Michael Yiannakis sees more than a few similarities between the Dow Jones newspaper experience and the current Fairfax woes.
As a young journalism student in the 1980s hoping to catch a career break in the world of newspapers, I had my ambitions firmly set on the John Fairfax stable. The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian Financial Review and The National Times were all on my wish list.
This was a vibrant time in Australian politics and business, when leaders were under intense scrutiny amid a culture of corruption. It was the time of The Age Tapes and the Costigan Commission into tax evasion; the excesses of 1980s corporate greed were in full flight; and it was the dawn of the Hawke-Keating era. An aspiring journalist couldn't ask for more.
These were also the days of Wendy Bacon, Robert Haupt, Mungo MacCallum and Brian Toohey – the titans of the industry all offering deep analysis and insightful coverage that you were hard-pressed to find anywhere else.
While sitting in tutorials at Curtin University, it was the investigative stories penned by these journalists that we analysed, deconstructed and aspired to write one day. The problem was I lived on the vast Perth coastal plain on the other side of the Nullarbor. It may as well have been another country. While the destructive era of WA Inc. was offering its fair share of news stories, the prestige and power of the newspaper establishment remained on the east coast.
After graduating and working for a year, I packed up and headed to Sydney – a city which I had never visited and where I knew a handful of people at best. In hindsight it was a brash move for someone who was yet to hone his craft. It was the eve of the Bicentenary celebrations and three months after the 1987 stock-market crash. There was an advertising downturn and Fairfax was under siege, with young Warwick Fairfax’s doomed, debt-laden bid for the company under way.
Within weeks of arriving in Sydney I'd landed a "permanent casual" reporting role on the SMH at the old Broadway headquarters. On the old pay scale, a "D with a margin" was within my sights.
But my good fortune was short lived. After the 1987 stock-market crash, the advertising market hit a wall and Fairfax needed to cut costs. The afternoon tabloid The Sun folded, as did the short-lived Times on Sunday.
Journalists hired on a casual basis, such as me, were shown the door as the company attempted to absorb as many of its displaced employees as possible. The company eventually fell into receivership. Over the next 20-odd years, it churned through a procession of chief executives as the post-Warwick interregnum created a leadership vacuum that has arguably existed ever since.
It took a few months and a lot of persistence, but I eventually landed a job at the Financial Review. Time moved on and so did I, working at a few other news organisations before returning to the AFR during the heyday of the tech bubble. In 2000, I left Australia for The Wall Street Journal Asia (WSJA) in Hong Kong – a newspaper where I worked for the next nine years and which was to go through its own convulsions and bloodlettings in the decade that followed.
In October 2005, the WSJA's then-parent company, Dow Jones & Co., decided to cut production costs by reducing the paper size of the WSJ's Asia and Europe editions. The papers went from a broadsheet format to a tabloid size, or "compact" as it is referred to for marketing purposes.
At the start of 2007, the US Wall Street Journal was also resized from a broadsheet to the smaller Berliner format. By shrinking the size of the physical product Dow Jones could reduce newsprint use and cut production costs. It also gave the publisher access to a greater number of printing sites across the US, which could not handle the larger broadsheet format.
Dow Jones said at the time that trimming one column off the WSJ would bring about US$18 million in annual savings. The Age and the SMH will face a similar revolution when they change their format in 2013. While such a move will no doubt lower production costs, whether it stops the profit squeeze remains to be seen.
Dow Jones was vulnerable: years of mismanagement, a floundering share price, the resizing of mastheads in the hope of cutting losses and a family with divided loyalties set the scene for what was to come.
In May 2007, Rupert Murdoch made his move, eventually paying US$5.6 billion for Dow Jones, one of the oldest and most respected media businesses in the world. It ended a century of Bancroft-family ownership. (Less than 18 months after finalising the bid, News Corp wrote down the value of the investment by US$2.8 billion.)
One thing that Dow Jones had understood early on in the digital media game is that readers accustomed to quality news coverage will pay for it. Confounding critics who said that charging for anything on the free-culture internet was doomed, Dow Jones had built a successful paid online platform. At first, Murdoch favoured removing the paywall on wsj.com. But in what proved to be an astute business decision, he changed his mind.
Now the vulnerable brand of Fairfax faces its own set of challenges, including overtures from a deep-pocketed suitor in the form of mining magnate Gina Rinehart or a potential private equity bid. Let us hope its mastheads can afford to remain incorruptible and noble.
Michael Yiannakis was a journalist at The Australian Financial Review. He now lives in Hong Kong and remains a Fairfax Media shareholder. Twitter: @YiannakisM