Peter Coleman: Sincerity lacking in the ‘defend print’ message

Mark Day is a regular in The Australian, and lately has delivered some fascinating reading in the retelling of the newspaper’s 50-year history (writes Peter Coleman).

And a few home truths about the slanging match taking place between his employer and metro rival Fairfax Media.

Last weekend, the recollections had reached 1982, with the Falklands War its dramatic centrepiece, Princess Grace’s death, the mystery of Azaria Chamberlain… and the story of the paper’s “near death experience”.

Day, who has been regaling readers with the early days in an easy style no doubt honed during his time at Truth, quotes Ken Cowley on antipathy with Larry Lamb, the industrial troubles the loss-making paper had been suffering… and the day when Rupert Murdoch had apparently – according to Day, Cowley doesn’t recall it – told him to “fix it or close it”.

After sacking 42 staff, Cowley found himself with a stop work meeting to deal with… and threatened to close the paper if work was not resumed within five minutes. He admits he would not have been popular with his employer had the threat not paid off. “I know Rupert said it was my decision, but he might have said that so he could hang me by the bloody thumbs,” he says.

In his column in the newspaper’s Monday media section, he had another assertions to make: That “at a time when there are calls for a concerted, united push to promote and defend an industry under great challenge we see long-term rivals slugging it out, sniping and being downright vicious towards each other.”

But then like Lachlan Murdoch making a similar point at the Mumbrella360 conference the previous week, he can’t resist having a go at the arch rival Fairfax Media, which has “failed to defend and protect their print base and have been seen to ‘give up’ on print… talking it down in their own products”.

This week, Fairfax chief executive Greg Hywood responded in a message to staff to “mad rantings and ravings” and what he claimed was the spreading of lies about his company’s commitment to the future of newspapers.

Murdoch is reported to have said the “crazy… lack of leadership” has to stop.

But who’s stopping first? The platitudes about the damage the newspaper industry is doing to itself are right on the mark. But they are worthless and pointless in a context in which they are used as a pretext for yet another attack.

By today’s paper, the barbs had spread to the leader page, with The Australian poking fun at what it called Fairfax’s “Kodak moment” (funnily, I remember using that expression myself in another context, only a few hours earlier).

So no sign of a ceasefire yet. Both sides are to blame, but I admit – living in an area dominated by the Murdoch ‘voice’ – I am subjected to more of News’ unwanted invective. Like Adelaide, Brisbane is without a strong second print publisher because legislation intended to protect competition was used to allow (perhaps encourage) a Murdoch rival to go bust.

It’s hard to see that anything would give the Holt Street brigade more happiness than to see the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age go the same way. And much as I enjoy The Australian – most of the time – that would be a tragedy.

With institutional investors to deal with, Hywood has to face the fact that the words “newspaper” and “print” are out of fashion in these quarters. I am reminded of Schibsted executive vice president Sverre Munck at Publish Asia in April, explaining how the family business turned itself into a trust before confronting the ending of its “natural monopoly” in publishing.

Such investor issues are not a problem Rupert Murdoch has to face, nor does he (mostly) have to face the consequences of the actions of his editors and lieutenants. Unlike the Fairfax metro mastheads, The Australian doesn’t even have to make a profit, its costs not hard to justify when it is so effective in denigrating and demoralising media rivals – Fairfax and the ABC are perennials, with the West Australian getting a break while more contemporary targets such at Mail Online come under fire.

But if they are serious about support for print – and circulations in Australia have fallen by almost 20 per cent in five years – there needs to be sincerity behind the fine words. And balance, given that Fairfax is not the only Australian publisher to have been shutting plants and scaling back print capacity in response to the reality of falling circulations; nor the only one boosting its emphasis on digital… just the one News wants you to hear about.

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