Melbourne publisher Morry Schwartz is the power behind two big media hits of the last couple of years: David Marr’s devastating Quarterly Essay on Kevin Rudd in 2008, which helped put the skids under the prime minister, and Robert Manne’s scorching attack on bias at Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian.
The tough but charming Schwartz, who has made millions of dollars in property development, has been in publishing for 37 years, and has had a rollercoaster ride during his colourful career. But he’s always bounced back, and nowadays bankrolls book publisher Black Inc as well as Quarterly Essay and The Monthly, which turns out some of the best writing in Australia.
So does he have power? “Yes, I think we do make a contribution,” he tells The Power Index.
And we agree, because his small publishing company, with its 25 employees, is the most significant left-wing voice in Australia.
Schwartz’s audience is not that big — Quarterly Essay sells 15-20,000 copies and The Monthly 30,000 (with 120,000 readers) — but it has plenty of powerful people in its ranks. “With numbers like that, there’s no way we can influence society at large,” says Schwartz, “but we do influence the influencers.”
No doubt that’s why Rudd chose The Monthly to set out his vision for an Australian version of social democracy in two major essays before the 2007 election. And why he also used its columns two years later to defend the government’s response to the GFC.
So, is Morry an interventionist proprietor? Well, yes, in that he has a strong view of what he wants from his magazines, and has fallen out with at least four editors or business partners over the years. Sometimes over business, other times over ideology.
“His politics are circumstantial,” says one of them, Peter Craven. “He wants to be loved by the liberal establishment. He’s not left wing in the way Rupert Murdoch is right wing.”
Schwartz’s Quarterly Essay, which was launched in 2001 with a piece by Robert Manne on the Stolen Generation, pays some of Australia’s leading thinkers to write 20,000 words on just about anything that’s important to our political debate. But there’s no doubt Morry has a big say in who gets invited.
The Monthly, which began life three years later, is a more traditional news and views magazine. But Morry chooses its editor and dominated the four-person editorial board, with Robert Manne, until it was disbanded this year. Indeed, when the magazine started life he styled himself editor-in-chief.
An amalgam of The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair and New York Review of Books, The Monthly is less polemic than the Quarterly Essay, but still sits to the left of centre. “It was a lifelong ambition to start a political/literary monthly magazine,” says Schwartz. So it’s hardly surprising that he sets the broad political tone and takes a close interest in what it’s doing.
When Schwartz launched the magazine in 2005 with a 30,000 sales target, people told him he was dreaming. The Eye, Matilda and online Zeitgeist Gazette had already failed, and the now-dead Bulletin had been bleeding money for years. But with Morry happy to mop up losses, it has thrived. It carries few advertisements and has recently pared its budgets, but subscriptions are strong, online ad revenue is growing, and Schwartz says it breaks even. He is “confident it will soon make a profit”.
Nevertheless, times are tough in property, and Schwartz has been doing it hard. He just auctioned 73 apartments and four retail outlets in the Victorian snowfields for a total of $12.5 million, against a reported construction cost of $40 million. But Morry denies any fire sale. “The group is healthy,” he tells The Power Index. “The property market is struggling … However, we are making sufficient sales, and credit is available to us.”
Publishing takes one-third of Schwartz’s time for only 1% of turnover. So why does he devote so much energy to it? “It’s like breathing,” he replies, “I’ve always done it.” Or, as he confessed to The Age a few years ago, it’s “an obsession, an addiction. I can’t help it.”