Over the falls in a barrell – smooth-talking Corbett doesn’t let facts get in the way at Fairfax AGM

October 24, 2012

The Fairfax Media AGM took place in Melbourne today against a backdrop of financial meltdown in the company’s fortunes. The share price — currently at 38 cents — has halved since the beginning of the year.

That’s not such bad news if the stock is actually worth something. But when the fall is from 80 cents to less than 40 cents, it’s a calamity piled onto a disaster.

However, you wouldn’t necessarily get that impression from the soothing opening remarks by chairman Roger Corbett, who told the small Melbourne audience of shareholders that despite the ravages of an “annus horribilis”, Fairfax Media is in good shape and in good hands.

That’s like Monty Python’s black knight claiming “it’s only a flesh wound” as he bleeds out, limbless on the forest floor.

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Sorry, Mr Hywood – you missed the point: It’s not about quality it’s about money

November 16, 2011

Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood delivered the A.N. Smith lecture at Melbourne University’s Centre for Advanced Journalism last night (Tuesday 15 November).

I’ve never quite understood what ‘advanced’ journalism is supposed to be. Maybe I’ll look it up one day.

According to the mission statement, the CAJ is attempting to improve the quality of journalism through ‘knowledge transfer’

The Centre for Advanced Journalism will contribute to the University’s goal of knowledge transfer through interaction with the public and with journalists and media companies.

The four key questions posed for research at the CAJ are also admirable, if a little unremarkable:

  • How will new media technologies impact on the future of journalism?
  • What is the role of public interest journalism in a liberal democracy?
  • What is the nature of the relationship between government and the media and how does this relationship serve the public interest?
  • Is “the public interest” a concept that is understood by the media and the general public?

I have no problem with that at all and I wish the centre’s new director Margaret Simons all the best. Improving journalism is something that I’m passionate about too; so in that spirit, let’s engage with Greg Hywood’s comments.

I’m not sure of the title Greg gave to his talk, on the National Times site the headline is ‘Rumours of our demise exagerated’ and on the AFR site (behind a Fairfax paywall) the headline is ‘Internet the reason journalism’s future is bright’. So, presumably that’s what the talk was about.

I’ve read the edited transcript of Mr Hywood’s speech on the National Times website and I’d just like to address a few issues.

Strong and trusted journalism has never been more important.

Yes, that’s absolutely right, but it always has been. In any day and age there needs to be a robust public debate informed by accurate and honest information. In a mass society when we can’t all gather in the forum for the daily senate meeting the public sphere is highly mediated. We get our information – on which we base our opinions – from the mass media. A reliable and trustworthy news service is absolutely essential to that process.

I believe the future of journalism has never looked stronger.

This statement needs to be addressed in several ways because Hywood’s qualification is important:

And this is because of the internet, not despite it.

We’ll come to that in a minute, but first a question to Mr Hywood: How can the future of journalism look ‘stronger’ to you when your own company Fairfax Media is busy cutting jobs and the number of working journalists in major news titles is falling around the globe?

This was the situation at Fairfax mastheads in May this year:

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald are preparing for a wave of industrial action after new Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood wielded the axe this morning, sacking over 100 production staff to achieve annual cost savings of $15 million under the cover of an announcement spruiking “quality journalism”.

[Fairfax slashes: 'quality journalism' with fewer staff]

Perhaps Mr Hywood had this in mind when he said in his speech last night:

What has changed is the workload. Forget filing once a day. In this crowded, chaotic environment you have to provide the best, independent news and analysis all the time.

Yeah, that’s right: the old bosses’ mantra of “doing more with less.” Simple physics and quantum mechanics tell us that it it almost impossible to do more with less.

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