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Battered and beaten down

26 July 2014

9:00 AM

26 July 2014

9:00 AM

Stop the Presses: How Greed, Incompetence (and the Internet) Wrecked Fairfax Ben Hills

ABC Books, pp.400, $39.99

It’s surely a fancy, the conviction that my first memory of newspapering came as a three-year-old, but I swear the smell of the business has been in my nostrils ever since. It is the tang of fresh ink and crisp paper that I recall, or so memory insists, dropped nightly on the pillow I shared with Mum until my father, a pressman, came home from his overnight shift at the long-gone Melbourne Argus. Years later as a copy boy on the Sun News-Pictorial, those first editions I delivered nightly to the subs’ table were familiar as warm sheets and, to a youngster confident he had joined a craft that would be with us for centuries to come, nourishing as mother’s milk. Today the smell is of death by rot and malnutrition, and if incompetence and idiocy can be assigned their own aromas, well they, too, are reeking ingredients in the print media’s olfactory assault.

That stink rises rich and sad from Ben Hills’ Stop the Presses, his new and, one guesses, only slightly premature epitaph for Fairfax Media. In Melbourne, where the Age once sold 250,000 weekday copies, circulation has shrunk to levels last seen in 1961, when the population was less than half the four million it is today. In Sydney the SMH has followed the same Himalayan down-slope as its sad southern stablemate. Sooner or later, both will be gone forever. The sad thing is that neither need have ended quite so badly.

Hills does the thorough job of a seasoned investigative reporter in covering all the false starts, managerial miscues and squandered opportunities on Fairfax’s road to ruin. Not that there is anything terribly new in his catalogue of catastrophes, mind you. Those who have taken up Pamela Williams’ Killing Fairfax and/or Colleen Ryan’s Fairfax: The Rise and Fall will be familiar with the money-burning debacle of the F2 misadventure, the publisher’s addled attempt to jump on the boom, as well as then-CEO Fred Hilmer’s lack of nous in declining to invest in Seek and other online predators that would very soon gobble his company’s lunch. As Hills notes, Seek’s market capitalisation, the value of all shares on issue, stood at $3.9 billion as of late last year, three times that of the company which declined to back it as a start-up. By last week Seek had put another billion or so dollars between itself and Fairfax, its worth having risen to $5.65 billion.

Those who have returned from near-death experiences often report a deep and untroubled peace as they slipped into oblivion — nature’s kindly way, perhaps, of easing the transition from the temporal. At Fairfax, as Hills explains it, mortality’s consolation has been the comfort of an incoherent arrogance. Technology’s tumultuous upheavals were re-making publishing, but in the Fairfax boardroom a point-blank refusal to notice the obvious prevailed, even as ads vanished and those fabled rivers of gold ran dry.

Eric Beecher, the Crikey! publisher, encountered the myopic enmity of its uncomprehending gaze in 2004, when invited to address the board about threats and opportunities in an increasingly online world. No sooner had he delivered diagnosis and prescription than then-director Roger Corbett flung down a Saturday edition, still thick in those days with classifieds. Never again would he tolerate talk of his newspapers going unread, he snarled, of Fairfax drowning in red ink. Beecher has been proven correct. Yet, to the amazement of stock-watchers, Corbett now presides as chairman over a board remarkable for not boasting a single director with even a cursory knowledge of the news business.

Not that it would matter if any did, as Fairfax’s other prime and defining oddity has been its board’s pledge not to interfere in editorial matters. Now think about that in the light of Corbett’s past as Woolworths’ chief shelf-stacker. If his supermarket managers had taken to displaying maggoty chops in their freezer cabinets, one guesses they would not have remained managers for long. At the Age and SMH, however, editors’ ongoing right to fill their pages and websites with content that actively alienates the traditional, better-heeled readership is a matter of no small pride.

Let one example suffice, though many might be cited: at about the same time Fairfax was turning its back on Seek, the SMH gave an online pulpit to the ratbaggery of Margo Kingston, who was redeemed as a journalist only in that she actually believed the tosh shared with her Web Diary readers. Jews control the media, she revealed. John Howard signed up for the second Iraq war because the US would not share the technology of a super-secret anti-gravity machine unless Australian blood was laid on the altar of Western imperialism. It was heady, wacky stuff and yet it seems not to have occurred to her editors that they might move Kingston to a less public spot, some obscure corner of the newsroom where she would do less damage to Fairfax’s credibility and reputation. James Packer, Lachlan Murdoch, the Seek crew and fellow internet entrepreneurs were making out like bandits on the web. At Fairfax the new medium was a conduit for Kingston’s advice to flush toilets less frequently, lest the planet run short of water.

That desire to spit in the eye of readers remains. Within days of last year’s federal election columnist Clementine Ford was flogging a range of ‘F—k Tony Abbott’ T-shirts, which her employer helpfully promoted on its websites. Think about that, too. Roughly 53 per cent of the electorate had just sided with the Coalition and yet there was Fairfax saying, in effect, that the appropriate response was not reasoned argument or civil disagreement but the single-digit salute of a contemptuous, block-lettered obscenity. What could the board be thinking to place its pages at the disposal of such adolescent pique?

All those years ago, not long after rising from copy boy to cadet, a livid Chief of Staff took me to task for having spelt someone’s name three different ways in a few short paragraphs. ‘Son,’ he began as if addressing a simpleton, ‘if we can’t get it right, the readers won’t trust us. You understand that, don’t you?’ He was so angry the rolled-up copy of that aromatic first edition he was brandishing seemed the likely instrument of imminent physical assault.

The blow never landed, but the lesson was learnt, which cannot be said of Fairfax. Battered and beaten down by a market it no longer understands, hollowed by layoffs and lobotomised by the exodus of senior editorial staffers (like Ben Hills), its decline has gone well beyond the sharp remedy of a wake-up clip around the ear. Still, it would be satisfying to administer a few blows to those responsible. Wouldn’t do any good, not at this late stage. But satisfying? Absolutely!

Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online.

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