The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age did something quite rare on their op-ed pages today — they published some rather tough criticism of their own newspapers by one of their former editors. Among the points they extracted from former Age editor Michael Gawenda’s A.N. Smith Lecture in Journalism, to be delivered tonight at Melbourne University, were these: 

… There is incessant chatter about the need for a new model for newspapers in the digital age, which might be true, but in the meantime, profitable newspapers are being butchered. Talk of a new model is nothing but empty words.

The editorial cuts announced by Fairfax, publisher of the Herald, in response to a fall in advertising revenue, were chilling. The economic slowdown is the immediate cause, but this was coming for at least a decade. It is a failure of imagination and commitment, a result of a lack of experience and knowledge and love of newspapers. I am not opposed to cuts in editorial staff as a matter of principle. Not every job has to be preserved and protected. I am not saying the Herald and The Age cannot be great newspapers with fewer journalists. They can. And they have to change.

But for real change, courage is needed, as are vision and risk-taking and, above all, a commitment to newspapers and journalism that, frankly, I do not see at the moment.

Pretty strong stuff, you might think, for a newspaper to publish about itself. Until you read what The Age and SMH did not publish today — but The Australian did — from Gawenda’s same speech:

When I was appointed editor of The Age in 1997, the internet loomed on the horizon and the potential threat that this thing had to seriously damage the paper’s classified business was becoming increasingly clear …

… At the same time, the senior management at Fairfax and the Fairfax board lost confidence in the company’s newspapers. The implicit — and sometimes explicit — message was that these managers and board members did not really see a future for these papers.

They were often bemused about what it was exactly that journalists did. They were bemused and disconcerted by passion for newspapers from editors and journalists, and even readers.

They were bemused sometimes by the fact that they were running a newspaper company.

At a time of transition and great challenges for newspapers, Fairfax was run by people who had no experience of the business, no knowledge of its history and role in the communities in which their newspapers operated and, what’s more, no great love of them …

… The editors of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have no control over their papers’ websites. All the talk of newsroom integration is rendered meaningless as a result. Already the online newspaper sites of the main Fairfax metropolitan mastheads are at odds with what those mastheads long stood for. They are much more popular, much more celebrity and entertainment focused. This is a recipe for disaster. The mastheads are being trashed.

In his lecture, Michael Gawenda has revealed in public what most insiders have known privately for years — Australia’s premier newspaper publisher was (and largely still is) run by people with no experience of or love for newspapers. People who are “bemused” they are running a newspaper company. Editors with no control over their papers’ websites who have allowed their own mastheads to be “trashed” online.

Next week, Fairfax will boot out another 120 journalists from its flagship newspapers. Its classified advertising volumes are collapsing. Its share price is plunging. Meanwhile, its management has no plan, strategy, vision or passion for the future of their quality newspapers, other than to aimlessly cut costs as their revenues keep falling.

I agree with Michael Gawenda. There is a viable model for quality newspapers — smaller but possibly better newspapers — in the internet age. It’s just that the people running Fairfax don’t even know how to start conceiving it.