Friday, December 10, 2010

Fairfax, McCarthy and country journalism

I know that I write a lot on country issues. In doing so, I consciously try to present viewpoints that are representative of streams of thought not otherwise well covered. I make no apology for either.

In Rural Press, Fairfax and Brian McCarthy I discussed the conflict in the Fairfax media empire that led to the departure of the CEO. This is a national story, but one that I tried to personalise and localise. That story drew a comment from a Rural Press/Fairfax employee that I think warrants publication in full. He wrote:

McCarthy carried into the CBD the hopes of many who have devoted their lives to regional publishing.
I cannot write about this without first declaring the chip on my shoulder from the inequity that has shaped our lives.

Regional journalists have been second-class citizens in Australian publishing for generations. McCarthy, as Rural Press CEO, headed a company of overworked journalists suffering antiquated or substandard production systems and other conditions; tolerating significant infringements on editorial standards/demarcations due to commercial interests; and collecting 20-30pc less pay than metropolitan counterparts who produced far fewer words.

He was promoted to Fairfax CEO because urgent action was needed. The company and the community clamoured for action to stop the metro slide. The board obviously saw him as a tough-talking hatchet man who could take the tough decisions.

When RP and Fairfax merged, I left my pc screen and walked into the night air, looked upward into the stars and said "there is a god". Here was the basis for a perfect melding of two cultures - the regional spirit of flexibility, tolerance and commitment to do the best with the least, mixing with the metropolitan one-story-a-day/week/month luxury. But the metro journos, especially on the SMH and Age, have always had strength of numbers and the time to draw important lines in the sand and live by their "quality" branding, which the System has recognised.

Brian represented us when he walked into Pyrmont and:

1. Sold a huge chunk of his Fairfax shares. This may have been defendable but it gave weight to all the critics who were saying that Fairfax Media was "on the nose - worse than a bag of prawns in the sun". A CEO seemed to be indicating it was a good time to bail out.
2. Endorsed the SMH's Singapore Airlines wrap-around fiasco which destabilised the company's relationships with loyal clients and declared war on editorial standards and the ethical hardliners.
3. Sacked a heap of journalists, sending a further message that Fairfax was in a slide. But he did not not offer any positives to counter the negatives.
4. Delivered a kick in the guts to his regional readership by campaigning against the ABC's regional services, showing that he was motivated by only commercial considerations (google: Brian McCarthy "ABC").
5. Kept everyone waiting for two years to show some positive vision - then let us all down badly.

It's late and I must finish here. I am sad and sorry that a boy from the bush just couldn't hack it in the city. Sure, in the IV you put up, he said all the right things but I don't really think he really understood the weight of the cultural division. He needed to have vision - and he had little. He was too accustomed to editors and editorial interests rolling over and saying, "Yes Brian ..." Fairfax is now trying to separate itself from Rural Press, which it obviously regards as an 'inferior brand'. The inequity continues. Brian did nothing to bring his regional journos up a peg towards the metro level yet crowed about the service.

I see the whole saga with mixed emotions.

If you look at the comment, you will see a deep thread of disillusion and pessimism.

At the time that Rural Press merged with Fairfax, Fairfax was in trouble, Rural Press the success story.

That success came at a price. This included the replacement of previously independent local newspapers able sometimes to combine on broader issues with a centralised system in which the idea of the local newspaper as a local business was replaced by the idea of the paper as a masthead or brand in a broader organisation. I have added a few previous posts at the end that bear upon this post.

I do not like many aspects of Rural Press even though I am one of their local columnists.

I resent the loss of local independence. I dislike, although I understand, the commercial model that regards each paper as a platform for multiple content packaging designed to attract advertising. Packaging in terms of local supplements, packaging in regard to inserts across papers.

As a business, this maximises the advertising stream.The problem is that it can lead local newspapers and indeed Rural Press itself to forget their traditional role.

I remember when I was involved in trying to sell Rural Press a sponsorship/support package for a country development program. To my mind, it was a good program that addressed a real need and could have had substantial paybacks across country NSW. The only issue in the mind of the people we were dealing with was the size of the Rural Press profit from the exercise, an attitude that would have been incomprehensible to previous editors and proprietors.

My commenter refers to the status of regional reporters.

Growing up, the proprietors, editors and journalists involved with the country press had real status. They may not have had status in Sydney, but they did in local terms. That is no longer true. Increasingly, if with exceptions, journalists migrate through papers on their way to someone else. They are younger, they have less local identification and less local knowledge. Their role has moved from vocation to job.

One thing that Rural Press did do right, and this bears upon the Brian McCarthy story, was to give their editors editorial freedom subject always to profit constraints and targets. The idea of local and localism remained.

I suspect, I do not know, that one of Mr McCarthy's problems may have lain in the idea that the SMH and Age were in fact local papers. The idea that that this must be extinguished in the name of network profitability would have run counter to the Rural Press tradition. Papers are not just platforms, but also local icons.

One of the features of the merger between Rural Press and Fairfax lay in the way that the more successful Rural Press people moved into positions of power.They were backed by the Fairfax family.

After so many generations of control, the family lost control of the crown jewels, the Fairfax empire itself. In establishing control over Rural Press and then in merging Rural Press with Fairfax, the family regained that had been lost. Family support was critical to Mr McCarthy. When that went, so did he.

None of us can turn the clock back. Yet it remains true, at least to my mind, that country journalism is fundamentally different from city journalism. Still, that's another story.  

A few previous stories

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