Yesterday they sacked another editor. Today they sacked the CEO. But the problems at Fairfax will get worse, not better, unless and until someone sacks the company’s board of directors.
Fairfax Media is suffering from an almost total absence of direction, strategy, comprehension of its problems or understanding of its business.
Of course, David Kirk was way out of his depth and added substantially to the Fairfax malaise. The same is true of his predecessor, Fred Hilmer. Between them they contributed a decade of misguided and misjudged “leadership” of a company that requires reinvention in an age of momentous turmoil in media and journalism.
But don’t blame Kirk or Hilmer. They are not the culprits. They did not appoint themselves, and they did not endorse their own strategies.
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The culpability for the smoking mess at Fairfax, and for the death-by-a-thousand-cuts of Australia’s best journalism at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, lies entirely with the board.
A board made up of a former retailer, a former property developer, a financier, a former luxury goods executive, a former IT executive, a former TV executive and two members of the founding Fairfax family. A board that does not understand the basic DNA of its own industry. A board that has demonstrated appalling misjudgement in nearly all its key decisions for a decade. A board that is as far out of its depth as a toddler without floaties in the deep end of an Olympic pool.
The idea that Fairfax Media could emerge successfully from its current turmoil under the current board is prepostrous. And it’s only when this is understood by the major shareholders — including, presumably, the beleagured and much poorer Fairfax family — that this company and its newspapers will have a chance of surviving the current maelstrom intact.
For journalists and those who care about quality journalism, watching the assassination of the Fairfax brands by this board is an unfolding tragedy. And, believe me, there is no solace in the fact that this will soon become a requisite business school casestudy in the incompetence of a corporate board in managing change.
The words in today’s announcement of Kirk’s “resignation” to the Stock Exchange, by Fairfax chairman Ron Walker, summed up that tragedy: “During his more than three years in the role, David has been an outstanding CEO of Fairfax Media. He and his team have led the complete re-positioning of the company, from a metropolitan newspaper publishing business to a position in which the company is now clearly the leading media company in Australasia”.
Apart from “and”, “the” and “a”, not a word in that statement resembles reality. These are the words of the chairman of a company that has been hijacked and destroyed by a board of directors whose epitaph will read: They murdered Australia’s best journalism and newspapers without knowing what they were doing.