The changes announced by Fairfax management yesterday are largely common sense and indeed probably inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop worrying about what’s going on at Fairfax.
The problem is not the shrinking of the papers, nor the inevitable shift to multi-media publishing. Rather, it is the lack of thinking about the thing that matters most at Fairfax – the content. The journalistic direction and vision.
Where were the Fairfax editors yesterday? What do they have to say about where the newspapers are going? How are they going to resolve the difference in character between the downmarket websites and the quality broadsheets? What is the journalistic vision?
Senior Fairfax editorial staff I spoke to yesterday said that in the briefings they had been given, there had been virtually no talk about editorial strategies and the nature of the journalism. Instead all the talk had been of paper sizes, marketing and production process.
I think this confirms that Fairfax still has problems. I am not talking about Fairfax as a business. CEO David Kirk has proved that he has the energy and nous to ensure it will continue to be successful as a profit making business.
What I am worried about is the journalism. Fairfax is still suffering from the fact that nobody in senior management or (until the return of the Fairfax family this week) on the board have any idea what it takes to make good journalism, or what an excellent newspaper editor should be doing.
This lack of understanding shows up every day in the workings of the newsrooms. You can see it in the sullen resentment of the journalists, which management is frustrated by but has no idea how to address. You can see it in the feeling among the senior journalists that they, rather than anyone above them, are the ones trying to figure out what quality journalism might mean in the new age.
It is a tribute to the senior journalists at Fairfax that they still put out a good product despite erratic leadership, but lack of proprietorial understanding is nevertheless bad for the product.
The journalists tend to turn in on themselves. The ever present problem of tending to write for each other runs out of control. What is needed at Fairfax is leadership with a deep understanding of content, and this has been lacking now for over a decade.
Compare the way Fairfax handled yesterday’s announcements with the way parallel moves at the British Guardian were announced not so long ago. At the Guardian, significantly, the key facts and strategies were outlined to the world by the editor in chief, not by the CEO as is the case with Fairfax.
Compare the thinking and approach taken by the Washington Post, outlined in this article.
Perhaps thinking about content – about the nature of journalism in the new media age – is taking place at Fairfax, but if it is then senior management is not sharing it either with reader or with senior editors and journalistic staff.
We can be confident that Fairfax will continue to make profits. David Kirk, take a bow. Nevertheless I worry about the future.