“A Defiant Position” is the appropriate headline over an interview with Fairfax CEO David Kirk in the latest issue of the advertising industry magazine B&T

Kirk makes two interesting admissions: that the controversy over editorial redundancies at Fairfax has damaged Fairfax newspapers in the eyes of the public, and that he “wasn’t at all surprised” by the reaction. If these two quotes are both accurate, then it means that Kirk must have planned his moves knowing the damage he would cause.

“We will work through that and get beyond it and we will recover all that,” he says, and “I know there will be no diminution in the quality of the newspapers that we produce.”

The idea that numbers of journalists equate with quality of content is an “incorrect analysis,” says Kirk.

I think more likely the Fairfax agenda is to keep the brand names and their value as a façade while the real business of the company moves somewhere else — that being a place that has little to do with the kind of journalism we associate with broadsheet newspapers.

Kirk also responds to the criticism that the Fairfax broadsheet websites are too tabloid, in contrast to the sober-sides print editions. Its all about broadening the audience for the brand, he says, and here he makes an interesting claim — that only 10% of the online audience of the Age and Sydney Morning Herald are newspaper readers.

Now, doubtless Fairfax has its own research on this, but so far as I am aware there is no publicly available auditing to back up the 10% claim. I am not saying it is bigger or smaller — just that I am not sure we know yet to what extent web consumption of newspapers crosses over with print consumption.

And I would have thought that the issue is that the brand is being not so much broadened as confused and muddied by the different characters online and in print.

Kirk’s defiant stand comes in a week when the future of journalism will be much discussed. The Future of Journalism conference, already held in Sydney and Brisbane, comes to Melbourne this Wednesday, . (Declaration: I am also speaking) with an appearance from American guru Philip Meyer, known for his book The Vanishing Newspaper, which uses a lot of close statistical analysis to construct a business model that might just work for news organisations in the future. It is built around the notion that a newspaper’s main product is not only news and information, but influence.

That in turn depends on all kinds of things, but one of the things Meyer concludes really does make a difference — more than the character and leadership of the editor — is the quality of the sub-editing — the very place that Fairfax and other news organisations are making their deepest cuts.

Hey ho. Nevertheless I feel some sympathy for Kirk.

One of the things I will be saying at the Future of Journalism conference is that it is probably not possible for publically listed media companies to engage in the deep and highly risky innovation that is needed to carry the good things about journalism into the future.

Experiments with media — the business of selling audiences to advertisers — may well take place at publically listed companies. Experiments with journalism? I don’t see it. The experiments will have to be too chancy, and the result may well be niche audiences, smaller operations and smaller profits.

No CEO of a company like Fairfax can say such things. The share price wouldn’t like it.

Peter Fray

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