Selling what you don’t know how to value: Nine’s Fairfax takeover

Around last year’s Senate Inquiry on the future of public interest journalism, Fairfax Media CEO Greg Hywood was offered multiple opportunities to express his commitment to journalism, the public interest, and the future of both. 

In response to Inquiry questioning on his salary package – estimated at over $7m – he was unable to justify it on news terms, saying instead that it reflected “market rates.”

When asked whether weekday print editions would continue, he wavered, but later told the Macquarie Australia Conference that they would, for now – not for their news value but as “the best commercial outcome for shareholders.”

When, in the style of Charles Foster Kane’s Declaration of Principles, Hywood later issued an unexpected manifesto entitled The Way Ahead, journalists were appalled. Speaking for the entire Fairfax workforce – including newsrooms, investigators, photographers, researchers – Hywood declared that new way to be a “pro-investor, pro-consumer view of business [as] central to our influence in the economic and business community.” Journalists swiftly rejected his “ideological direction”, reaffirming their commitment to “report the facts fairly and accurately without fear or favour.” 

And then, a fortnight ago, in announcing the Nine takeover, Hywood thanked journalists for their “contribution” to Fairfax, which he went on to describe in a conference call as “core content creation.”

In none of these responses did Hywood articulate what it means to be the CEO of a cultural institution whose journalists have earned the trust of the Australian public for their independent, expert and timely work. 

Despite heading one of the nation’s most significant news entities, Hywood was only ever focused on commercial interest, not the public interest – ultimately, at the expense of both. 

By the time of the Senate Inquiry, it was already too late. No public interest journalism values remained among Fairfax leadership. It was left to journalists and other public interest cultural organisations to champion those values via #fairgofairfax.

It’s by no means impossible to articulate the value of a news business in market terms, as Schwartz Media demonstrates by the week or month or quarter. Indeed, on the announcement of the takeover, subscriptions to the Saturday Paper skyrocketed; people understand quality journalism and they know how to value it. Fairfax Media was uniquely positioned to sustain itself as a diversified company. And yet board and executive never grasped the assets of the business as other than its “rivers of gold”: in the old days, the classifieds, and more recently, Domain and Stan. They never understood the asset value of news as other than generic “content” that fills the space around ads.

“Over the last eight years,” Hywood told staff in an email sent too late to prevent social media from breaking the news, “Fairfax Media has gone from being at the mercy of the non-stop global media revolution to being best of its breed.”

In reality, Fairfax was neither at the mercy of global trends nor best of its breed. Fairfax actively devalued its own mastheads by cheapening the online reader experience into clickbait and undermining the work of dedicated, expert journalists. “Fairfax responded badly,” argued David Marr in the Guardian. “Businessmen on the board wouldn’t listen to those who could see catastrophe looming. What happened was not inevitable.”

The impact on the Australian culture will be profound, and it’s an impact we’re each going to need to take responsibility for redressing – by valuing and therefore paying for quality online journalism, just as we’ve always expected to pay for it in print. 

Nine is not known for the quality of its journalism. (It’s hard to top Paul Keating’s assessment, so I won’t even try.) Among its ambulance-chasing, dodgy-dealing, racism-stoking, chequebook-comment standards, where will Michael Bachelard’s rigorous work on the Christian Brethren fit? And Kate McClymont’s political investigations? How will we understand how political decision-making is influenced? 

As Hannah Francis pointed out on Twitter, while the Fairfax workforce is industrially aware and rights conscious, Nine has no EBA in force and its staff have low union membership. High union membership is the sign of a critically healthy workforce.

Francis is the Age’s Arts Editor, and it’s here, with arts and culture coverage, that the takeover will have the most impact. Indeed, arts and culture writers all over Australia have been the earliest and most frequent casualties of unimaginative media management. Fairfax papers were once proud to be cultural leaders in their support and collaboration with arts organisations and festivals; so highly did they value arts and culture that they once tried to strike out on their own – with a festival that failed spectacularly because it rejected the expertise of the arts organisations that gave those relationships value. Nine has no record in this area.

While the Fairfax board had long lacked the imagination to understand where its business was headed, Nine’s sniffed the wind early. Anticipating the convergence between news, new media and communications technology, Nine launched Ninemsn with Microsoft and PBL back in 1997, leading in online news until 2016. Meanwhile, Fairfax opened a new printery in Tullamarine back in 2003. Developed at a cost of some $220m, the site was sold to a car dealer back in 2015 for just $16m. The vast site’s fluorescent-lit rolled-up newspaper tower continues to greet airport traffic as a monument to technology past. Who in the world was erecting idols to print media in 2003?

In the fast-moving world of news media, brand matters, and symbols like this matter a great deal. Brand is everything in news. Commercial tv stations invest heavily in news bulletins and brief in-program updates to build the authoritative brand recognition that establishes their viewership. The ABC is constantly named the most trusted media institution in Australia, proudly defended by its journalists and audiences. While the Nine takeover is not yet a done deal, the loss of the Fairfax brand diminishes Australian journalism, expecting any journalists who remain to develop allegiance and pride toward a brand known primarily for shallow commercialism

Supporting a healthy, diverse, rigorous and critical media is in my organisation’s strategic plan. It should be in every cultural organisation’s strategic plan. In today’s world, sector development in the arts and in every cultural domain means taking active responsibility for fostering the public spaces in which ideas can be debated – and racism, sexism, homophobia and climate change denial challenged  

To Fairfax journalists I say: Start talking to one another and to innovators more broadly. Form collectives that generate valuable thinking on governance and business models. Look to the arts and non-profit sector. Look to Daily Review, Crikey, the Saturday Paper, the Guardian. Quality journalism is thriving everywhere where thought has been devoted to its ethics, business model and news quality. There is indeed a market for it as well as a pressing need. 

To Nine journalists I say: Unionise. 

 

 

IMAGE: Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten), Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) and Mr Bernstein (Everett Sloan), with Kane’s ‘Declaration of Principles’, Citizen Kane (1941). On rejecting the “gold mines, oil wells, shipping and real estate” roles he had just inherited, Kane seizes the opportunity to run a small New York media company “acquired in a foreclosure proceeding”, declaring: “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”