Journalism is at the heart of Fairfax Media’s plans for the future, CEO Greg Hywood proclaims, and he deserves credit for doing so.

Despite the irresistible impression that he is cracking hardy in a truly difficult situation, before he took over at the head of the company, there wasn’t much of a narrative about how Fairfax planned to make it over the chasm between the old “rivers of gold” classified advertising-based business model, and the much more difficult future.

But rhetoric is rhetoric, and it can lead to some historical inaccuracy as present-day captains of industry try to portray their own agendas in a positive light. In several forums, Hywood has claimed that in the old days of rivers of gold, journalism did not lie at the heart of the business. Advertising did.

That, as former senior Age journalist Sybil Nolan shows, is simply wrong.

Nolan, whose Phd thesis is on The Age and its relationship to Victorian liberalism, gave a paper at the Australian Media Traditions conference  two weeks ago, now reprinted in expanded form at Inside Story. (Declaration: I spoke from the same platform as Nolan at the conference).

She puts Fairfax’s current plans, specifically concerning The Age, into historical context, and makes clear that in fact the journalism was at the heart of the paper from David Syme onwards. To say otherwise is to rubbish the memory of many fine journalists and editors.

Regarding Hywood’s claim in the AN Smith Lecture that journalism was until recently “an added extra”, she says:

“That statement is wrong, at least in respect of the Age. Even the recent history of the paper shows us that. Anyone who has an acquaintance with Ranald Macdonald’s era as managing director of David Syme & Co Ltd knows it.”

But it is not only a matter of recent history.

Nolan also re-examines some of the mythology of the Macdonald-Perkin era, which is usually presented as a reinvigoration of a newspaper that had become boring and irrelevant. In fact, Nolan shows, the paper had a strong journalism-led philosophy long before that. She writes of the interwar period:

“As a Deakinite newspaper, The Age stood for a form of what we now call ‘social justice’: equality of opportunity and the improvement of people’s lives. The paper stood for fair wages and work conditions, responsible trade unionism, industrial arbitration, public accountability, the introduction of a system of unemployment and sickness insurance and, somewhat intermittently, the advancement of women’s rights. Being a liberal institution it also believed in profit-making and individualism, and perhaps that duality explains why in later accounts it was accused of indecisiveness.”

There is much more here, including some acid observations on the contracting out of subediting to Pagemasters, and the Hywood vision of a digital, multiplatform future. Says Nolan:

“I do not want to offer a neo-Luddite critique of the company’s view that its future is digital. Hywood argues compellingly that Fairfax’s future growth, both in readership and ad revenues, lies in the digital realm … What’s at issue is not the continued survival of the newsprint edition so much as the survival of the identity that has emerged from having a properly staffed paper that is ‘home grown’ and as much a product of its past identity as of the present.”

It is a historical perspective often lacking in the current crisis embracing the print media. And perhaps we should be reassured that in the audience listening to Nolan two weeks ago was Professor Matthew Ricketson, who is assisting Ray Finkelstein in the current federal government media inquiry.

Nolan’s paper is worth reading in full, but perhaps I should finish with another quote:

“As historians of memory will tell you, we imperfect humans often forget people, events or institutions that are inconvenient to us, or puzzling or painful. Wittingly or unwittingly, we extinguish history that challenges us. The media, with its avidity for the new, has perfected the art of forgetting what it once knew.”

Plenty there to think about.