Alan Kohler is a greedy bastard. In an era where journalist jobs are vanishing at an unprecedented rate, the prolific pundit has four demanding gigs — editor, economic commentator, finance presenter, TV host — giving him an audience reach rivalled only by News Limited conservative crusader Andrew Bolt.
Unlike other business commentators, the former Age and Australian Financial Review editor speaks to everyone from the great unwashed to boardroom tsars. He’s not just a journalist: he’s a brand.
The average punter knows him from the ABC News, where he drops in like a trusted old friend each weeknight to inform 1.5 million odd viewers what’s happened on the markets that day. His economic trend charts — which he puts to air on ABC and posts on Twitter — have a cult following among the wonkerati.
Then there’s his online investment newsletter Eureka Report, an indispensable source of advice to 15,000 share market investors. His Sunday ABC Inside Business program is a favourite among corporate high-fliers. So is Business Spectator, the free website he founded in 2007 with former Fairfax columnist Stephen Bartholomeusz and BRW founder Robert Gottliebsen.
Kohler & co realised long before the big media players did that online readers don’t just want to know what happened — they want to know why it happened and they want to know right now. In an age where news is a commodity, speedy, high-quality analysis is the name of the game.
“Alan Kohler did a great job with Business Spectator,” admits Michael Stutchbury, editor-in-chief of The AFR, during an interview with The Power Index. “He was a pioneer and showed up places the Fin Review could have done better.”
In June, News Limited forked out $20 million to buy Kohler’s Australian Independent Business Media group, which publishes Eureka and Business Spectator. Kohler pocketed $8 million from the deal which will see his columns — which have, until now, been republished on Crikey and the ABC’s Drum website – appear in The Australian.
In an interview with The Power Index in his Melbourne office, Kohler acknowledges there was a backlash among some readers about his decision to sell out to Murdoch. But the angst quickly faded, he says, when it became clear the sites’ content hadn’t been affected by the sale.
Indeed, with former Gillard government adviser Stephen Koukoulas and ex-Sydney Morning Herald editor Ian Verrender recently joining the Spectator stable, you could hardly accuse it of being a hotbed of reactionary right-wingers.
“We don’t generally have a single house view on things,” Kohler says of his Spectator empire. “We publish lots of different views. You’re more likely to have influence if you bang away on a particular line which we don’t do. We’re looking to inform people not influence them.”
That’s why the power of Kohler is profoundly different to Andrew Bolt’s: it’s pervasive but subtle. He’s a moderate — both in views and in temperament. He’s a populariser, an explainer — not a crusader.
The exception to this rule was his long-running campaign against conflicts of interest in the financial planning industry. It bore fruit last year when the Gillard government banned commissions for financial planners.
To his avid followers, he’s a lonely voice of objectivity and reason in an increasingly shrill, overblown media landscape. His analysis, never pompous or predictable, comes leavened with a quality all too rare in financial reporting: a sense of humour.
Sydney Morning Herald economics editor Ross Gittins last year described Kohler as the “doyen of business commentators”. But, he’s “over-committed and a sad demonstration that when you switch from writing a few considered and well researched columns a week to pumping out several comments a day on breaking news for a website, quality must suffer”.
The Power Index suspects Kohler’s greatest legacy won’t be what he’s said. It’s what he’s done. By re-imagining and redefining the journalist as an entrepreneur — not as an employee — he blazed a trail that others will continue to follow.