The CEO of Fairfax, David Kirk, deserves credit. He has transformed Fairfax Media from a victim of history into a victor, as today’s wrap-up of the changed media scene in The Australian makes clear.
Thanks to the Rural Press merger Fairfax now has a bigger geographical footprint than any other media organisation apart from the ABC. With the Macquarie Media/Southern Cross deal it gains influential talk radio stations and a production house that can produce content for any platform capable of carrying moving images. It will be a strong bidder for the new datacasting licences. Although it is locked out of free to air conventional television by media ownership regulation, it is clearly going to be co-operating more with Channel Seven.
Fairfax is the new media behemoth. Who would have thought it, when only a short while ago it looked like prey, not predator.
It seems churlish to critique the achievement, but there are nevertheless questions to be asked, and the one that interests me is whether this Brave New Fairfax — an entertainment company at least as much as an information company — will retain the journalistic values of old.
From within the senior ranks of Fairfax I hear two views on the future of “quality journalism”. They are not really contradictory, but rather two sides of the same coin.
One view, put to me by a former senior Fairfax executive, is that the new strength and size can only be good for journalism. There is no independence in penury and victimhood. The vigour of the rest of the company will enable the pressure to be taken off the quality flagships, which can be left to pursue their journalistic missions without the need for huge profit margins.
The other view, put to me by a current senior Fairfax strategist, might be best called “facadism”. This man suggests that the company will continue to do some quality journalism as a kind of historical gesture to the company’s roots and an exercise in corporate image making. Meanwhile the real business will be going on elsewhere. Thus the broadsheet newspapers will become rather like the historical facades on towering modern officeblocks.
Lending weight to the “facadism” view of the future is the way the editors of the newspapers have been downgraded in recent years. They are now all but invisible when key announcements are made about their newspapers – such as the changes in size announced earlier this year. Kirk gets all the limelight. When did you last hear a Fairfax editor opine in a public forum on the future of journalism, or on anything of national import or importance to the company?
Meanwhile there isn’t anyone in the senior levels of Fairfax management who understands or has a history in journalism. The overwhelming impression is that they neither like nor understand journalists.
Fairfax will clearly continue to make money, and to make good journalism, but the truth is that the journalistic culture is no longer central to the company’s future.