'Ink' drives John B. Fairfax to new investment in journalism

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Two former media owners from historic publishing families are backing a new venture which aims to fill what they see as a void created by the acquisition of Fairfax Media by Australian TV network Nine.

And that one of them is a Fairfax is drawing most of the attention.

Former Rural Press boss John B. Fairfax and Cameron O'Reilly - son of 'bean baron' Tony O'Reilly and eldest of the siblings in whose name what became APN News & Media was purchased from Rupert Murdoch - are backing a new publishing venture with Crikey proprietor (and former Fairfax editor) Eric Beecher.

Watch tonight's ABC 7.30 Report and you would have seen Leigh Sales' interview with philanthropist John B. Fairfax preceded by library footage of linotypes, letterpress rotaries and wagonloads of paper romancing what may have been the industry's golden age.

Philanthropy may be an increasingly common form of support for public interest journalism today, as newsmedia's traditional income from advertising is sucked away by tech giants bound by different rules. Last November, billionaire art collector Judith Neilson announced she would put $100 million into a Sydney-based institute for journalism.

But Fairfax is adamant that his support for a new paywall-protected investigative website associated with (but separate from) Beecher's Private Media has nothing to do with philanthropy. "We do a lot of other things philanthropically that give us satisfaction," he says, but believes a paywall is needed for a sustainable news channel.

Perhaps it's more to do with the need to balance the "right wing tendency" of the Murdoch press in Australia and the US... something, having known the media mogul in earlier years, he finds "quite extraordinary".

Following the insolvency that followed the 1987 takeover of the Fairfax business by his cousin, 26-year-old Harvard graduate Warwick Fairfax, John Bremer Fairfax (now 76) acquired the group's regional and community mastheads, building them into the prosperous Rural Press business. His undoing however, might have been agreeing to a merger with the bigger metro-based Fairfax Media in 2006, had he not pulled back from the investment five years later. Despite the "reverse takeover" elements of the deal - with Rural chief executive Brian McCarthy taking the unenviable role at the head of the merged, but still bleeding business, supported by a number of other former Rural executives - what the ABC voiceover tonight referred to the "slow and grisly" death continued, and has largely done so until and beyond last year's acquisition by Nine Entertainment.

Print tragics, however, will note that until recently, both the Sydney Morning Herald (now printed by News) and The Age were produced at print centres (in North Richmond and Ballarat) established by Rural Press.

The other two personalities in today's announcement are Beecher - a former Sydney Morning Herald editor-in-chief who left to launch a glossy property freesheet and build a private media empire - and Cameron O'Reilly, coincidentally someone I met only once... as we each waited on appointments on the top, executive floor of the former John Fairfax building in Sydney's Broadway.

O'Reilly was still a teenager when his father - in between running the Heinz Beanz empire - engineered the acquisition of the former Provincial Newspapers Queensland titles which Murdoch had been forced to divest when he bought the Herald & Weekly Times in 1987. With an Australian mother as well as their Irish father, the O'Reilly siblings were deemed acceptable owners for the string of Queensland and northern NSW dailies which APN (now HT&E) sold back to Murdoch for a bargain $36 million in 2017.

It will be interesting to see how the new 15-20-strong Crikey-based investigative journalism business fares unless John B. Fairfax becomes more of a philanthropist than an "interested" investor. And how long he may be willing to sustain the losses that accompany the realities of competing in the current digital environment. "You can't," he tells Sales, "eradicate the ink that runs in your veins."

Peter Coleman

Pictured: How John B. Fairfax explained his "interesting" investment on ABC's 7.30 Report

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