QUENTIN DEMPSTER. ‘Because it’s wreck-able’: Anger mounting at decision to end Fairfax.

The proposed end of Fairfax Media as an entity governing the editorial output of The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian Financial Review and regional newspapers has provoked mounting anger by some of Australia’s most prominent journalists.

Fairfax investigative journalist Kate McClymont told The New Daily that she was devastated to learn that the Nine entertainment group would take a controlling 51 per cent stake in Fairfax media assets and that the governance structures which had protected and nurtured quality journalism through the famous mastheads would be terminated.

While she had heard Fairfax management’s reassurances that the print mastheads would continue “our readers need to know that the maintenance of quality journalism is all we’re asking to be allowed to do”.

Fairfax economics editor Ross Gittins told The New Daily he had known of talk of a merger with Nine “but I hadn’t quite realised we’d be gobbled up”.

“Fairfax is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of an entertainment company,” Mr Gittins said.

Another Fairfax source questioned the Fairfax board’s decision last year to float its profitable Domain real estate business as a separately listed entity.

Defended by the Fairfax board as a strategy to enhance shareholder value, the move was cynically judged by some as a prelude to asset-stripping at a time when the journalism mastheads and their associated websites needed conspicuous market support from the better advertising revenues generated through Australia’s booming property market.

“Because it’s wreck-able. That’s why the Fairfax board, with its 60 per cent stake in Domain has presented its new owner, Nine, with an easy decision to close down the print mastheads without remorse when the time inevitably comes,” the source said.

Former prime minister Paul Keating made a similar point in a live ABC 7.30 interview on Thursday.

Gittins supported a call by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to “press pause” on regulatory approval of the Nine takeover of Fairfax pending the ACCC’s final report on local advertising market dominance by global digital platforms including Google and Facebook.

“What’s [Australian] democracy going to do when big outfits like Fairfax indicate [through this takeover] that they cannot persevere with quality journalism? What’s next?”

While The Age’s economics editor Peter Martin, who is departing Fairfax this week to join The Conversation, doubted the ACCC as a competition regulator had a role in media diversity, “I’d be happy if it did suspend” approval of the merger pending its final digital platforms report.

Martin said he accepted the Fairfax board’s decision to float Domain in the best interests of Fairfax shareholders. Regional newspapers included in the Nine takeover include The Canberra Times, Illawarra Mercury and Newcastle Herald.

MEAA journalists’ section president, Marcus Strom, told The New Daily the union would fight to ensure all mastheads retained editorial independence under the charter first signed with staff by then-part-owner, Canadian mogul Conrad Black, in the early 1990s.

The ACCC has 12 weeks to consider regulatory approval of the takeover under current competition laws.

Strom said that given its digital platforms inquiry was currently under way and crucial to the future of Australian journalism, an ACCC decision to suspend such approval was more than justified.

While Nine CEO Hugh Marks has indicated the Nine board’s commitment to maintenance of the mastheads with $50 million of savings to be achieved over two years from operational “synergies”, the union fears more journalists’ jobs will soon also go.

Martin said the combined Fairfax metropolitan and regional reporting assets would enhance the merged entity’s online news competitiveness to the advantage of audiences.

Meanwhile, Gittins said Fairfax’s co-operative arrangements with the ABC on complex investigative journalism projects looked like being the first public-interest casualty of the takeover.

This article was published by The New Daily on the 26th of June 2018. 

Quentin Dempster is a Walkley Award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster with decades of experience. He is a veteran of the ABC newsroom and has worked with a number of print titles including the Sydney Morning Herald. He was awarded an Order of Australia in 1992 for services to journalism.

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5 Responses to QUENTIN DEMPSTER. ‘Because it’s wreck-able’: Anger mounting at decision to end Fairfax.

  1. Stephen Lusher says:

    It’s easy to be negative here. The progressives seem to become conservatives when it comes to their own backyard. No change required.

    Whether because of its journalism or bad business decisions or simply the forces of competition from new technologies, Fairfax has been heading for the basket case department for decades. Digitalising Domain seems to have been the only corporate goal the company has kicked in recent years.

    The arguments from Paul Keating down suggest that Fairfax should be treated as another ABC with responsibilities to its workforce and not to shareholders, offering something called diversity to a public not too interested in paying for it. Most professional investors recognised the direction this was taking years ago and few include much Fairfax stock in their portfolios. Check the share price. Investors need a return. Maybe journalists like Peter Martin see it also as they take their keyboards elsewhere.

    It will be interesting to see if the Washington Post solution, where Jeff Bezos’s bottomless pockets will be able to support an American version of quality journalism if that is what he chooses to do. I suspect Australian conservative media types would consider this option unacceptable – the media as trophy plaything.

    On the other hand, Murdoch’s deep pockets have kept The Australian going for 50 years or so despite continuing losses and that has contributed to diversity and produced quality journalism, even if only of the kind many media participants welcome as a whipping boy.

    For good reasons or bad, nothing stays the same for long. If the product is good it will find support.

  2. Richard Ure says:

    Realestate, Seek and Carsales must have sucked much more out of the rivers of gold than the heinous Facebook and Google. And how about the display advertising that has gone to junk mail delivered to letterboxes with no editorial content or even links to such content?

    Yet all our diverse media can do is blame the outsiders.

  3. Jim KABLE says:

    Dreadful – PM Trembler and Minister Hihofield – this clear destruction of the best of our mainstream print media in Fairfax – no matter how it is being “dressed up” right now – needs to be addressed by the Parliament – by the current opposition – the laws reversed – the position restored – and the ugly architects of this raid on the chicken house castigated in our national history – forever!

  4. Rosemary O''Grady says:

    Six years since the Finkelstein inquiry – the report of which ran to almost 500 pages. And here we are.
    But if anyone thinks the merged ‘investigations’ of the ABC-Fairfax ‘teams’ were a good idea – I think you must have forgotten the lessons of George Orwell, not to mention the unsecured files story of barely a few months ago, whose chilling logo is ineradicable from the ‘free’ mind: ‘The ABC is co-operating with the authorities.’ Uh Oh.

  5. Heather Cameron says:

    This is not a merger, it’s a takeover. It’s not a merger because the shares are not 50-50 balance.

    Knowing a wee bit about the ASX and stockmarket this pretty much means that another company can make a better offer. Thus Fairfax FXJ is rising on the stock market and Nine NEC is falling. It looks like someone has driven down the FXJ shares on the stock market to put pressure on for a takeover and the NEC has risen way above their value in later months/year. Looks like this has been in the pipeline for a while and cunningly manoeuvred.

    I agree with Keating that NINE is just way too shoddy for Fairfax and thus it’s way unbalanced in quality journalism. I know that Aussies get all too protective but Google would be the best bet if Fairfax wants to team up with a company who has heaps more money and similar values to them. It would be great for journalism in this country.

    I have a vision for a diversity of news in each country town and area that is all put online plus as paper copy locally. Then you can allocate to be shown the local news and it’s all there to be read from the different local sources.

    This would work brilliantly rather than the big gobble up by the likes of New Ltd/Murdoch/Fox into the future. Google has excellent workplace protocols for their workers like of a humanitarian nature. They are also very innovative and not at all right wing. So my vision is for Fairfax-Google or Google-Fairfax for a fair go for Australians.

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