Steve Harris is a world-class newspaper publisher and Fairfax will be the worse after he resigned as publisher of The Age this week.

Harris took on the tough job as Age publisher and editor-in-chief in mid 1997 and did a good job in difficult circumstances.

Crikey has previously criticised Harris for being too close to Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett but this in part reflected the views of his commercial masters.

His predecessor as editorial chief at The Age, Bruce Guthrie, was sacked in part for being too adversarial towards Kennett and this was arguably a fair criticism. However, Guthrie felt it was his role to compensate for the excessive pro-Kennett biases displayed by the Herald Sun (then under Harris) and 3AW. Besides, the media should have a naturally adversarial relationship with the government of the day.

Harris was a pragmatic and ambitious newspaper executive and he did try to improve The Age’s relationship with Kennett because it was damaging the paper commercial. Crikey’s dad gave up The Age on Kennett’s urging and has never gone back to it.

Harris didn’t go too far over the line in trying to mend the fence with Kennett but at the same time the Herald Sun became even more pro-Kennett under Harris’s successor Peter Blunden. This climaxed with a front page HUN editorial in October 1999 urging the three independents to back the Libs. Thankfully they went the other way and Kennett’s time was up.

The Herald Sun was predictably negative in its coverage of Harris’s departure with lines such as the following:

“The Age’s circulation has dropped from 209,000 to as low as 191,000 in the past three years. In contrast, the Herald Sun enjoyed daily circulation consistently above 550,000.”

This fails to acknowledge that The Age has never been more profitable than now because they are no longer madly discounting sales to get circulation up.

Then there’s this line in the Herald Sun story:

“Bitter industrial disputes have also dogged The Age, and a snap strike by printers prevented the paper being published on November 23. The paper also catastrophically failed to appear on Grand Final day after Fairfax locked out its journalists.”

Ironically it was Harris who deftly broke the union at the Herald Sun when he built up staff trust to such an extent that about 100 reporters and section editors quit the union and signed no-strike contracts, Crikey included. However, the Herald Sun didn’t even acknowledge that Harris ever worked there.

Similarly, most of the blame for the industrial dispute was sheeted home to chief executive Fred Hilmer whose hamfisted approach to IR cost the company about $15 million in lost revenue.

It is also Hilmer who seems to have this textbook driven strategy of shuffling executives around between positions and cities. Harris was told to go Sydney, didn’t want to and resigned.

However, if Harris was ever to have taken over as chief executive of Fairfax, he needed to move back to Sydney at some point. When he was first offered the position of Age editor-in-chief in 1996, Harris declined it when Lachlan Murdoch offered him a position working out of his office in Sydney.

However, Harris did not play his politics in Sydney well. He set up something called News 2000 which got locked into a cost cutting platform.

I can remember having lunch in late 1997 at Lucio’s in Paddington with News Ltd’s current CEO, John Hartigan, and then Daily Telegraph editor Col Allan.

Col disdainfully commented that Harris never once stepped onto the Telegraph newsroom floor during his year in Sydney and then pointed out that Harto had the job Harris wanted, namely that of Group Editorial Director.

When Harris attempted to lure me from the Telegraph to The Age in 1997 his comment was: “Why would you want to work there?” Harris was always a quality man. He frowned on the big-boozing, cops and robbers mentality of Col Allan and used to claim the Herald Sun was the most upmarket tabloid in the world. When working under him as Herald Sun business editor, I was amazed at the amount of material Harris kept across. He constantly sent cut-outs from US magazines with suggestions of how we could do things better.

Ironically, the Group Editorial Director position is now vacant at News and the Murdochs would be smart to pick Harris up, however, he is genuinely reluctant to move to Sydney, apparently because his wife did not enjoy her time there.

This would involve again being in the same building as the lamentable Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman. Harris was the man who saved the Herald Sun from the ruins of Akerman’s reign of terror that ended in 1992 when he was temporarily sent to work for Fox in American.

Harris did a terrific clean up job and arrested the paper’s sliding circulation, recruiting well with people like Mike Sheahan and Geoff Wilkinson. He would never have left Fairfax in the first place if Conrad Black’s goons had not overlooked him for the editorship of The Age in preference for Alan Kohler in 1992. Kohler is one of Australia’s best business journalists but even he admits his term at The Age was not successful.

So what does Harris do now? Harris is the best editor-in-chief that Crikey ever worked with and should be inundated with offers from rival media companies.

PMP Communications have gradually moved their head office from Melbourne to Sydney to be nearer the farms of chairman Cowley and CEO Muscat. Both of them are now completely discredited and Harris would be perfect for the job, and could stay in Melbourne.

However, PMP is in such trouble it is preparing to sell its magazine division with an information memorandum expected to come out in February.

Alternatively, the Murdochs could think about slotting Harris in as managing director of the Herald & Weekly Times, although even the tribally loyal Blunden would probably resign in disgust if that happened.

Julian Clarke has been CEO of the HWT for too long now so maybe it is time for a change. The Murdochs have a fairly Sydney-centric view of the world and this is said to have played against Julian’s chances of getting the News Ltd CEO post that went to Hartigan.

Insiders also say that Clarke’s chances took a dive after three senior HWT executives were dismissed almost two years ago over an alleged fraud which had been perpetrated for quite a while undetected.

Sydney Morning Herald publisher Greg Hywood is returning to his home town after a 23 year absence to replace Harris. Sadly, Fairfax have not taken the opportunity to unwind its publisher model management structure The same person should not be responsible for editorial and the bottom line because there is a fundamental conflict of interest.

Michael Gawenda and Mal Schmidtke are both well-credentialled to run The Age’s editorial lines and Hywood can then have enough time to get on top of the paper’s $500 million a year business.

The new $220 million print plant at Tullamarine is the big project to manage and The Age is facing industrial strife as it looks to reduce its printing staff from about 260 to 160 and demands that all existing printers reapply for their jobs.

Maybe Harris, who collected $563,870 last year, had become a major stumbling block in these negotiations because he is reasonably hard-line on industrial issues.

If Harris has not popped up anywhere by October this year then he is exactly the sort of person who should run for the Fairfax board.

Helen Lynch went from being a reasonably senior Westpac executive to a director and that is exactly what Harris should do because the Fairfax board has no-one on it with any newspaper experience.

Rupert has his spy in Mark Burrows, Packer has three allies in Sir Rod Carnegie, David Gonski and Brian Powers and there is still no-one with any intimate understanding of newspapers.

Harris is a world-class publisher and the board should have worked much harder to keep him. If Harris put himself forward to shareholders, they would almost certainly vote him onto the board in a flash. Then at least someone in the boardroom could point out some of the deficiencies of the MBA-obsessed management guru Fred Hilmer, whose tenure at the top is looking increasingly chequered.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey