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Thursday, 12 September 2013

Fairfax Media claims underdog status

Back in March I blogged about the use of the sobriquet "independent" by Australia's media outlets but since then there's been a major shift in our understanding of this word since in the last couple of weeks one of the big names of Australian news, Fairfax Media, has seen fit to add the word to the mastheads of its two major dailies, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Only these two. The other vehicles the company runs, in Brisbane, Perth and Canberra, don't get it.

It's a rather startling move. I think it's fair to say that most people know that Fairfax, a publicly-traded company, is doing it tough. The share price is still way down below $1 per share. The company has introduced paywalls but so far no figures have yet been published to tell us how that move is panning out. Mining heiress Gina Reinhart is still a major shareholder though as far as I know she's not been able to secure any more board seats since her mate Jack Cowin was given one. Given these facts it's quite reasonable for Fairfax to claim that is in the process of reinventing itself with a view to remaining economically viable into the future - "Always", as the masthead boasts; the word also points back to 1831 when the company was established.

Signs Fairfax mastheads really are independent are not, of course, hard to find. In the run-up to Saturday's federal election, for example, The Age came out for the ALP and Rudd while the SMH came out for the Liberal-National coalition and Abbott. I wasn't watching any of the website-only vehicles closely enough to notice how they oriented themselves in relation to the political contest but it seems reasonable to assume that editors there also had a free hand. This independence is in stark contrast to the way all of Rupert Murdoch's newspapers lined up behind Abbott in the months and weeks before the poll. Clearly, in this case, there is a distinct lack of independence for individual editors and, by extension, the journalists themselves. (I have written about the lack of editorial independence at Murdoch vehicles on numerous occasions in the past, for example here and here and here.)

Given the journalistic landscape in Australia and the companies that feature in it I find it a tad surprising that Fairfax would add the word "independent" to those two mastheads, but not unduly so. Having written about this issue here myself it makes sense in a real and important way. It makes sense because of the dominance of Murdoch and it makes sense from an intellectual point of view. It also makes sense from an economic perspective: Fairfax is indeed struggling to remake itself in the new, post-internet media environment, as are newspapers all over the world. Their crisis of identity, spawned by poverty, is resulting in new ways of earning money and new ways of making news. If Fairfax wants to claim underdog status while it goes back to fundamentals as it works to resolve the crisis then I, for one, have no objection. Australians should pay attention to words such as "independent" because it is through them, and through what they represent, that their interests are best served especially, now, as public broadcaster the ABC is well underway on its slow shift to the Right.

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