The most entrenched battle in Australian newspapers, The Australian versus The Australian Financial Review, is back on in earnest this morning with the launch of its new daily business section, rebranded as the Australian Business Review.

The budget is secret, but there is no doubt the ABR marks a considerable investment for The Australian, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary but loses millions each year — though editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell has said publicly the losses halved in 2013-14.

Mitchell, himself an AFR journalist many moons ago, whose son Jake now works at Fairfax’s business paper, is on a mission to destroy the AFR, and the ABR launch is supported all the way up the News hierarchy to chairman Rupert Murdoch.

The ABR marks at least the third assault Mitchell has launched on the Fin — assaults that have usually begun with a raid on talent. First came the poaching of columnists John Durie, Jennifer Hewett, Andrew Main and Chris Merritt in 2007. Then in 2010 the Oz poached Brett Clegg, James Chessell, Annabel Hepworth and Nabila Ahmed — a move that soon backfired after Clegg, Chessell and Ahmed were reverse-poached by new AFR editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury, himself recruited from the Oz by Fairfax chief Greg Hywood.

The Oz’s latest raid lured new business editor Eric Johnston, plus senior reporters Ben Butler and Eli Greenblat, from what was left of the business sections of the SMH/Age after a fraught merger with the AFR last year (a merger I criticised here while a Fairfax journalist).

As Crikey has reported, The Australian also tried to lure star columnist and investigative reporter Adele Ferguson, but after a bidding war she opted to stay at Fairfax, continuing to write for the Smage but also taking up a new eponymous Monday column on the AFR’s prestigious back page, home of Chanticleer the rest of the week.

“The proof will be in the eating: this morning’s effort featured exclusive interviews … but was light on investigation or major revelations — as combed-over launch editions often are.”

It would be tempting to call the latest relaunch round three, but Australian editor Clive Mathieson told Crikey the war with the AFR had “never been off”. Is it a war the Oz can ever win? “Absolutely,” said Mathieson.

Mathieson said national affairs and business were the two pillars on which The Australian was built and the AFR and the Oz were the only two serious business media outlets left in the country.

“We always consider them a worthy competitor,” he said.

Both national dailies are in a downward print circulation spiral, and it would be hard to pick which title is more vulnerable. Audit Bureau of Circulations figure for the June quarter 2014 showed the AFR sales falling to 61,216 (down 7.6%) compared with the previous year, while the weekend edition fell to 62,042 (down 3.8%). Over the same time weekday sales of The Australian fell to 109,902 (down 5.8%) while the Weekend Australian circulation dropped to 232,243 copies (down 8.9%).

At first glance the new sub-masthead seems to ape the AFR, but in fact ABR is a revival of the original name of the Oz’s business section, back in the year of its launch 1964.

Well-placed sources told Crikey a separate newspaper was on the cards but Mathieson said while all manner of options were considered, including a tabloid, the ABR was always going to be part of The Australian.  The new formula is two extra broadsheet pages — taking the weekday average book size to 15 — plus a more seamless interaction online and in print with the Business Spectator stable acquired two years ago from Alan Kohler’s Australian Independent Business Media.

Apart from more pages and extra hirings, there are new columns — including a revival of Fairfax business columnist Michael West’s old “Margin Call” gossip column — and auxiliary sections like Primespace, IT, Media and Aviation are folded back into the bigger business book, with sport on the back.

The Weekend Australian carried a four-page wrap around the business section promoting the new ABR, and oddly tallied the years’ experience of its columnists writing another newspaper’s column, namely Chanticleer. For the record the score is 26 (between Durie, Kohler and Gottliebsen) versus five at Fairfax, where Tony Boyd holds the position.

In a video promo Mathieson and Johnston talk about commitment to depth in the Australian’s business coverage. The proof will be in the eating: this morning’s effort featured exclusive interviews with heavyweight chief executives Mike Smith and Frank Lowy, but was light on investigation or major revelations — as combed-over launch editions often are.

Mathieson told Crikey that investigations would be a key plank for the ABR: “The Australian runs investigations all the time. They’re part of the full suite of content for the business section, with seasoned reporters — think Damon Kitney, Richard Gluyas and Andrew White — given time to get their teeth stuck into yarns.”

Neither AFR editor-in-chief Michael Stuchbury nor editor Paul Bailey would comment on the Oz’ relaunch this morning, but Fairfax execs — having held onto Ferguson — were  said to be “underwhelmed”.

If nothing else, the new contest should be good for business journalism — as long as the journalists are allowed to compete on quality rather than access to the big end of town.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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