Apparently, the sale of Fairfax to Nine is the end of journalism in Australia, the triumph of the cheque book as the only arbiter of a good story and the death knell of democracy. Paul Keating – that most eloquent and cerebral of political alley cats – was particularly scathing in his assessment, but he isn’t alone in decrying that Fairfax is dead.
The story of Fairfax is well known. Its demise started with young heir Warrick borrowing too much money to buy out the rest of his family in 1987. Leading to receivership, resurrection as a public company and the subsequent roller coaster of ownership battles. Culminating in the proposed takeover by Nine – the target of Keating’s ire – as announced last week.
Keating’s analysis was rooted in his belief in the media regulations he once authored, made irrelevant by the Internet many years before it was finally repealed last year. His dismissal of online media was reminiscent of (one time Fairfax CEO) Fred Hilmer infamously ignoring the threats (and the opportunity) to the classified business from “those upstarts” at RealEstate.com, Seek and Carsales – around the time of the first dot-com boom.
And although I feel sorry for the many competent people still at Fairfax fearing for their jobs, what was once a proudly independent newspaper publisher died a long time ago. Or rather, it has died a death of a thousand cuts over the last three decades.
Today those once proud mastheads are mere shadows of their former selves. In one of the many cost-cutting drives of outgoing CEO Greg Hywood the editorial offices were more or less merged a few years ago. Looking at the home pages of any of Fairfax’ five capital city mastheads, the only difference is the handful of local stories in each. Otherwise the look and feel is the same, the content so similar you could easily jump from one to the other being none the wiser (and I sometimes do, to bypass their rickety pay-walls – shhh).
More importantly, every single one of the stories found could be found on at least two of the other sites I checked – The Guardian, ABC and The Australian. Venturing into the “second tier” of online papers such as The New Daily and Independent Australia – lo-and-behold, most were there, too! As they were on nine.com.au and seven-yahoo-or-whatever-they are-called-these-days. (Didn’t check Ten, are they still around?)
And that’s just in Australia, and only the online versions; not to mention television, the plethora of radio stations, local papers and social media. The access to news is a border-less cross-media smorgasbord, a fact ignored by Keating and many of the other dooms-sayers. As is, I sense, how the younger generations don’t read the papers at all – online or otherwise.
News-media is not just about news, of course. One of the victims of Fairfax cost cutting has been in the areas of investigative journalism and quality commentary. But the best of the best in those areas are still gainfully employed elsewhere, many still ply their trade independent of the major media outlets, contributing to what is a more fragmented and diverse media landscape than at any time in the history of the free world.
The end of the Fairfax “brand” is sad, but irrelevant. Not for those that lost their jobs because of it. And not for those that have yet to understand how the media landscape has changed, clinging to their daily single source of news. I hope the former find new employment and wish for the latter the enjoyment of discovery.
The mismanagement of Fairfax over the years has been an absolute travesty, at times as much comedy as tragedy, but it does not spell the end of democracy.
(It may spell the beginning of the end for Nine, though, but that’s another story, yet to be told…)