The new leadership at Fairfax Media will attract fierce criticism over the announcement today of a recalibration of its flagship newspapers by sacking all their subeditors. They will be derided because it’s so much easier to criticise people dealing with a giant dilemma than it is to be prescriptive about the dilemma itself.
The reality is that Fairfax is standing on a “burning platform”. This is the metaphor used recently by the CEO of Nokia to describe his own company’s parlous state — about a man working on an oil platform who is awoken by a loud explosion which has set the platform on fire. Faced with the choice of staying on the platform and dying from the fire, or jumping 30 metres into the freezing North Sea, the man jumped. And survived.
Today, Fairfax management didn’t quite jump. But what they have done is to finally acknowledge, after almost a decade of boardroom denial, that the major Fairfax newspapers face a dilemma of survival.
Do they have the right strategy to save The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age from a slow death? No one (including them) knows the answer because the creative destructionism that is lashing newspapers is still unfolding in all sorts of unpredictable ways.
But what Greg Hywood and Jack Matthews have started today, as difficult and unpopular as it is, is the first step in delivering Fairfax a chance of saving its flagship newspapers — it has ended the denial and publicly acknowledged the scale of the problem. As Matthews told staff today:
“The urgency required was reinforced to me during a recent trip to meet publishers and editors in the US and UK. A common theme emerged. These media organisations were too late in recognising the fundamental changes to their businesses. They were too late in taking effective action to address those changes. Now, in fact, it may be too late for some of them to survive … We will not let that happen to Fairfax. We must act now.”
Maybe they are too late. Maybe they are too optimistic that “quality journalism” will be their commercial salvation.
But after a disgraceful decade of board hubris and denial, at least Fairfax has admitted its platform is burning and it intends to do something about it.