What’s in a name? Fairfax Media merges with Nine Entertainment

By Denise Ryan Costello

 

Denise Ryan

Denise Ryan Costello and the late News Corp journalist Annette Finnigan in Sydney, 1987.

To enter the Fairfax building on Sydney’s Broadway, you first had to acknowledge the homeless man living outside, sometimes with coins; other days with a cooked chicken.

Then, in the lift, you could study the top of Warwick Fairfax’s head as he studiously avoided eye contact.

You towered over the part-owner of Fairfax only because of heels, a shoulder-padded suit, very big hair and enormous owl-like glasses.

This was the ‘80s and you were living the dream. A very independent one as a ‘foreign correspondent’, posted to Fairfax’s Sydney headquarters from Wellington, New Zealand.

Being a correspondent for National Business Review, Kiwi sister to the Australian Financial Review, meant being parked outside a senior AFR writer’s office. He chain-smoked, which in hindsight meant you stank.

No point in complaining because you had no rights – you were the newcomer and these were acceptable working conditions at the time.

Instead you revelled in the fact that your job was – and this expression was most appropriate then – ‘to keep the bastards honest’.

This foreign correspondent stint was not dangerous, even though you enjoyed the same benefits as someone posted to Beirut. It could be exciting though when you boarded helicopters at short notice to skirt around the latest building purchased by the likes of Alan Bond.

Fairfax’s allocation for accommodation allowed for rental of a tiny, but perfectly formed apartment in Darling Point. The harbour bridge could be seen even from the loo, which made it the venue of choice for the Bicentennial celebrations. So many boats in the harbour that day, fellow journalists felt they could walk on water.

The quid pro pro for the benefits was having to work all the time, including for now defunct papers such as the Times on Sunday and Business Review Weekly.

It wasn’t surprising that the more excessive aspects of this life – the apartment, for example – only lasted 18 months.

On October 19, 1987, a strange primal moan emitted from the crowd, noses pressed against the glass, at the Sydney Stock Exchange. Global sharemarkets were crashing after record bullish times – and the net worth of many was evaporating.

Your lift companion, Warwick Fairfax, had unwisely made a $2.2 billion takeover bid for Fairfax just before the Black Monday crash. The 26-year-old wanted to take the company back into the fold. Instead the family dynasty lost control and the company went into receivership in 1990.

Warwick’s machinations affected staff lifestyles. In this case, there was still a job but no digs. You didn’t raise this with ‘Young Wokka’, as he was cruelly dubbed, when you both entered the Fairfax building around 9am each day. He seemed downcast.

Some time later, mocked mercilessly by the business gossip columnists of the day, Warwick moved to the United States.

You moved to Melbourne in 1989 to be part of the founding business team of The Sunday Age. Again everyone worked all the time – and most loved it.

When commentators talk about the loss of the Fairfax name today as it ‘merges’ with Nine Entertainment, some will roll their eyes at those of us who are sentimentalists about the name.

Business reporters know that a 51/49 percent merger is, in effect, a takeover and the Fairfax name is a diminished brand to some advertisers, who associate it with poor profit results, excesses such as some of the ‘80s arrangements and Warwick Fairfax’s poorly timed takeover bid.

But for those who were camped at their desks when The Sunday Age was an underdog new paper up against Rupert Murdoch’s much better resourced Sunday Herald, there are likely to be pangs.

As there will be for those who tenaciously fought similar battles for survival in the The Sydney Morning Herald, AFR and regional offices.

Of course this angst is not rational – the name is technically still there as a subsidiary. It’s just that so many worked so hard to keep Fairfax going (even as management failed to make strategic purchases) and were proud to work for it –  giving their jobs their all, often to the detriment of relationships and health.

Some will see an attachment to the ‘good old days’ as misplaced. As former Fairfax chief executive Greg Hywood says in an insightful interview with one-time executive Peter Fray (link below), the years of the ‘Rivers of Gold’ – where house, job and car advertising paid handsome salaries – were unusual. There had been lean times before – and plenty more since.

Rose colored they may be, but many former journalists cherish their memories. There were similar incongruous pangs when the Age building, with its stained green carpet and grotty stairwells, was razed to the ground for apartments in Lonsdale Street. That awful brown box, now replaced by a glamorous glass shell, was where so many grew up and passed their best years.

Hundreds who took a redundancy lovingly recall Con and Ritza’s fried food in the café or valued invitations to the Bog bar (drinks from a locker in the men’s changing rooms) for a beer after The Sunday Age went to press. There were many more idiosyncratic, often politically incorrect, moments of living and breathing work.

Some former editors couldn’t let it go. This writer’s chapter in the recent book, Media Innovation & Disruption, edited by Andrew Dodd and Helen Sykes, records how some became entrepreneurs, creating digital newspapers or services. See the link to the chapter below.

Former Fairfax editor Bruce Guthrie was not welcomed into the digital landscape when he launched The New Daily. Nor was Peter Fray’s fact-checking service Politifact universally supported by his peers. Former senior editor Veronica Ridge had to “pivot fast” for her beautiful online magazine Issimo, and its website design operation, to survive. Another former editor Andrew Jaspan says he launched The Conversation because it was an intellectual challenge, more so than another project he had discussed with former Fairfax go-getter, Antony Catalano. Jaspan missed out on making lots of money but says he didn’t care.

Why did these former Fairfax leaders risk their reputation, money and being subject to ridicule? When pressed, they admit to ink in the veins or an abiding love for the work. For some it’s about working in the public interest and a sense of purpose; for others it’s the identity it gives and the camaraderie it brings.

The loss of these motivators can lead to depression, even despair, as former journalist Lawrie Zion and other academics found with their ground-breaking research on how Australian journalists who became redundant have fared. See the findings below.

Many have suggested that Nine will dominate from today and that its more commercial – some say blokey – culture will prevail. But that may not be the case.

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon once wisecracked that Kiwis moving to Australia “raised the IQ of both countries”. Could not the same hold true for the Nine/Fairfax merger, with the brains and integrity of investigative journalists such as Kate McClymont, Nick McKenzie, Adele Ferguson or Richard Baker setting the standard?

This may be optimistic but it’s important that the Nine/Fairfax merger works. In these times of fake news, distraction and noise, there is a greater need than ever for passion, knowledge, curation and a stubborn ambition to uncover the truth.

 

Denise Ryan Costello worked for News Corporation and Fairfax Media for 25 years. She now works as a journalism lecturer at Swinburne University.

 

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