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Sep 30, 2009

Does Fairfax need a 67-year-old grocer at the helm?

Roger Corbett is poised to become Chairman of Fairfax. Does he honestly believe he is the best person to steer Australia's venerable newspaper publisher through the most challenging period in its history?

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The last time I saw Roger Corbett was five years ago, inside the Fairfax boardroom. I was there because the Fairfax board had asked me to develop my ideas about the company, its newspapers and its future.

I spent an hour or so presenting my thoughts to the board meeting, starting with what I described as a “Catastrophe Scenario” based on the loss of classified advertising at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald (which, five years on, has turned out to be sadly accurate) and ending with a range of possible ideas to try to avoid such a scenario (all of which were ignored). My argument was that if the board rated the risk of such a scenario at more than around 15%, it should take swift and decisive action as an insurance policy.

Throughout most of the hour I talked, Roger Corbett prowled the back of the Fairfax boardroom like a caged tiger, his body language suggesting a disdain for me and for what I was saying.

After I finished speaking, Corbett moved to the head of the board table. Picking up a copy of one of Fairfax’s hefty Saturday broadsheets from a nearby pile, he told his fellow directors that he didn’t want anyone coming into the Fairfax boardroom again suggesting that people will buy houses or cars or look for jobs without “this”, as he held up the newspaper bulging with classified ads.

Five years later Roger Corbett is poised to become chairman of Fairfax. If he takes that job — and it is apparently his to take — one assumes it will be because he believes he is the best person to steer Australia’s venerable newspaper publisher through the most challenging period in its history; to create the strategies and culture needed to save it from the fate that threatens the fortunes of most big newspaper companies; to repair the dysfunctionality that has turned the Fairfax board into a laughing stock; to attract smart new media operators into the boardroom; to formulate ways to preserve its important journalism; and to reinvigorate a staff jaded and disillusioned by the Keystone Cops antics of the board.

Roger Corbett was an outstandingly successful CEO of Woolworths supermarkets. He was reputed to be a retailing maestro and a very tough businessman.

But if he really thinks the great Fairfax editorial and publishing institutions need his leadership now, it suggests the 67-year-old former grocer is someone who, when it comes to media and journalism, doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

Eric Beecher is Publisher of Crikey.

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