly magazine; they should have done it years ago.”

Fairfax launched BRW in 1981 as a competitor to Kerry Packer’s Australian Business and it quickly became the country’s top business magazine. The key to the magazine’s early success, Gottliebsen says, is that it operated as an “innovation incubator” away from Fairfax’s head office. BRW pioneered the use of lists, embraced the internet and pushed into Asia. But in 2000, during the Fred Hilmer era, Fairfax centralised the magazine into its broader operations.

When Fairfax took it over they took out all the innovation and killed it,” Gottliebsen said. “You can’t have a magazine just sitting there as a cash cow.”

Twelve years after leaving BRW, Gottliebsen came tantalisingly close to getting back into bed with the magazine last year. Gottie, as he’s known, was now an associate editor at Business Spectator and he and his co-founders Alan Kohler and Stephen Bartholomeusz had decided to sell. Their first preference, by far, was Fairfax, where all three had spent most of their careers. Gottliebsen says another major attraction was creating links between the Spectator group and BRW, and attempting to revive the magazine. But it wasn’t to be. Fairfax was outbid by News Limited.

It would be easy to fix but you would have to give it resources and understand what it’s about and how it’s different to something like the AFR,” Gottliebsen said.

Rather than focus on the past, BRW editor James Thomson (who also formerly worked for Private Media) will look to the future in the magazine’s final edition, on newsstands next Thursday. It will be themed around change, with features exploring where key sectors are heading and profiles of up-and-coming entrepreneurs. After that, BRW will continue as a free website. Selected lists — such as the iconic BRW Rich List  — will be published in the AFR and, perhaps, Fairfax’s metro papers.

That’s quite exciting in a way as a lot of what BRW does works really well online,” Thomson said. “We’ll continue to focus on the things BRW is famous for: the rich, our lists, entrepreneurs, emerging companies. There is a gap there we want to keep alive.”

Thanks to a push by Gome and Thomson, BRW’s website has seen its unique browsers rise from 80,000 to 280,000. In the long-term, however, the site is unlikely to maintain the same number of staff and level of influence. Print still carries cachet and digital advertising revenues are lower than print.

It’s a sad story,” Gottliebsen said. “But our industry is going to have a lot of sad stories over the next few years — and a lot of happy ones too. It’s the people who are there I feel sorry for. The music stopped and they were the ones left standing.”

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    Phil West
    Posted Monday, 25 November 2013 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    It is said the journalists are the least informed about the business of what they do of anyone in the world. This article is a very fine example. Not least the Gotty remark about taking a weekly mag monthly. One needs only look at the history and the barest arithmetic to figure that one out, oh whispering one.

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