Flat White

RIP, Mr Fairfax

13 October 2017

10:38 AM

13 October 2017

10:38 AM

I really miss the Sydney Morning Herald. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. I miss those halcyon days where they reported the news rather than advocated a particular interpretation of it. I miss seeing the editorial professionalism that fact-checked not only the grammar but, most of all, the content of a piece. I miss being intellectually stimulated by hearing a range of political perspectives rather than just that of the ‘progressive’ Left. But most of all though, I miss the time when the SMH represented the traditional Judeo-Christian views of the majority of people living in this beautiful harbourside city rather than those of its militant minorities.

A former high-ranking insider at Fairfax recently gave me a fascinating insight into what he himself perceived as the Herald’s inevitable demise. According to him, it all started when Warwick Fairfax and his mother Lady Mary, made a bold but fateful gamble to take over the company in the 1980s. He said, “Then the eighties recession hit, the debt of the takeover crippled the company, and Fairfax went into receivership. The empire was doomed.”

He also told me that Paul Keating delivered the killer blow to the company. “In revenge against Fairfax’s support for the Libs, Keating engineered commercially-prohibitive legislation restricting media company ownership…that was the beginning of a 20-year-long death march.” Meanwhile, there was plenty of action behind the scenes:

The ‘90’s was a boom time for Fairfax classifieds… it was dominated by the newsroom… scores of intelligent, influential, domineering, opinionated journalists… and those ubiquitous classified ads… Big money made journalists even more important. Gone were the days living a bohemian / subsistence life… so the cult of personality journalism (opinion) began to emerge. Even before the internet, the commoditisation of news was starting. Readers were demanding more than reportage… So journalists turned to analysis, backgrounders, opinion, graphics.

What happened next though was what he referred to as the ‘disruptive technology’ of the internet. Just as Gutenberg upset the scribes, the internet wrought absolute chaos on radio, TV and newspaper classified advertising – Fairfax’s rivers of gold. Not only was the classified advertising syphoned off to eBay, JustListed, and Gumtree, but now every man, woman and child had become a reporter. The newspapers were not only starting to lose their income stream but journalism itself had been democratised.

All of which meant that Fairfax was not the only media outlet in crisis. In June of last year, the ABC’s Media Watch presented a special edition titled, “Perfect storm facing digital news.” They quoted Eric Beecher, chairman of Private Media, as saying, “They [the media] are heading towards the cliff and it’s not their fault, but they are heading towards the cliff really fast… I think that cliff is, for everybody, within a year or two or less.”


That said, not all media outlets are suffering at the same rate. For instance, The Australian’s publisher, Nicholas Gray, says: “I reckon 27 per cent of people over 18 are saying they might pay for digital news (provided there is something unique about it), which by my maths is 4.4 million people, which is pretty good. And that number will grow.”

In response, Paul Barry thought the folk over at The Oz were being way too optimistic. He quoted Nic Newman as saying: “I think for general news providers who don’t have anything truly distinctive, it’s going to be really hard to get people to pay for news when there is so much free news available from the BBC, from The Huffington Post, from a range of other providers. So, it’s really important to have something that’s different and distinctive if you’re going to try and charge for news.”

Although Barry is usually up on this sort of thing, I think he has missed something quite crucial. Could it be that digital subscription rates to conservative outlets like The Australian and The Daily Telegraph are growing precisely because they are offering ‘something that’s different and distinctive.’ i.e. a conservative take on life and politics? It seems to me that they are picking up precisely those whom the SMH was willing to leave behind.

Could it be that abandoning its centrist position and championing the cause of the Left has been one of the reasons for its demise? For instance, I recently came across a fascinating article exploring the evangelical Christian convictions of its founder, John Fairfax. The author catalogues how the Herald, in its early days, was so conservative that it was actually labelled as being “Tory.” Traditionally, the newspaper stood for what it is now ideologically opposed to today. If Mr Fairfax knew what had occurred over the last few decades he’d probably be rolling over in his grave.

Not far from where I live are the remains of the Fairfax printing press in Chullora. Twenty-five years ago, I am told that it was built at a cost of something like half a billion dollars. Today, most of what remains is being sold for scrap. Tragically, a similar thing has taken place with The Age printing press in Melbourne near Tullamarine airport. Once a sign of media power and prestige, it has become a lonely new car salesroom. What happened? Along with the fallout from the various internal power struggles, collapsing advertising revenues, and the rise of social media, could it be that abandoning its centrist–even conservative–position and championing Leftist causes has been a prominent reason for its demise?

I don’t have all the answers, but I know I won’t ever be going back to the SMH as a subscriber. It’s also the reason why I took up a subscription to The Spectator. I don’t agree with everything that’s written here but you know, that’s fine. It’s good to be exposed to a balanced range of ideas, and it’s great to get out of one’s own echo chamber and be pushed to think critically. The problem is that Fairfax have positioned themselves as exclusively Leftist, and I have neither the time nor the inclination to read biased and unbalanced stories. And what’s more, I know that I’m not alone.

Mark Powell is the Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield. 

Cartoon: Ben R Davis.

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