Spare us the crocodile tears about Fairfax

The news that the Nine television network is set to swallow the historic Fairfax Media saddened many Australians who see media diversity and good journalism as essential in a vibrant democracy.

Having worked for the Fin Review and the SMH for many years – plus being a dedicated reader of The Age – I share this sadness.

Some of the responses to the takeover have been predictable and self-serving, like the headline of Friday’s Australian newspaper: THE DAY FAIRFAX DIED

As it happens, I know many journalists at News Corp and they are mostly not dancing on Fairfax’s supposed grave. They know the deal is a bad thing for Australian journalism (and one that does not help their own job prospects and the outlook for pay rises).

No, it’s a view trumpeted by News Corp’s editors and management who do what they think the Murdochs want, especially when it comes to the commercial and political interests of the company.

News Corp might find that schadenfreude can be cyclical, though, once Rupert Murdoch dies and takes his love of newspapers with him. But News Corp employs many fine journalists and you won’t see me celebrating that, either.

What I find particularly disappointing is that many journalists of my age or older reacted to the Nine-Fairfax deal by again lamenting the supposed end of a Golden Era in which they, strangely enough, were involved.

In the Guardian, David Marr wrote that Fairfax journalists had not given up hope:

“That’s admirable. But this time it’s over for Fairfax. No politicians are poised to save it. Readers who rallied to the cause in the past, are powerless this time. After surviving so much, the name now disappears. What happens now, none of us can tell. It’s the end of a long, decent presence in our lives. Those papers shaped this place – and that’s over.”

Some old Fairfax hands (although not David Marr) even had a cynical response a few weeks ago when the company announced it was hiring about 20 trainees. It was along the lines that these eager young people would be stuck with re-writing press released and “churnalism”.

Ease up, former members (ret) of HMAS Fairfax – nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Moreover, if you feel a warm drizzle it’s possibly because you’re pissing in your own pocket.

The same goes for old-time journalists who bemoan the 1987 takeover of Fairfax by young Warwick Fairfax. Or the supposed management guru Fred Hilmer who managed to miss the boat as Fairfax CEO on numerous ground-floor opportunities to invest in internet advertising (real estate, jobs and cars).

The best jockeys are always in the grandstand, chaps.

Maybe you could give more support to young people who – in the here and now – are trying to break into a job market which is far tighter than it was in your day? How many crap stories did you do while starting out?

It’s true that, if approved by Fairfax shareholders and the ACCC, the Nine takeover will almost certainly see job cuts and greater emphasis on earnings over quality journalism.

It’s also true that the many redundancy rounds at Fairfax over the past decade have already shrunk newsrooms at the SMH, Age and Fin Review.

As one of these who took redundancy, I’ve closely followed the subsequent performance of these newsrooms and am a strong defender of their output. Yes, there is some clickbait and fluff on the Fairfax websites, gaps in the news coverage and glitches from having less editing and discussion in news conference.

However, in the modern era, newsrooms have to marshal their forces and try to make an impact as best they can.

I believe that Fairfax journalists have done this, even in the straightened circumstances of recent years.

Adele Ferguson (often working in partnership with the ABC) has had the biggest political and social impact of any journalist in Australia, triggering the banking royal commission and exposing the exploitation of overseas visa workers.

Then there are other investigative guns at Fairfax such as Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker and Kate McClymont.

But journalism is not just about the stars: it’s more of an ecosystem. It’s about having capable professionals who can cover public and private life in ways big and small. It’s about getting information, presenting it and having two-way interaction with their audience about it.

Having a reporter at local council meetings is important because it helps with transparency and the flow of information needs to keep coming or the pipe rust.

I’m also concerned that some prominent people – women and men – have clutched at their pearls and said they would stop buying Fairfax publications if they fell into the clutches of Nine, switching to (smaller) sympatico publications like the Guardian Australia and the Saturday Paper.

Now, it is likely that Fairfax’s key publications – the SMH, Age and Fin Review – face a straightened existence in future years. And they face greater likelihood of future editorial interference from management, advertisers, politicians and lobbyists.

Of course, readers and viewers can do what they like.

But they but should think about it first. (At the outset, I make clear that I strongly support the defence of another Australian media institution, the ABC.)

Much of the Fairfax takeover coverage has dwelt on the expected disappearance of the Fairfax name. But it mostly overlooked that the real strength of the company lies in the titles – the SMH, the Age and the Fin Review – which still employ significant numbers of journalists.

While the Guardian Aus and the Saturday Paper are welcome additions to the Australian journalistic landscape, they lack critical newsroom mass of reporters who can regularly cover city hall, the courts, state rounds, the cops and general local interest matters.

Likewise, I value Crikey, the New Daily, the Conversation, New Matilda, the Monthly, Inside Story and many other publications … it has to be remembered that the digital era has brought innovation and lowered the barriers to new entrants, as well as eroding the business model of MSM.

I stop short of welcoming the Daily Mail Aus because – as a reader – I dislike their style and content. As a journalist, I note the regular complaints about the Mail lifting the work of others, largely uncredited.

I will also exclude the “downunder” offshoot of the New York Times . Their Australian operation has run some worthwhile stories but, for me, relies too much on quirkiness of the Crocodile Dundee/They’re a Weird Mob type with Huffington Post-style lifestyle and chat.

But the impact of the Nine-Fairfax deal is far broader than the Sydney-Melbourne-Canberra triangle.

Commentator and journalism academic Margaret Simons rightly expressed concern in Inside Story about the impact of the Nine takeover on rural, suburban and regional journalism at the 160 non-metro newspapers owned by Fairfax.Inside Story.

Let’s not forget that Joanne McCarthy won a Gold Walkley for exposing clerical child abuse – and helped trigger a royal commission – through her reporting for Fairfax’s Newcastle Herald.

A lot of other fine work is being done out the capital cities, which matters greatly in their own communities.

In a teleconference last week, Nine CEO Hugh Marks told investors and analysts that the focus of the merged entity will be on high-growth digital assets, and the regional Fairfax newspapers would do better “in some other environment.”

As the ABC reported, this has raised concerns on numerous fronts. What happens has 160 regional publications and community-based websites, including the Newcastle Herald, Canberra Times, the Border Mail in Albury-Wodonga, The Courier in Ballarat and the Illawarra Mercury in Wollongong and the Launceston Examiner.
reported

What happens in Newcastle, where the Herald comes under the same ownership as the television’s NBN News?

Fairfax also owns a lot of regional radio stations. And many younger journalists often get their start in regional and community newspapers and websites.

Proof, if needed, that local news is important to democracy can be found in the US, where at least 900 communities have faced “profound erosion” in their access to local news and information since 2004 local news.

So what is to be done?

Great media outlets have great readers and I would love to see a response from Fairfax readers that doesn’t involve an exodus of paying customers.

What I would like to see is Fairfax readers demanding that Nine management – chairman Peter Costello and CEO Hugh Marks – sign a charter of editorial independence for those titles.

Never mind the side-stepping wordplay used by Hugh Marks last week, sign on the dotted line of the charter, Nine.

The commercial truth is that Nine is mostly drawn to buying the Domain real estate operation and the other half of the Stan streaming service.

But the Nine management will find that owning the Fairfax titles will bring greater public and political scrutiny, which they will dislike.

And I say … GREAT ! From his time as Federal Treasurer, we know that Peter Costello dislikes being called to account. We also know that he lacked the gumption to challenge John Howard for the Prime Ministership and that Big Pete has something of a glass jaw.

So this Fairfax reader plans to follow the takeover closely, to be a critical consumer of their publications, but to stay involved rather than aloof.

Journalism is under threat around the world, in ways big and small. This is not the time to pull up the drawbridge and to remain, unruffled, by the winds of change. Or to wallow in nostalgia.

The strength of Fairfax has been driven by line employees – journalists, photographers, artists, librarians and others – rather than by management up and including current CEO Greg Hywood.

So how about we give the new generation a chance? Many of them will do great things and readers can play a part.