Monday, June 25, 2012

Analysis: Desperately seeking a survival strategy at Fairfax Media

By Business editor Peter Ryan

There's an element of desperation in today's announcement from Fairfax Media that three top editors have decided to quit on the same day.

The imperative for Fairfax to act - and to act quickly - underscores how critical the coming days and weeks will be to the ultimate survival of Fairfax's two once-great metropolitan mastheads, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Working journalists usually come and go, and it's certain many will be leaving Fairfax more frequently than usual.

But the departures of Peter Fray and Amanda Wilson from the SMH and Paul Ramadge from The Age mark a dramatic turning point for the traditional and closely guarded power positions of editors and editors-in-chief.

Until today, those two fiefdoms carried often unquestioned editorial powers and distinct editors and editors-in-chief highlighted the rivalries and critical points of difference between The Age and the SMH, and the well-worn debate about pre-eminence between Australia's two biggest cities.

This afternoon's appointment of Sean Aylmer as editor-in-chief and Darren Goodsir as director of news at the SMH signal revamped editorial roles that dilute the powers of traditional Fairfax editors with decisions about national and international coverage ceded to a centralised hub.

While Fray, Wilson and Ramadage are leaving with dignity and no criticisms of the restructure which has claimed their careers, it is highly likely the weakened powers and the prospect of slashed budgets, major sackings and depleted journalistic firepower made a healthy redundancy package slightly more palatable.

Tomorrow's editorial revamp to be announced for The Age will be closely watched for confirmation on whether the editor-in-chief role remains or whether it is to come under a nationalised umbrella in Sydney.

A well-connected Fairfax observer says the latest dramatic developments show the editorial changes are, at the very least, "disruptive" but a necessary survival strategy for staff, investors, readers and advertisers.

The observer, close to Fairfax institutional shareholders, declined to be named but told the ABC the speed of the restructure confirms the stakes are high with Fairfax shares hitting a new low of 55.5 cents a share during the day. I was told,
Greg Hywood [Fairfax chief executive] and Roger Corbett [Fairfax chairman] really do have their backs to the wall.u can sense the desperation. Why else would you be unfolding this so quickly? They know that the company might not survive unless they engage in radical restructuring.
The biggest risk in this strategy is that they might actually accelerate the decline of print media. It's dramatic - switching from broadsheet to tabloid, taking some grunt out of your journalism, making advertisers less certain. This could exacerbate the decline.
In the end, this is mainly a downsizing exercise and managing the transformation of a big company into a small company.
However, today's announcement helps Fairfax deal with another threatening deadline in the shape of Gina Rinehart and her bid for three Fairfax boardroom seats along with a say in the hiring and firing of editors.

The initial appointments of an editor-in-chief and a director of news confirm that Fairfax is serious about major change, locking-in key editorial positions before Mrs Rinehart ups her 18.67 percent stake in the company.

But will this be enough for Fairfax's best loved mastheads to survive?

The key, according to one Fairfax watcher, is for the company to stop talking about the future and the beginning of a "new era" and to accept that the new digital world probably started at least 10 years ago.

Peter Ryan is the ABC's Business Editor, contributing to a range of ABC News programs including the flagship radio current affairs program AM. He tweets as @peter_f_ryan

1 comment:

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