Murdoch, Fairfax, Stokes and the passion for publishing

Dec 07, 2008 at 09:43 pm by Staff

Forget David Kirk, for the moment at least: He’s yesterday’s news. It would however, be good to see the former rugby star rise again in a publishing industry to which he has shown he has much to contribute. Turn instead to the underlying issue, captured in a cartoon in ‘The Australian’ of December 8: “Before we tackle the internet, we should probably try to come to terms with the revolving door,” one Fairfax manager remarks to another. Mulholland, Mansfield, Muscat, Hilmer, Kirk – who swapped PMP jobs with the Fairfax chief operating officer Brian Evans – and (consensually at least) McCarthy are only the most recent in a string of chief executives. Spot the ‘newspaper publishers’ in this list. And spot the ‘journalists’ from Rupert Murdoch, Kerry Packer, John B. Fairfax and Kerry Stokes … and their offspring, Lachlan and James Murdoch, James Packer, Nick Fairfax, and Ryan Stokes. Does it matter, given that journalists generally make notoriously bad managers, and the fact that, despite Mark Day’s assertion in the ‘Australian’ of the same date, journalism is no longer the ‘core business’ of all publishing media. If it were, the most high-profile successes of newspaper publishing would not be those driven by sensationalism and the Page Three Girl. Marketing and entertainment are in there, too, and it’s as well to understand that. Rupert Murdoch does, and so we suspect, does Kerry Stokes, whose Channel Seven has been a recent ratings winner. Brand leveraging and cross-promotion between TV and magazines suggests Stokes (and his son) also ‘get’ marketing. So an interesting time is ahead in the West, where Stokes finally has effective control of West Australian Newspapers. If he does more than merely exploit the near-monopoly of the flagship daily (the ‘West Australian’) – and recent performances suggest he may – WAN will become the publisher to watch. It’s not of course, a scenario News Limited would relish: Over recent years it has used the means at its disposal to destabilise the ‘West Australian’ to the benefit of its own titles, the ‘Sunday Times’ and the upgraded and increasingly-localised WA edition of the ‘Australian’. Along with its Fairfax coverage and advice to McCarthy – ‘don’t take your gun to town’ it advises in a headline which parodies the country song – there’s a challenge in the December 8 issue: ‘Is Stokes up to firing his loose cannon,’ it asks, accompanying the comment piece with an off-guard picture of Paul Armstrong, editor of the ‘West Australian’. The happenings in Osborne Park and at the new Fairfax Media bunker of One Darling Island are of course, only a part of the media commentary which has been taking place in recent days. With the publication of Michael Wolff’s authorised biography of Rupert Murdoch, many more column inches have been devoted to the News Corporation boss than to the succession at Fairfax. And rightly so: For what Wolff sees as a shark-like obsession might be more accurately characterised as passion. Certainly, at 77, he’s still having fun. Amid the mass of commentary, the question has been asked whether Murdoch may be the last great newspaperman. It may be an obsolete term, as the mature newspaper business evolves into a broader form of publishing. But, hey, does anyone come near? There are few enough media barons these days, but events on the Australian scene invite conjecture about what the future promises: The Murdoch heirs are biding their time, and the young Packer opted out. But a couple of father-an-son teams are becoming more evident: Ryan Stokes is already involved in the publishing business in which his father is showing renewed interest. And Nick Fairfax, who sits on the board of the eponymous media company, has been a recent spokesman for the family interests. Where’s the publishing passion here? With Stokes, who owned, re-equipped and sold the ‘Canberra Times’ … or Fairfax, whose camp – headed by McCarthy – dumbed down the national capital daily before selling it into the Fairfax-Rural merger? And with the jewels of the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ and ‘The Age’ now at stake, who has the means and the passion to follow through? Despite the recent inevitable stockmarket revaluations, Stokes’ moves have been backed by a substantial warchest, while the Fairfax clan – if they are as cashed-up as they would like some to believe – might find now is a great time to snap up some half-price shares. Watch this space.
Sections: Columns & opinion


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