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Apr 8, 2013

Fairfax journo hits out: fear and favour in AFR takeover

Fairfax journalist Paddy Manning fears the incursion of The Australian Financial Review in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. He writes scathingly of his employer for Crikey.


Today’s rubbishy “First Person” sponsored editorial in The Australian Financial Review is a perfect example of why the business sections of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age should not be merged with the Financial Review Group — a decision announced by Fairfax last week.

Brought to you by the Commonwealth Bank, it features a rambling interview (plus vision!) with former Business Council president Graham Bradley, who calls for a wave of deregulation by the incoming Abbott government. Bradley declares over the past five years “we’ve not had a government in Canberra that’s been truly respectful of business, interested in business and supportive of business generally”.

Such creeping advertorial — touted as commercially necessary but also fundamentally ideological in its inevitable pro-business slant — has been noticeable in BusinessDay for at least a year: witness the introduction of saleable sections like Executive Style, My Small Business and IT Pro, as well as the use of outside columnists like mortgage broker Mark Bouris, former fund manager Matthew Kidman and even the return of media buyer Harold Mitchell.

The result has been to cramp space for news, features and the opinions and analysis of BusinessDay‘s own reporters and columnists, who are guided by a code of ethics and have no vested interests to push.

The BusinessDay masthead was pinched from The New York Times but has gradually united the business teams of the Herald and Age, has gelled online and is now head and shoulders above any Australian rival in terms of readership, attracting more than two million unique readers a month.

“Too often — even for many of its own hard-pressed reporters’ liking — the result is PR-driven ‘churnalism’ …”

BusinessDay is built on the legacy of reporters and editors like Ian Verrender, Michael West, Adele Ferguson, Ian McIlwraith, Elisabeth Sexton, Stuart Washington and countless lesser-known names who have built up a culture of investigative reporting — holding business accountable — and broken stories that matter not just for business but for the public at large.

BusinessDay writes for the consumer, not for industry. We are not the trade press. With exceptions like Neil Chenoweth that nevertheless prove the rule, The AFR‘s business journalism is built on a fundamental contract between company and reporter: high-level access in exchange for soft coverage.

Too often — even for many of its own hard-pressed reporters’ liking — the result is PR-driven “churnalism” which shows up as “drops” (the poor man’s exclusive, or as Verrender once wrote, the press release a day early), “herograms” for business leaders, unreadable roundtables and conference-linked spreads featuring plenty of happy snaps of business leaders with a glass of champagne or mineral water in hand.

The result also has been a predictable skew on vital topics like climate change and industrial relations.

It is reporting with fear and favour. And you know what? Nobody reads it. Educated readers — The AFR‘s demographic — hate it. Ultimately, even advertisers shun it. It’s a business model for business journalism that had been tried at both The AFR and The Australian. It doesn’t work.

Business readers are not fools. Very often they know more about a given story than the journalist. They want the facts, balance and genuinely independent analysis and commentary. Tell it like it is.

Management of Fairfax Media including Greg Hywood have assured us that politics, business and sport are the heart of its newsroom. The transfer of BusinessDay into The AFR tramples on the legacy of quality, independent, consumer- and reader-driven business journalism established at The SMH and The Age. Both papers will be much poorer for it.

*Paddy Manning is a BusinessDay reporter and former national chief of staff for the section. He has worked at The Australian Financial Review and The Australian.



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21 thoughts on “Fairfax journo hits out: fear and favour in AFR takeover

  1. Michael

    And that Paddy me boy, is precisely why you are no longer with AFR or Fairfax and one of the main reasons why life is starting to breath thru all the Fairfax mastheads. It has taken a near death experience at the hands of incompetent zealot ex-journalists like you for Fairfax to finally purge itself of it’s poison pills. I have actually subscribed to AFR, as have many others recently, it is “heaven forbid” an interesting, informative & balanced newspaper … again!

  2. Ellen Park

    Clegg and Stutch have done wonders with their innovations. Paddy should get with the program.

  3. Andrew Crook

    @Michael the author is a Fairfax journalist.

  4. shepherdmarilyn

    Ellen, Stutch is the Australian journo who claimed way back in the beginning that the BER was $7 billion over budget before one building was allocated.

    It came in $1.5 billion under budget over all.

  5. Mark from Melbourne

    I’ve stopped reading AFR (and I get it for free!) because of the very thing that is described in this article. “Press Release a day early” sums it up pretty well. Now this isn’t the fault of the current management team as it’s been happening for several years but if they actually want to reverse the downward trend in circulation they should take note as just cutting costs isn’t going to fix Fairfax.

    Michael sounds like one of FFX’s PR team!

  6. Will

    @ Michael

    Lol Michael decides to subscribe to a sinking ship of business boosterism at the absolute nadir of its credibility under Stutchbury, and he tells us everything is rosy and great. Just ignore the total decline in standards, the trashing of the masthead and its irrelevance – lots of my mates are subscribing I promise! We’re the right kind of people to save it! We’ve always been at war with eastasia. Good luck with that one!

  7. Ellen Park

    @shepherdmarilyn: just kidding. The AFR has become an hilarious facsimile of the Oz, but with lots more cheesy pictures of James Packer. But I do think Paddy needs to get out more and maybe talk to a few business people.

  8. Lord Barry Bonkton

    Do the companies write the rubbish and the Aged Herald prints it?

  9. Hermo

    Fairfax just can’t help stepping on their proverbial, and this is just another example of the ongoing war they seem to have had with their readership.

    Just to keep the ineptitude rolling I’m sure that within a week of Guardian AU launching, Fairfax will put up its paywall. Genius.

  10. Coaltopia

    Well done Paddy – journalists with balls.

  11. Timmy O'Toole

    You didn’t deserve to get the sack, Mr Manning, for expressing your views (if that is what happened). And much of what you say about the increased opinion/editorial content to the detriment of investigative journalism is reasonable.

    But your argument critiquing the ideological nature of the reporting in the AFR (and Oz) strikes me as hypocritical.

    Like your fellow Fairfax traveller Ben Cubby you are an advocate first and a journalist second. The only differece with AFR and Oz writers are your political views rather than your method i.e. you lean towards environmental activism left rather than the pro-business/economic rationalist right. Politics really is in the eye of the beholder. I may not like the conservatism of the Oz or AFR, and their petty reactionary bent, but they are still overwhelmingly papers that take journalism and the national debate seriously. You bloody well can’t say that about most of the Age or SMH.

    Best of luck with your next endeavour.

  12. Mike Flanagan

    I am with Coaltopia and wish Paddy all the best and hope to see his byline prominently in the future.
    A campaigning journo with both balls and rational convictions.

  13. Ellen Park

    @Timmy O’Toole: well said.

  14. Will

    @Timmy I see no evidence that the Oz takes debate seriously unless the debate is repackaged to conclude as a partisan attack. I mean they have to their credit channelled serious news resources into covering indigenous affairs, though it similarly tilted towards an opportunistic stance taking conservative ownership rather than disinterested inquiry. But there is nothing like a real marketplace of ideas about political economy and ideas.

  15. zut alors

    Fairfax have done Paddy Manning a favour by offloading him into a shore boat while in denial that their ship is bound to sink.

  16. Ron Chambers

    Mashable writes The Sydney Morning Herald. PR agencies write the AFR. What do they need journos for? Can I suggest outgoing journss switch to law? Same job really with more money and less ethics. What’s not to like?

  17. Mike Flanagan

    So bloody true! It could be the wash from the arrival of the Guardian that may finally swamp the old girls.
    Paddy Manning has proven his worth as a journo and will keep on keeping on, but the curren inglorious Fairfax tabloids or broadsheets, I fear are about to depart our company.
    The current board together with M. Scott and G Hywood must accept responsibility for this national tragedy. The rot set in under Mark Scott’s tenure as Fairfax CEO.

  18. Ian McIlwraith

    Sponsored content in the AFR was not really the issue that drove Paddy Manning. He would have been well aware that a Fairfax Media employee cannot write for a competing publication – and Crikey passes that test in a world where the entire internet is Fairfax’s competitor.
    Of course, that was the mechanism for dismissal, not the rationale. Manning’s airing of his frustration that the business sections of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald are again being both removed and re-moved, collided with the gyrations of increasingly mediocre managers who are trying reinvent/rescue Fairfax. Journalistic futures and worth are, almost, being measured by “clicks” – almost as shallow a metric as circulation numbers. The notion that a story which does not rate digitally might be a result of an editing failure (headline, presentation, re-writing) is much harder to reconcile, or correct, than blaming it on the author or the subject matter.
    The business sections of the capital city dailies have been test labs for the bonus-driven, non-editorial whizzes searching for almost-low-hanging fruit to be picked by eliminating so-called duplication in the relentless push to find savings. First it was copy sharing between the Sydney and Melbourne sections, then one person-one subject for rounds, followed by one masthead (BusinessDay) and one editor. What better than one more step and just insert AFR copy under Age and SMH banners? Why pay large amounts of money to run separate sections in the SMH and Age? It could be argued that the rot really set in when the then editors of the two papers allowed their business sections to be reefed out from under them into a “national” format, BusinessDay. The latest shift of control under the AFR’s shadow raises some fascinating questions. If the general/front parts of the newspapers have stories in future that require input from journalists with business expertise, where do they get it without alerting the AFR to a “scoop”. Or do Fairfax mastheads no longer compete? Will there ever again be a business story leading the generalist newspapers?
    Fairfax’s fundamental problems began more than a decade and a half ago when the Age and SMH – absolutely correctly – were “first movers” onto the WWW because their journalistic staff had the wit and skill to recognise a tectonic shift. Editorially correct, yet a commercial disaster. Suddenly all the journalism on which those mastheads had built their reputations, and calculated cost bases, was now freely available to non-buyers of the printed paper. Fairfax exacerbated that by damming its own rivers of gold, launching national advertising brands for property (Domain), motor vehicles (Drive) and employment advertising (My Career) that were free to access AND de-coupled from the underpinning papers. The path to the loss of individual identity and diversity had begun.
    Since then, it has been the death of thousands of job cuts and principles to produce a journalistic model that is now based primarily on the old wire services approach of velocity – the true measurement of success being in publishing nanoseconds before perceived rivals. Not only were publishing staff jettisoned for this strategy, but notable injuries include regard for content and context – and far less commitment to publishing the unique stories that were once those papers’ forte and drawcard. A side road has been the focus on the extraordinarily pretty iPad/tablet version of the product – but so what for those who are not using them?
    The approach to replacing lost revenue has been remarkably similar to how the “legacy” print publications tried to arrest falling sales more than three decades ago – by inserting new sections and magazines. Where once that produced Saturday newspapers that weighed more than a house brick, now it gives birth to a digital front page that takes 10 Page Down clicks to get all the way through.
    This faux journalism which is designed to support identified advertising niches (Essential Baby, Essential Kids, Daily Life, and Technology and The Vine for the hip and nerdy etc) are almost all underpinned with celebrity-based content (“Kids? Brangelina has those – Amy Winehouse was one, Russell Brand still behaves like one – get me pix!”) – so the feckless and famous, and some occasional soft porn, can be used to draw in website clicks. Intelligent consumers, particularly the more canny youthful readers, can pick the niche offerings for what they are.
    More insidious are the barely-declared sponsored additions to what were once news pages (print and digital) that spurred Manning into digital print.
    The AFR’s “First Person” series with Commonwealth Bank backing is just the latest incarnation. BusinessDay has been infected for some time. It carried a whole series of articles backed by GM-H off its front webpage, and made a habit of placing in the news section of its opening webpage pieces by contributors that were most definitely not news. They were “new”, though, justifying promotion above well-researched and written pieces by staff journalists thanks to the short attention spans attributed to web readers. It also frequently means that under-edited work is given prominence (not to mention a tacit tick of legitimacy that appearing on a Fairfax branded site offers).
    That is no criticism of the hard-working journalists putting together the print and digital products – their numbers are so few and the time cycles so tight, that critical and thorough editing is more difficult to achieve. The risk for Fairfax is that there are now so few layers of safety net between author and publication, that there is precious little time to correct grammatical and typing errors, let alone weigh the content.
    Fairfax has never lacked, and still does not, passionate and brilliant journalists – whether they be written word, illustrative image specialist or the editors that stimulate, herd the creative cats and beat content into shape. What it has not been able to foster is the same depth of inspirational management talent – often settling instead for score-settlers from rival media groups or those using the job as a stepping stone to their next corporate appointment.
    Like our mediocre politicians these days, they are relentlessly on message – “if you are not with us, you are agin us”. Mark down Manning as an offed-message.

  19. Will

    Thanks for sharing these terrific insights @Ian McIlwraith.

  20. Julia

    Paddy shouldn’t have been fired… he should have been promoted – there’s a lot that journalists can learn from him and his extensive experience in the field.

  21. Michael


    What Paddy has taught the journalist profession is when to keep their mouths shut. Have not heard a peep out of Fairfax journos since he was tossed into the street by security.


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