J’Accuse Fairfax management Part III (with a breakfast tip from Fred Hilmer)

A fair while ago, I was Melbourne bureau chief of the Fin Review. It was a pretty good gig, but one downside was that it involved occasional exposure to the then Fairfax CEO, Fred Hilmer.

Hilmer was an academic and management consultant with McKinsey and Co before joining Fairfax. One time, junior managers like me were required to read a motivational bestseller called ‘Who Moved My Cheese?” before attending an internal workshop in Melbourne.

I read the book, which is a parable or business fable about how some people adapt to change, while others cannot. It describes four typical reactions by two mice and two “little people” during their daily hunt for cheese in a kind of maze. It is a very annoying book and I ended up throwing it against the wall. There is also a booklet in reply called “I Moved Your Cheese” but I don’t recommend either of them.

The moral of the Cheese story goes — change is inevitable and beyond your control, don’t waste your time wondering why things are the way they are, keep your head down and start looking for the cheese.

Come the day of the management workshop and Hilmer gives his opening address. Senior Fairfax people flew in from Sydney and Canberra. The Fredster says we have to examine our daily routines. In his case, he has stopped mixing fresh muesli every morning – instead buying pre-mixed muesli to save precious minutes every day

I recall glancing over at Michelle Grattan as Hilmer offered this time-saving breakfast tip. Gratts was notorious for becoming testy when dragged away from writing stories and questioning pollies. My memory is that Michelle glared at Hilmer through her glasses, apparently appalled at this waste of HER time.

Hilmer left Fairfax in 2005 and the company continues to get lectures from management consultants and its own executives. As I have written previously, I understand the arguments pushed by the current Fairfax chief, Greg Hywood, about the need for further change.

But I reject the idea that the Fairfax village has to be destroyed for it to be saved. One constant at Fairfax have been expensive visitations by management consultants. Firstly from McKinsey — Hilmer’s old employer — and now Bain & Co.

These consultants know the cost of things, but not their value. They’ve always objected to sub-editors, arguing that such “double handling” of copy was simply a waste. But anyone who has done a high school essay knows how easy it is to miss a literal or mistake in their own writing – partly because YOU know what you meant. If you miss it once, you can miss it twice.

To put it simply, sub-editing is vital to quality journalism. Yes, costs had to be cut and they were cut. The SMH and Age outsourced most of their subbing to Pagemasters but are now said to be bring it back in house. The Fin and some Fairfax regional papers are mostly subbed out of Auckland. (Note: I found the Kiwi subs to be very professional in my time at the Fin, although Aussie business and politics is somewhat specialised and I missed painstaking legends like Janet O’Connor, the Fin’s former check sub).

The Fairfax publications are now lean as greyhounds – you can see their ribs sticking out. Although I’ve left, I want them to success and I often marvel at how much my former colleagues produce – in both digital and print. The quality is still mostly high but it is a treadmill.

Hence, my puzzlement at the plan to axe most of Fairfax’s esteemed photographers, along with more subs. Are high quality images not part of the digital future?

The reason that HMAS Fairfax is still afloat is because of the staff, not the management (taking a long view over the last few decades). The staff have adapted to change and tried to make the best of it … they don’t need to read cheesy management books.

There has been considerable public support for the photogs, and rightly so. I’ve heard talk that the cost of axing them will save around $8 million a year – which again bamboozles me because it is trifling for a media company that is still earning around $2 billion in annual revenue.

Indeed, Hywood told a Macquarie presentation on May 9 was “significantly exceeding “ its cost cutting targets.

“Through this extraordinary transformation our people have maintained their professionalism and commitment,” Hywood said. “We have not compromised the core of what we do. Our high-quality journalism and content is stronger than ever. We run our news business on a 24/7 digital-first basis, where the production of a physical newspaper is just part of the process, not the entire process.”

Hywood is right about the commitment of Fairfax staff. But what he didn’t say that is that cost cutting does lead to compromise. Fairfax is still doing good work but it is sometimes touch and go – juggling breaking news while still finding time and effort for deeper, questioning investigative work.

 As CEO, Hywood will be reluctant to revisit the plans to cull the snappers because it was would be seen by some a “back down”. News Corp would rub in some salt, but they do that anyway.

 The future of Fairfax relies on cooperation, not top-down managerialism.The readers don’t want a bunch of yes-men and women. The recent strike in support of the photogs showed they still have guts, independence and pride in their work.What management and the board don’t seem to realise is that they need to take the remaining staff with them. If they don’t, the readers won’t hang around, either.


FOOTNOTE: An online petition in support of the Fairfax photographers can be found here :