The Fairfax collective’s biggest fear has been the return of a vengeful John Alexander should PBL Media ever gain control, but that was only a potential worry. Brian McCarthy is real. And he will very soon be inside.

McCarthy will have his hands on all the spending of Fairfax in Australia, bar Michael Gill’s business media outfit – and you could wonder how long it might be exempted once comparisons start to be made.

Crikey readers might have noticed the occasional item over the years about the less-than-happy editorial state of some Rural Press publications. The Canberra Times comes to mind. If anyone thought Fred Hilmer cut costs at Fairfax, they should check the definition of parsimonious.

The first question asked at today’s analysts’ briefing was about how costs at Fairfax and Rural Press compared. Kirk and Rural Press CEO McCarthy both stressed that the initial promise of $35 million in synergy savings is just a start.

McCarthy knew what the question was really all about – the cost structure of The Canberra Times compared with, say, the SMH. He replied with words to the effect that he hadn’t had a chance to run the ruler over the internal workings of the Fairfax papers. “That comes later”. It will happen and he certainly expects many more savings than the easy $35 million that is mainly at the corporate level.

Assuming McCarthy does what he does so well and extracts many more costs from the SMH, Age, Sun-Herald and the Fairfax suburbans and regionals, the comparison with Fairfax Business Media costs will begin to exert their own inevitable pressures.

The comfortable middle-class existence that Fairfax journalists once reasonably aspired to might not last much longer. Expect lower hourly rates and fewer jobs, trying to do more with less. A prize for the first Fairfax hack to say “come back Fred, all is forgiven”.

Peter Fray

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