Fairfax Media is planning to expand its online National Times opinion site into news coverage, just as News Limited’s The Australian moves its best content behind an online paywall.
That is probably the most significant aspect of yesterday’s announcement by Fairfax Media of Mark Baker’s new appointment as managing editor (national) of Fairfax Metro Media.
But will the expanded National Times remain free or behind a paywall? Will it be taking on The Australian, just as it is weak? Baker told me this morning that no decision had been taken on paywalls so far.
And he rejected suggestions it was all about taking on The Oz. Rather, it was about lifting national coverage across the board.
A few other matters seem to be undecided as well. One of Baker’s new roles is to build a national investigative unit. Until now, he has had the role of boss of The Age’s ground-breaking unit of Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker and others. So who will these people answer to now? Baker, or the mild-mannered Paul Ramadge, editor of The Age?
Baker failed to answer the question directly. He had, he said, been given the task of building a national unit and would be inviting expressions of interest from those interested in being part of that. In other words, it might be up to the reporters. And it’s no secret that Baker is a popular boss with The Age investigative unit.
Baker’s appointment could also be read as a step towards a de facto combination of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age Canberra bureaus, which has been a psychological watermark in the increasing melding of the papers — different editions of the same news presence.
Existing positions in Canberra that answer to individual mastheads will be retained — grandfathered might be the right term. But Baker will conduct a review with the aim of, in his words, “really stepping up the calibre of what we are doing” in Canberra.
I’d say not before time. One of the things that is usually overlooked in criticism of The Australian is that its dominance and importance in public debate is partly because Fairfax has been weak.
But what will the increasing nationalisation of Fairfax, and an upgraded national masthead in the National Times, mean for The Age and The Herald? Will they become more parochial? Baker said that anything he did would reinforce the strengths of those mastheads.
But he would say that, wouldn’t he? To put it mildly, balancing the national and the local, the new news presence with the old, will be an interesting trick to watch.
And in the meantime, the appointment of Baker, which follows the earlier appointment of Garry Linnell into a national role, means a diminution in the amount of editorial talent focused on the local mastheads, and a corresponding reduction in the power of the editors of The SMH and The Age.
Is this part of a grand plan? Hard to say without knowing how much thought has been given to issues such as paywalls. And of course there is the question of resources. No suggestion, as I understand it, that the National Times will benefit from Fairfax opening bureaus in Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth or Hobart.
And no talk, either, of harnessing the potential power of Fairfax’s rural presence, which surely has to be one of its least-exploited assets.