Crikey published the first in a two-part series on Garry Linnell, Fairfax’s director of news media. The story continues today …
Things only got worse for Garry Linnell at Channel Nine. New CEO Eddie McGuire was struggling to find his feet, and Seven was storming ahead in the ratings under Nine defectors David Leckie and Peter Meakin. Then Linnell discovered his bosses had gone behind his back to offer Sunrise wunderkind Adam Boland his job.
So he jumped. News Limited CEO John Hartigan, who had long been courting him, offered him a job as The Daily Telegraph‘s editor-at-large. Despite the grandiose title, he was just another reporter fighting for space in the paper. One of his first assignments was a “death knock” to the home of a family whose children had died in a car crash. It was his first time inside “the belly of the beast” — News Ltd — and he loved it.
“I remember telling John Hartigan, ‘I feel like I’ve arrived home’,” he said. “There’s always this overwhelming desire to be first and to smash the opposition. As a company, Fairfax had never had that sense it was in a knuckle fight with the opposition. I think Fairfax had always looked a bit aloofly at the opposition — to its detriment.”
Within two years Linnell was editor of The Tele. But not everyone was convinced he’d found his home.
“No one was sure if he was 100% for real,” said Neil Breen, then-editor of sister paper The Sunday Telegraph. “He was always seen as a bit of an outsider.”
Linnell’s colleagues gave him a new nickname: Avatar. In James Cameron’s epic film of that name, a group of scientists use genetically engineered bodies (avatars) to infiltrate a humanoid population on a distant moon. The message was clear: he’s not one of us.
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To outsiders though, Linnell was doing well: he’d hired star reporters and campaigned on populist issues. So it came as a shock when, in April 2011, Hartigan called Linnell into his office and sacked him. The full story of why has never been told.
“I think he struggled as editor of The Tele,” said Breen, noting it is the toughest editorship in News Ltd. “Harto used to get the shits that he ran too many stories about the Ibrahims [a colourful Sydney family]. I remember Harto saying, ‘The next story I want to read about the Ibrahims is the one that puts them in jail’. Harto didn’t think he did enough to define the paper.”
Another senior News Ltd figure says the poor performance of The Tele‘s website was a key factor in Hartigan’s decision. Some thought Linnell neglected online in favour of the printed paper.
“It’s good that we’re not just limping along, being kicked in the shins.”
Linnell declined to comment on the specifics of his departure, but told Crikey: “Critics would say I softened the tone … I felt The Tele could get its message out without smashing people over the head.”
He insists he isn’t bitter. “Do I mope around saying, I still shoulda been a contender? No. Hello, who cares? Move on.”
Luckily for Linnell, his phone wasn’t silent for long. The day he left News Ltd, Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood called. His pitch? Come home. Come back to Fairfax.
Linnell’s appointment as national editor was not greeted with universal enthusiasm at Fairfax. Once again, some of his troops saw him as an impostor. Bold statements from his time at The Tele — “I’ve got tabloid instincts” — hadn’t been forgotten in the citadels of broadsheet journalism.
“I’ve heard him say that at News Ltd they tried to replace his DNA with News DNA every morning but that he’s still a Fairfax man,” said a former Sydney Morning Herald reporter. “I don’t see that — I think they did a pretty good job. He’s got that real News Ltd warrior style to him.”
Another recalled: “People were a bit disgruntled when he addressed the newsroom early on saying, ‘We’re going to smash the competition; we’re going to beat News Ltd.’ It was like: ‘F-ck, we’ve been doing that for years, mate. Where have you been?'”
Linnell’s main mission as national editor was driving copy-sharing across the travel, food and wine, and cars sections. Freshening up Good Weekend was another priority; one of his biggest early moves was poaching Ben Naparstek from The Monthly to run the popular magazine.
In May 2012 he was promoted to editorial director, and tasked with overhauling newsroom operations at the metro papers. The Editorial Review Project — described by Linnell as “the most significant editorial transformation in this company’s history” — would prioritise online over print and reduce duplication. Some 150 reporters would have to go; so would existing SMH and Age editors-in-chief Peter Fray and Paul Ramadge. Linnell remained at the top of the tree as editorial director.
“He’s built an empire for himself, he’s got rid of people who are a threat” says an SMH reporter who took redundancy last year.
Linnell’s a proud man, not prone to wallowing in regret. But he admits Fairfax let too many top reporters take voluntary redundancy last year.
“We’ve lost some really good people,” he said. “Some of them irreplaceable. There are quite a few people who took redundancy who I wish were back here … In hindsight, did we let too many of the more experienced people go? Probably three or four I look back and regret.”
Ask media types about Linnell’s performance and you’ll hear a common gripe: the Canberra bureau. Press gallery stars Michelle Grattan, Lenore Taylor, Katharine Murphy, Phillip Coorey all left for rival publications in the past year. Only one reporter, Mark Kenny from the Adelaide Advertiser, has been hired externally to replace them. On this point, he won’t give ground: “What have we lost? What stories have we missed out on?” Yet Linnell reportedly sounded out Simon Benson and Gemma Jones — both political reporters on The Tele — earlier this year to switch camps. Both said no.
It’s obvious Linnell still has a lot of respect for his foes at News Ltd. So is The SMH a better paper than The Tele? “There’s not much crossover between Herald readership and Telegraph readership in this town,” he said. “Is it better? I think both papers are really good at what they do.”
Linnell’s current role — director of news media — is akin to that of a football coach. His editors are on the field calling the shots; he’s on the sidelines setting strategy and revving up the troops.
“When he talks about journalism and his passion for it, staff appreciate he’s one of the great practitioners,” Andrew Holden, editor-in-chief of The Age, said. “He loves nothing more than getting out on the newsroom floor and asking journos what stories they’re working on. He retains great ambition for what journalists can do. He never feels restricted.”
But he’s a divisive figure among his troops. Many are happy to bag him (off the record of course) for his obsession with crime stories and online traffic results. “It’s demoralising the company seems obsessed with the numbers even though it’s not the best content,” one Fairfax reporter said.
The verdict on the compact versions of The SMH and The Age, however, is that they haven’t gone down market as many feared. (If anything, the initial reaction was they were safe and staid.) His fans on the newsroom floor praise him for supporting investigative reporting and standing up against News Ltd attacks.
“It’s good that we’re not just limping along being kicked in the shins,” said one Age veteran.
There’s no doubt Linnell will one day return to writing. He’s already started penning a book — on the history of tabloid television — to sit alongside his biographies of Gary Ablett and Raelene Boyle. But for now the focus is Fairfax. And the challenges are immense. Circulation and classified advertising revenues are plummeting. It’s unclear how much money will come in from digital subscriptions. Linnell won’t rule out more editorial redundancies in the future.
“I just say ‘strap in and go for the ride’,” he said. “It’s not rocket science, and I don’t think it should be rocket science. Go get a story. Break it. Tell it in a really entertaining way. And we’ll be OK.”