You really have to feel for Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood and CEO of Metropolitan Publishing, Jack Matthews. Though not as much, obviously, as one feels for the subeditors who are about to lose their jobs.

Making the kind of change they are making at Fairfax must be agonising. The meetings they have already had with staff have, by all accounts, been harrowing for all concerned.

And one has to respect their decision to front the staff in person at briefing sessions planned for Sydney and Melbourne today. One also has to wonder whether those briefing sessions will go ahead, or whether the staff will be on strike by then.

The opening line when Hywood threw to questions at The Age yesterday from one staffer was “If I weren’t an intelligent man, there would be violence at this moment. What you’re telling us is rubbish”, a comment that was brushed over by Hywood.

The whole thing is bloody and awful, and while it is part of my job to criticise what Hywood and Matthews do, I also recognise that, despite their fat salaries, their jobs are far from enviable. God knows why people scrap so hard to be in these positions. One assumes it is because they believe they can pull gold out of the shit. I wish I shared their belief.

There are no easy answers to trying to save dying media business models, and they are right to do what their predecessors have failed to do — admit the depth of the problem and try to do something about it. One also has to admire Hywood for being prepared to do what his predecessor, Brian McCarthy, would never have done: talk  about what he is doing, including by appearing on Media Watch last week, where he basically admitted that the classified advertising business has gone for good. Well, we knew that but it’s good to have it said.

Hywood is assiduous in talking up the business. Sadly, he has yet to tell a convincing story.

The other strand to what Hywood said on Media Watch, and that also lies behind the announcements by him and Matthews yesterday, is that because the classifieds have gone, Fairfax relies more than ever before on the quality of the journalism.

Matthews told staff: “Our strategy is based on the fundamental premise that we are all about creating quality content — and quality revenues. The key words are create and quality. We need to focus our resources on those two core areas.”

And so we are told that the money saved by sacking the subs will be spent on journalism. Staff at The Sydney Morning Herald have been told that there will be more than a dozen new reporters, plus half a dozen “big-name” reporters. Similar things are expected at The Age.

I agree with Hywood that the future is about journalism. It always was, even though the hard fact is that journalism has NEVER paid its own way. Every human society ever studied has had a method of passing on news and information. Every society too big to know itself by word of mouth alone has had some version of the professional messenger. On this we should rely when building the future. It is unlikely to change.

But will the messengers of the future be the employees of today’s mainstream media companies? That depends on whether those companies can truly innovate — and not just by tweaking the costs.

I find it deeply worrying that Hywood is betting the bank on the quality of the journalism, at a time when there is hardly any discussion going on in the company about what that might mean in the new media world.

Does he mean, by investing in journalism, simply hiring more journalists, including “top-end” name reporters? However you gloss it, that is basically about doing more of the same.

What is needed is some thinking about what journalism might actually look like in the new media world. We need to innovate in the product itself.

There is a kind of cargo cult mentality in the mainstream media,  a species of magical thinking. A belief that if only the magic key can be found, somehow it must be possible for journalists and media companies to go on doing pretty much what they have always done. That it must be necessary for them to do so.

Various things are presented as the magic key: six months ago, senior Fairfax and News Limited types were saying that it would be the “cool new toy” of the iPad. As I reported last month, nobody is saying that now. It changed so fast you could almost get whiplash. Mobile devices are obviously important, and offer a cheap way of getting content to consumers. But the sad fact is that iPad newspaper subscriptions are not at a level that is going to save anyone’s business model.

Matthews’ message to staff yesterday included these words:

“In earlier staff briefings I have explained that we need to transform Fairfax — both its strategies and its business practices … 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.”

Well, I agree with him. But I have been on my own research trip to the States in recent months, and I would suggest that the other lesson he could have drawn is that continuing to do much the same things, while rationalising madly and spending big bucks on software and new toys is also a mistake, and the REASON why some newspaper companies will not survive.

Much more fundamental change is needed.

What, after all, is an iPad (to take just one example) actually good for? Certainly it is a reader, but it is also, more than anything else, a tool for interaction. Witness the thousands of people, surely Fairfax’s desired core audience, who sit in front of the ABC’s Q&A each week, iPads in hand, tweeting away. They will not simply sit and read, or at least not pay to do so. They will engage, given the chance.

We have to face the fact that journalism itself has not changed much in a couple of hundred years. What other core industry product has been so unchanging?

There are experiments in journalistic methods going on, in Australia and overseas. I plan to write about them in the next few weeks in a series that has the working title “what should Fairfax do?”. We might change that title. It’s way too arrogant, because of course nobody knows what it should do.

And also because Fairfax is not the natural site for the necessary experimentation. It is a stockmarket-based company, owned by institutional investors bound by law to care only about the bottom line result. Hard to go to them and say “we are going to try this highly risky and entirely new thing and we have no idea whether or not it will work”. As I say, I don’t envy Hywood his job.

Instead, for Fairfax the game always has to be, at least in part, about mining the existing premium position for as long as possible.

And that is the real story behind what happened yesterday. The constant search for ways to keep on making money doing much the same thing, while also struggling to do it harder and better.

I am not suggesting everything about journalism has to change. The core of the job — finding out things  and communicating them clearly — remains. Accuracy and integrity remain. Credibility remains (and of course the subs were key to that, as I have explained elsewhere.

But there are new things as well. Conversation, interactivity, and enabling the audience.

In this incredibly sad week for journalism, I wish we were hearing more from Fairfax about those things.

Peter Fray

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