The Future of Journalism conference held in Melbourne yesterday could hardly avoid lamenting the present and the past before moving on to the future. Thus it was that media company management, and the management of Fairfax in particular, came in for a kicking.

Ivor Ries, head of research for EL&C Baillieu Stockbroking, and former Chanticleer columnist with the Australian Financial Review predicted that the latest round of redundancies will be far from the last at Fairfax. “They will keep cutting and keep cutting until they disappear up their own a-sehole.”

And earlier he said: “Most of the major media companies are incompetent in making the transition” to new media. They had assigned “the B team” to their online productions and where “nowhere near exploiting their content properly.”

He went on: “Most of the media organisations in Australia have B and C grade managers. They are not good businesspeople.”

As for Fairfax’s strategy of having a “tabloid” character online and a “quality” character in print form: “They’re trying to talk to advertisers and say that they are talking to all these BMW drivers, and then they have all this poor white trash content online.”

Ries was talking on a panel about the economics of journalism, with Christian Guerra, who is the head of communications, media and entertainment research for Goldman Sachs JBWere, Russel Howcroft of George Pattersons Y&R and Robert Gottliebsen, from Crikey’s sister publication Business Spectator.

The panel was in agreement that the present management of major media companies is just getting it wrong. Said Guerra: “They are cutting the one thing they can rely on, their one advantage, which is content. The business models that rate the highest are subscription based models, and that depends on very high quality content … people will pay for quality, they won’t pay for rubbish.”

Ries predicted that the next ten years will be gloomy, chaotic and difficult for journalists, but that then new media business models will emerge. He was pessimistic in the short term, but optimistic for the medium and long term future. Some of the panellists thought the period of chaos would be shorter, because the new business models are already emerging.

Meanwhile Gottliebsen foresaw a future in which there will be “commoditised news” — which is where young people will get their training — plus “star” journalists, whose copy will be valued because of its quality, “take”, authority or speciality. This is the idea behind Business Spectator, he said.

Earlier, Philip Meyer, Knight Professor of Journalism from the University of North Carolina spoke by satellite link up, saying among other things that having reporters being their own sub-editors was “crazy”. His detailed statistical research shows that those papers who have the most sub-editors are the ones that are most successful in arresting circulation decline, because they have fewer errors, and that builds credibility and influence.