Jun 182012
can Fairfax survive in a digital, online world?

The embattled board of Fairfax has announced major changes to the way they publish their newspapers. Is it too little, too late for this iconic media organisation?

As the board of Fairfax struggles with poor performance and angry demands from prominent shareholders, the company has announced a change of focus and a reduction in their printing capacity.

In a presentation given by the Chief Executive Greg Hywood, the company’s management goes through the scope and logic of their changes which are mainly around their distribution networks.

Rethinking print

The clearest message from the presentation is that readers have moved online with over three-quarters of readers now accessing the Age and Sydney Morning Herald digitally.

While there are still substantial print revenues in their metro division, around $500 million dollars a year right now, it’s clear Fairfax has to reduce printing and distribution costs.

Cutting the Chullora and Tullamarine printing plants makes sense given Fairfax has regional capacity just outside both Melbourne and Sydney.

Shrinking the SMH and Age to a “compact” size – tabloid being the word that dare not speak its name – will get shrieks of outrage from those wedded to the broadsheet concept, but really doesn’t make much difference to the online readership that represent the future.

Digital first

Fairfax’s “digital first” strategy where online publication take precedence over the print editions will be detailed in a few weeks, this tis a change that should have happened years ago.

Despite the wringing of ink stained hands by journalists who grew up in the era of hot metal printing presses, the news industry has been digital for over a quarter century. In fact the two printing plants now being closed were the digital successors to the old presses on Sydney’s Broadway and Melbourne’s Spencer Street.

That Fairfax’s management is only realising newspapers are just another distribution medium illustrates how late they are to understanding the changes which have happened in the last twenty years.

Using terms like “Digital First” only indicates an obsession with distribution methods rather than the product itself.

Content above all

Fairfax’s product is the news content which is still a valuable commodity – almost everything driving the Australian news cycle comes out of the metropolitan print media.

What appears in the Sydney Morning Herald, Age, Daily Telegraph or Herald Sun drives most of the day’s radio, television and social media coverage in their cities. It shouldn’t be under estimated how powerful both publications are and it is why Gina Rinehart wants a stake in Fairfax.

That value could see paywalls work for Fairfax, but content has to be worth paying for if readers are going to reluctantly open their wallets.

A product worth paying for?

Having a product worth paying for is where the real challenge lies for Fairfax.

Right now much of the content sucks – there’s too much syndication which can be sourced elsewhere, for instance most of the technology section has article that appeared two days earlier on Techmeme or Mashable.

In domestic sections like politics and property the bulk of the “journalism” is repeating other peoples’ agendas rather than reporting facts or driving debate. Much of what Fairfax’s Canberra correspondents report are anonymous briefings from “party figures” while the property section regurgitates the latest spin from real estate agents and property developers.

Over in travel and food, those sections now largely consist of barely rehashed media releases and it’s no accident readers are fleeing those sections to more relevant, and honest, food and travel blogs.

All of these sections have to be revamped if Fairfax is to survive. This will need new editors and probably wholesale staff changes.

A relevant future

The future for Fairfax is being relevant to the communities it serves. Already newspapers are irrelevant and increasingly 1970s style journalism is being ignored.

Late last week the Prime Minister met with a group a bloggers in an attempt to soften her image with key women’s groups.

Despite the sneering of the Fairfax Canberra correspondents, that meeting at Kirribilli House illustrates how media is changing – to politicians, readers and advertisers the old newspapers and their journalists are no longer relevant.

Hopefully Fairfax’s board can ensure the company stays relevant and survives – the Australian media sector is dominated by too few voices as it is and losing one of the biggest players would be a disaster.

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