When ABC Managing Director Mark Scott was in senior management at Fairfax, his critics – of whom there were many — generally wrote him off as a creature of CEO Fred Hilmer who was reviled almost as much when he was there as he has been since his departure.

Having left Fairfax and taken up the job as ABC boss, Scott has, subtly, let it be known that this perception was not necessarily accurate. He is good at smooching journalists – this one included — and has, almost in passing, slipped in observations that very gently suggest the Hilmer line was not necessarily always the Scott line. Or if it once was, it is no longer.

It seems there may be a leap forward in this direction tonight. As previewed by Matthew Ricketson in The Age today, Scott will address the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers Association Conference, and will suggest that newspapers need strong proprietors to survive and prosper.

This line was always specifically rejected by Hilmer, and continues to be rejected by senior Fairfax types to this day, seeing as how that company has had no strong proprietor.

Copies of Scott’s speech were not available in time for Crikey’s deadline – he is apparently making some last minute tweaks – but I understand he will reference this recent piece by Russell Baker in the New York Review of Books, which reflects on the departure of the old proprietor families, and includes these choice observations:

There is a growing literature about the multitude of journalism’s problems, but most of it is concerned with the editorial side of the business, possibly because most people competent to write about journalism are not comfortable writing about finance. Still, it is on the ownership and management side that the gravest problems exist. The best discussion of trouble in boardroom and business office is found in newspapers’ own financial pages and speeches by journalists in management jobs.

Perhaps Scott, a former journalist, sees himself as one of these.

Scott will focus on the challenges created for editors by the increasing focus on short-term profit. More than ever, they have to be able to stack up the evidence and demonstrate their claim that the quality of the journalism is valuable to the long-term financial success of the business.

Segue to the ABC.

It should be an interesting speech. Watch this space tomorrow for more.

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