Peter Coleman: Will the next Fairfax bidder please sign in

June may have ended on a sour note for Fairfax Media, but it's unlikely that the future of the Australian publisher is settled yet.

After a few weeks in the $1.20-1.25 range, the share price is heading south again on the news that TPG will not make a formal bid... not yet to the depths of 2012-13 - when it dipped below 50 cents - but down.

No doubt some money will have been made in the process.

Fairfax chief executive Greg Hywood told staff the "back to business as usual" news yesterday, and an announcement has been made to the Australian stock exchange. A long statement on the publisher's website - which still has a 2016 copyright notice - was not accessible here until well after the start of an investor briefing this morning. However News Corp's rival The Australian was gleefully reporting the news, adding that the primary asset, Fairfax's Domain property portal was now "damaged goods".

What happens next? As expected, the other private equity firm in the play, Hellman & Friedman failed to meet the bid deadline set by the Fairfax board but it's not clear whether they have missed an opportunity or even lost interest. Even chairman Nick Falloon, who the Fairfax's Sydney Morning Herald says dined with Hellman & Friedman chairman Brian Powers at the city's fashionable Rockpool restaurant last week, can't be sure.

The episode has been a reminder of the problems a publisher faces when its assets are treated as mere trinkets to be tossed around at the whim of shareholders whose only interest is in turning a profit on their investment.

Since the disastrous days when young Harvard graduate Warwick Fairfax sought to privatise the business, its has lacked committed ownership or decisive management, which might matter less - even in challenging times for the industry - were it not for the strength and commitment of its rival, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

The withdrawal of TPG's $2.76 billion offer only means Fairfax Media remains in shareholders' hands until the next uncertainty comes along. Plans to spin off and separately list Domain - in which it would keep a 70 per cent stake - are being seen as merely a ploy to revalue the business... great for shareholders but little help to the publisher in its fight against competing digital media.

Meanwhile, what is clear it that the Fairfax board is open to offers.

Last week's celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of Italy's La Stampa were an encouraging endorsement of newspapers' value in global society, a point emphasised by Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, who bought the Washington Post from the Graham family and is rebuilding and growing it.

Yet in Australia, Fairfax flagships the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age - sadly no longer numbered among the great newspapers of the world - are white-anted not only by the Google-Facebook duopoly but by a rival the power of which successive weak governments has allowed to go unchallenged.

Nick Fallon would do the country a service if he were to find a new purchaser with the vision to build on Fairfax's resources and talent, but this is unlikely given the way in which the shares are held. However, if there's another Jeff Bezos or even a John W. Henry (who owns the Boston Globe as well as the Red Sox and Liverpool FC) out there, they might even get a bargain.

Peter Coleman

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