The extraordinary thing about the latest episodes in the continuing tragedy of Fairfax Media is that they could hardly be more remote from the real issues, threats and opportunities facing a media company in the early 21st century.

The best outcome would be for the Ron Walker faction and the Fairfax family/Rural Press faction to be ousted from control of the company. Neither side is qualified to seize, or even to understand, the opportunities that, against the odds, are still within Fairfax’s grasp.

JB Fairfax apparently thinks the current management of the Fairfax Media is just tickety-boo, and it is the board that needs renewal. Well, at least he’s half right. The board clearly needs — has needed for a long while now — people who understand media and in particular understand what a media company needs to be in the internet age.

Is there any other company in the country that would tolerate leadership by people who do not understand the product that the company manufactures? Deputy chair Roger Corbett is a terrific retailer, but that is what he is. He knows nothing of media. Walker is a terrific connector of people and a wheeler and dealer. He has never understood media, let alone new media.

I am told that Walker doesn’t even have a computer on his desk and emails have to be sent to his personal assistant and printed out for him.

The product Fairfax manufactures, in case it needs to be said, is information and content that people want and need. That product still has a bright future. The challenge is to build new opportunities from it at a time when the traditional platforms are in decline and the business model is changing.

So, JB is right that the board needs renewal. But he is blind to the faults in the management team he is backing. Now, it is a given that managing a media company at present is a difficult and thankless task. The industry is undergoing structural change outside the control of any management. Critique is much easier than offering new and sustainable directions. Nevertheless, has there ever been a company that so consistently misses opportunities and misunderstands its strengths as Fairfax Media?

What exactly is it that the Rural Press management now running the company have done in the past 12 months that qualifies them for further endorsement? When has (Brian) McCarthy looked anything but out of depth when it comes to new media, or indeed journalism?

Almost 12 months after the departure of former managing director David Kirk, there has been no new growth, no new businesses and no new initiatives to move into the digital age — with the possible exception of the recently launched National Times, which is an old idea and hardly a trailblazer.

One little-known or understood fact is that Kirk never lost the numbers on the board. He just didn’t have the right numbers. Of the eight board members, six favoured him staying, but they could not keep him without damaging the company, when the Fairfax family were so determined to get rid of him. It was the Fairfax family and McCarthy’s white-anting that did Kirk in, combined with the difficulties of dealing with Walker, who wanted to be an executive chairman and had an inadequate sensitivity to the problems of debt.

And now the damage the board tried to avoid by agreeing to oust Kirk has been done in any case.

Leaving aside debt levels, the real potential of the Rural Press-Fairfax merger was that it made Fairfax the only media organisation in the country — with the exception of the ABC — with depth of journalistic talent and real presence in rural and regional Australia. Fairfax had a unique opportunity.

But the approach to Rural Press was mistaken. Fairfax understood that it had to diversify from its metropolitan print mastheads, but it thought that rural papers would continue to do well. In fact, the opportunity was about content and community, not about gaining more print assets. The trick was to invest in the content and the community, while getting away from dependence on the print platform. That was never understood.

Instead, the Rural Press merger amounted to buying declining print assets at the top of the market.

If one wants to look at what regional and local presence combined with depth of talent might mean in the new media age, one only has to look at the ABC, where localism, social networking and the building of communities is a central part of the vision for justifying publically funded media in the new age. Instead, Fairfax is run by a bunch of conservative men whom, one suspects, think Twitter is a noise made by birds.

JB Fairfax demonstrated his lack of vision for the media future in this limp speech at the Quills.

At a time when the focus should be on content, and new ways of monetising that content, there are no forums within Fairfax Media at which the editors of its various outlets can get together, bring each other up to speed and share ideas. The editor of the Bendigo Advertiser or the Burnie Advocate, to pick two examples at random, would never get an opportunity to talk to the people leading The Age or the Sydney Morning Herald. Instead of co-operation and sharing of ideas, there is antagonism. There is no opportunity for group-wide editorial vision to be developed.

Nobody knows with certainty the correct way forward for media, but one thing is clear. At this time of all times, the lack of a means by which new ideas about content can be developed is equivalent to choosing death.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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