Fairfax Media is arguably the most opportunistic company in Australia. Over the past decade, it has never lost the opportunity to shoot itself in the foot or to publicly showcase its dysfunctionality.

Yesterday it was at it again. The announcement of the “resignation” of its CEO, Brian McCarthy, was another occasion to prove that the publisher of two of Australia’s most important newspapers, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, has no peer when it comes to dissembling or incompetence.

McCarthy left Fairfax two weeks after presenting the company’s biggest strategic plan in years because, according to the company’s statement, he could not “make a commitment for the next 3-5 years”. So instead of keeping the architect of its future for a year or two, the chairman told him to leave immediately — he was so good that Fairfax wanted him to stay for five years, but not for five minutes.

There are two key elements at the heart of what happened at Fairfax yesterday, and has been unravelling for the past 10 years. First, no one knows the right answers to the existential threats to old media because many of the answers have yet to be invented. And second, in order to position yourself to find the answers you need to be competent, knowledgeable, intuitive, flexible and honest about what you don’t know.

Fairfax is none of those things. It is a dysfunctional company led by an incompetent board chaired by a former retailer, Roger Corbett, whose answer to the crisis afflicting newspapers is to sprout generalities such as “revenue streams of the future are all very challenging but we will be working to ensure that we deliver the very best” and “the really important thing is that we provide quality journalism that people actually want”.

Unlike Rupert Murdoch, whose local media arm has not just revelled in reporting Fairfax’s antics for a decade but is ruthlessly turning the commercial screws on their hapless competitor every day, the Fairfax chairman — the de facto “proprietor” in a company without an owner — doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and has no instinct for media at the precise moment that his company desperately needs such a person at the helm.

The truth is that “quality journalism” (whatever that means) or the “very best” is not enough. The solutions to the future of newspapers such as the Herald and The Age lie in their business models, not just in their journalism. And given the rapidity of their decline — each has seen its annual profits fall from about $100 million to about $20 million in the past few years — the solution is almost certainly no longer incremental, but seminal.

They need to be totally re-invented, editorially and commercially, from top to toe. In their current parlous state, the only riskier strategy would be not to take that risk.

Every Fairfax CEO and chairman in the past decade has left with their reputation in tatters. The current chairman and the next CEO are likely to join their ranks unless the Fairfax board acknowledges their own inability to grapple with their survival challenge, and sacks itself and its chairman.

Otherwise they will take a large chunk of Australia’s most important institutional journalism down with them.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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