Surely one of the main trends in media over the last 15 years has been the entry of the spivs, and the spivification, if that is a word, of the enduring family media empires.

Murdoch is now about Hollywood more than newsprint, Packer about gambling more than broadcasting. As for Fairfax, what a messy rollercoaster ride it has been. And Ron Walker is chairman.

In that context, the entry of Rural Press into Fairfax is largely a heartening move. JB Fairfax and Brian McCarthy are not spivs. They are small “c” conservatives and fundamentally decent men despite, in the case of McCarthy, being perhaps more ruthless than he realises on costs.

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A lot depends on the push and pull between JB Fairfax as deputy chairman and Brian McCarthy as deputy CEO with responsibility for the newspapers. These two men admire each other, need each other, and get on well, but JB has always wanted a bit more money spent on editorial quality, and McCarthy has always emphasised watching every cent.

At Rural, McCarthy’s way has mainly won out. Will JB assert himself more now he is back on the family farm? Will he eventually replace Ron Walker as Chair? It remains to be seen.

We should brace ourselves for cuts, but nevertheless I think that if the merger goes ahead it will be the best of the range of options available for Fairfax. “As you were” is not an option.

The metropolitan broadsheets still make money, but there is no growth, or not enough to satisfy the stockmarket. The business model is vulnerable, probably broken. Nobody is going to invest huge money in the broadsheets while this is the case and when The Australian gets by on far fewer staff than the Sydney Morning Herald or The Age, any new proprietor would look for savings. It would be worse, and worse motivated, under the spivs.

I believe, based on interviews I conducted with JB Fairfax and McCarthy more than a year ago now, that they have a clear-eyed view of the weaknesses in editorial management at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald – a symptom of the lack of media experience on the Board.

One tends to read down the complaints of staff. After all, the editor is always a b-stard. But the journos are not the only ones complaining about Andrew Jaspan in particular. He is also on the nose with senior management. I may be wrong but I can’t imagine the phlegmatic McCarthy putting up with this for long.

Oakley at The Sydney Morning Herald, on the other hand, is a relatively recent appointment and may well be given more time to make a difference. Michael Gill the survivor retains control of his own patch in Business Media, at least for the moment.

For some time now the chief ambition at Fairfax has been to decide its own future, rather than being at the mercy of the spivs. The Rural Press merger should achieve this.

The struggle for Fairfax journalists, and indeed all journalists, is to find a way forward for important journalism. One of the possibilities opened up by the merger is community and localism. More on this here.

Mark Scott at the ABC understands the importance of localism in the new media world. It is one of the ABC’s great potential strengths. Now Fairfax has the ability to exploit this as well. But first, we have to get past the idea of local journalism meaning low rent journalism.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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