Peter Coleman: Another unwanted punctuation mark for Fairfax

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The weekend seems to have provided a punctuation mark - is it a comma, semicolon or fullpoint - in the history of the business once known as Fairfax Media.

Apparently the Fairfax-owned Australian Financial Review - today described by former editor of The Australian Chris Mitchell as "arguably the country's most successful newspaper commercially right now", which is something - published a glowing assessment of (chief executive) Greg Hywood's contribution. As it might.

I found Mitchell's own willingness to give Hywood credit for anything - after years of damning headlines - more significant. Perhaps he'd read the George HW Bush obituaries and remembered that regardless of rivalry, we all have more in common than we have on which to differ.

Something not just Donald Trump, but the media moguls of today would do well to remember.

The day has also delivered Nine chief executive Hugh Marks' notes on the disposition of the Fairfax assets... including 'content management', the synergies of which - like other elements of 'IT' - along with ERP, HR, payroll and office productivity - are yet to be assessed. Or perhaps that's not what he meant.

The metro mastheads have a home with Nine Digital and 'events' and former metro chief Chris Janz to lead them; as do Nine's core TV business and joint venture Stan, which Nine now owns outright.

It's the other stuff (small 's') that worries me, as if it's earmarked for disposal: community media, printing and the Kiwi publishing business which now trades as Stuff. I wished chief executive Sinead Boucher the best of luck with it when we met up in Hong Kong last month, and I do so again. Maybe the NZ entrepreneurs who wanted to buy the Fin Review might be allowed to make something of their "second choice".

Outlines of the new structure suggested that 144 'roles' would go as a result of the immediate review, but that a third of them were unfilled anyway. Good that Marks can see the "amazing opportunity" that has fallen in his lap. Or says he can.

I was intrigued by Mitchell's assessment of the (recent) highs and lows of the 177-year-old Fairfax publishing business. Once again Fred Hillmer comes up for criticism - unjustly, I think, given the context of the time in which he was operating - despite only having made some of the same set of mistakes that his successors (including Hywood) have made. Hindsight seems to have been kinder to Kim Williams, pushed out by the robust pressure of News Corp Australia's editors - and I think Hillmer deserves the same generosity, notwithstanding Killing Fairfax author Pamela Williams' questionable views on the subject.

Hillmer's own views - in his own What the management texts didn't teach me - is not a million miles from modern attitudes to journalism as a product to be sold to subscribers (rather than subsidised by classified advertising).

Yes, there have been many mistakes since that earlier punctuation mark, the privatisation attempt by a then 26-year-old Warwick Fairfax (and perhaps before, if you read the books); it's always seemed to me that for long periods, the inmates might have been in control of the asylum.

With some fairly ordinary thinking along the way.

"State of the art" is one of those worthless phrases used in connection with any newly-installed piece of tech, and Mitchell uses it in connection with the Sydney and Melbourne print sites, both the result of an overdue 'catch-up'.

I'd rate the roof of the Tullamarine factory - curved so as not to interfere with airport radar, if I remember correctly - more highly than the thinking about what went into it.

I recall asking about facilities on the presses for quick edition changes - the nature of which is still keeping print alive in regional markets such as those in Germany - only to be told, "we're not that kind of newspaper". Perhaps they should have been.

Perhaps the plants should have been more utilitarian and less - as in the case of the folded concrete-and-glass 'newspaper' alongside the Tullamarine freeway - an ostentatious statement. And what of them now, having been closed (on Hywood's watch) primarily on what amounts to industrial relations grounds?

It was of course, sacked chief executive Brian McCarthy who had built the more functional plants which were then to print the metro mastheads in Ballarat and North Richmond, the latter albeit only until Fairfax succumbed to the charms of 'capacity sharing' with News.

Hopefully, Fairfax's lesser print assets - not the AFR and the metro mastheads which have a clear digital role - but the community brands will now be sold to a buyer who understands them, rather than closed.

Every couple of days, it seems, my email inbox pings with an announcement that yet another of America's seeming thousands of regional and country newspapers has been sold off; and the good bit about this is that each time this happens, there is a revaluation of the assets in question.

The sale of Fairfax Media into Nine Entertainment - don't grace it with the word "merger" - is just another such revaluation; the trouble will be in the interpretation. News Corp grabbed a bargain when it snapped up the APN Australian regional media assets no longer wanted by the business now curiously called 'Here There & Everywhere' for $36 million. I'd guess the Fairfax communities would be priced at less than that, and could be the real bargain.

By the way, am I missing something, or where's the 2018 Christmas stocking-filler on the subject?

Peter Coleman

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