Too much change and cost cutting hits BRW

In what will probably become a treatise in how to ruin a great magazine, the angst started about two years ago when editor Ross Greenwood was given the boot, mainly because he spent time on other more glamorous media interests and was a hands-off editor. Fairfax selected Sydney-based long-time BRW marketing staffer Neil Shoebridge to migrate to Melbourne and take over. Soon after it handed the magazine to its young Sydney whiz-kids to re-design, re-target and re-launch.

It’s an old adage in the magazine business that instant dramatic change will lose you about one-third of your readership. Magazines are like a pair of much-worn but much-loved old shoes that are predictable and comfortable. Any change should be gradual and subtle. But the whiz kids not only re-designed the look of the magazine; they shifted its target readership from chief executives and senior management to the under-40, IT-savvy, e-commerce-smart, trendy – you guessed it – whiz kids. Jodee Rich probably loved it. Most didn’t. What happened was this:

* All the regular feature supplements – travel, executive leisure, motoring, conference destinations, finance specials and the rest – were instantly canned, costing millions in advertising.

* The best aviation writer in Australia, freelancer Ben Sandilands, was given the flick.

* Bob Gottliebsen was perceived as not fitting with the new BRW image and both sides agreed to a parting – now look at how Whispering Robert is being promoted and glamourised by News Ltd.

* Circulation and advertising revenue started falling as the heavy agencies and advertisers like the airlines, motor industry, tourism, electronics and others rated the new look BRW dead boring.

* This year for the first time the top-selling issue, the Rich List, attracted half its usual advertising revenue and sales flacks were offering discounts off the card.

* Fairfax demanded major cost cutting, so the highly-entertaining columnist Peter Ruehl went and outside contributors were slashed.

As revenues fell the answer was that fatal Trap 43 in the magazine business – cut down on pagination, because paper is a major cost. This is a recipe for disappearing up your fundamental orifice, because the magazine is then seen as lacking value and good stories miss out because there is simply no space.

Another problem was that Shoebridge showed himself to be the ultimate hands-on editor. He directed that all copy must go through his terminal, and he would relentlessly fire it back at the staffer or contributor with comments and queries in capital letters and many question and exclamation marks (WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?????? is a favorite – and he communicates even internally by e-mail). Then the sub on the copy would have more, thus turning any story into a draining, exhausting process. While the staff were told the aim was for a more urgent “breaking” news approach, the gestation period for stories has effectively drifted out to more than 10 days – sometimes more than two weeks – before issue date, where three years ago the magazine could handle a breaking story on the Tuesday before Friday on-sale.

One of Shoebridge’s early brainwaves was to demand that in every story anyone mentioned should have their age attached. This not only revolted the staff journalists and subs but some senior management people interviewed – try asking a $200,000-a-year female finance industry executive how old she is. That was dropped, as eventually was a rule that all stories should carry a kicker listing at least three related web sites.

Staff bitching forced management to create a sort of editorial board that included other executives of umbrella company BRW Media. This saw business writer Adele Ferguson installed as editor and Shoebridge renamed managing editor. Little changed. Shoebridge still eyeballs and fenestrates every story. Staff and contributors have started to complain about Ferguson’s editorial judgement, which is heavily influenced by traditional business reporting standards, demanding lots of numbers and focussing strongly on listed entities, with little attention paid to overseas stories. Likewise, Australian small business has been effectively banished from the magazine.

These are mournful days at the magazine that was courageously founded by Max Suich at Fairfax 20 years ago, withstanding three years of losses with Bob Gottliebsen as managing editor and Stuart Simson as editor before it rang the bell. Kerry Packer threw everything into a years-long bid to gazumph it with Australian Business magazine, but after sucking-out millions that went fortnightly and then vanished. An indication of how stable and successful BRW has been is that before Shoebridge it had only three editors – Simson, David Uren (now freelancing for The Australian, among others) and Greenwood. BRW was consistently innovative and challenging, with short deadlines and tight writing. Now it’s a classic example of what happens when you let the bean counters into the editorial den. Packer’s ACP Action magazine group is sweating out similar trauma right now, with the bag men telling the editors what content they should carry.


Editor’s Note: This is a pretty strong attack on the leadership of BRW and naturally we will happily publish any response that Michael Gill, Neil Shoebridge or anyone else sends through.