So Fairfax is moving back into broadcast media, areas rejected under the regime of Fred Hilmer, who is now seen as one of the most risk averse managers of a modern Australian company for years.

Hilmer refused to do deals in radio, TV (with the Ten Network) and the internet (Seek, controlling Carsales.com.au). The one telling deal was buying half the New Zealand newspaper market, which should have convinced him of the worth of making deals in key areas of the media.

Now his replacement, David Kirk, has shown what can be done: the Albury Border Mail has been bought for $150 million; then came the acquisition of the Wagga Daily Advertiser; Rural Press has been acquired for around $2.8 billion; the company’s online presence has been expanded both in terms of news (Brisbanetimes.com.au) and companies (control of Mooter Media); and now the radio and TV production assets of Southern Cross Broadcasting.

At least Fairfax now has a board that can do deals rather than just crunch the models, employ more consultants and refuse to do anything, as the company did under Hilmer.

But the question now is whether Fairfax can manage these non-newspaper assets. It couldn’t when it controlled the Macquarie Radio network back in the 1970s and 1980s. Just as it couldn’t understand Channel Seven in Sydney or Nine in Brisbane, which it owned before blundering Warwick’s privatisation crippled the company.

Fairfax can’t control Fairfax Business Media, which publishes the Australian Financial Review, BRW and other magazines. Its moves into the online world have failed (afr.com is the latest digital dog from FBM).

So how will it be able to control and drive a very different business model like talk radio, which Fairfax’s broadsheets and other papers have criticised (John Laws at 2UE, Neil Mitchell at 3AW)?

In fact, we will now have the situation in Sydney where the usual sniping at Alan Jones, Ray Hadley and others on 2GB, or the odd snipe at the broadcasters on ABC radio’s 702, will be viewed against the Fairfax ownership of 2UE.

Fairfax will become a more conflicted media company that either News Ltd, PBL Media, Seven or Ten.

Fairfax will be able to use 2UE and 3AW to promote the SMH and The Age and their Sunday and community papers in both cities. In Brisbane the news website Brisbanetimes.com.au and 4BC will be able to combine to gang up on the News Ltd monopoly in the Courier Mail, while in Perth, the planned Westerntimes.com.au and 6PR should be able to combine to attack the position of the monopoly paper, the West Australian, which is effectively controlled by Kerry Stokes’ Seven Group with just over 15% of WAN’s shares.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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