Running a big newspaper company in the era of decaying newspapers is a delicate balancing act that requires saying sweet nothings at the same time as twisting the knife.

That’s exactly what the CEO of Australia’s premium newspaper company, Fairfax, did yesterday. Announcing the company’s flagship newspapers The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age would reduce their page size by roughly 14%, David Kirk delivered sweet nothings (“Size does matter, and it is time to give our readers what they keep telling us they want: a slightly narrower broadsheet so that they can spend more time with our newspapers”), while twisting the knife (another 35 jobs to go, unspecified editorial space to be lost and substantial cost savings to be gained from using 14% less newsprint).

Yesterday’s announcement by Fairfax was about one thing and one thing only: saving money. But the spin that was employed to present it in the Fairfax press was duplicitous, the kind of blatant PR con job that most (but apparently not all) of Fairfax’s best journalists would tear to shreds if it had been delivered by any other reputable organisation.

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Why couldn’t they simply follow the Fairfax editorial mantra: tell the truth. That profits from Fairfax’s major newspapers are likely to decline substantially over coming years (like most major comparable newspapers throughout the world). That the reduction in page size is to save money. That the real reduction readers want — but one Fairfax is unable to adhere to for competitive reasons — is to a standard tabloid size (like The Times and Independent in London). That this tactic relies on advertisers being prepared to pay the same rates for 14% less space. That in all probability there will be a net loss of editorial space when the page size is cut. That profits from the internet can’t replace the loss of newspaper profits in the foreseeable future. And that shareholders who expect gushing profits from the old newspaper business to continue at their historic levels are dreaming.

Fairfax could have followed the journalistic example of The New York Times, for instance, when it reported an almost identical change in page size at The Wall Street Journal in October 2005:

The Wall Street Journal will narrow the pages of its American edition to 12 inches wide from 15 inches, its parent company said Tuesday, in response to the cost pressures on the newspaper industry.

Dow Jones, which owns several publications in addition to The Journal, said that retooling its printing presses to publish the narrower papers would cost $43 million over the next 15 months and would subtract 7 cents a share from earnings in 2006.

But it said the new format would then save the company about $18 million a year in operating expenses, adding 13 cents a share to earnings. Dow Jones said it planned to introduce the narrower paper by 2007.

Or the example of The New York Times when it reported honestly on its own page-size reduction and axing of 250 jobs last year:

The changes are estimated to save $42 million per year, and will result in a 5% cut in the space devoted to news. The page resize would normally mean an 11% cut in that space, but the NYT will add pages to compensate for that loss. Other papers who have cut page size in order to save costs include the Washington Post, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times and, upcoming, The Wall Street Journal, which are all going to the smaller page size that executive editor Bill Keller calls “the industry norm”.

Keller called the savings “money that will not have to be cut from important things, such as producing the world’s best news report”. However, 5% of the actual news content is being cut, which Keller addressed by suggesting the paper could report certain news developments in a more abbreviated form and “police flabby or redundant prose in longer pieces.”

Instead, Fairfax propagandised about the papers becoming “narrower and more reader-friendly” and that “the time is … right to strengthen The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun-Herald by a proposed integration of production staff”.

If Fairfax can’t even report and analyse the important events in their own company truthfully, what does that say about their respect for the intelligence of their “AB” readers? Or for the credibility of the rest of their journalism?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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