What next for the Fairfax newspapers?

Fairfax Media is restructuring its newspapers, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

As print editions, these have been and still are great newspapers. They have well-established rules of editorial separation. That is, the owners and board members have agreed that they will not influence the news and editorial content of the papers. This has allowed Fairfax editors and journalists to report on news without fear of influence or retribution, even if it affects board members or advertisers.

After the ABC, Fairfax media has been the most reliable, credible and balanced source of state, national and international news. They have upheld the traditional role of broadsheet newspapers. This is quite distinct from the traditional role of tabloids, which give prominence to anything that will catch the attention of readers whether it is important or not.

One other thing you may have noticed in the Fairfax paper editions: there is an intentional separation of news from opinions. The papers have news pages and then towards the centre are the editorial and opinion pages. No chance of getting confused. However on the web editions there is no such separation. In fact it’s quite easy to get confused about whether you’re reading news, an opinion piece of a bit of advertorial news. An advertorial is news that organisations pay to have published, such “leaks” about new Apple products or medical breakthroughs that you might want to ask your GP about. You’ll also see them in the 6pm TV news bulletins and in programs like Today Tonight and A Current Affair.

So I find the the editorial quality of Fairfax internet editions disappointing; they are decidedly downmarket in the best (?) tabloid traditions. They have everything but a page three swimsuit photo. They use sensationalist headlines to draw you into the advertising. Video starts without bothering to ask whether you want to watch it, and if in fact you do want to watch you have to sit through 30 seconds of advertising.

You’ve heard the term chick-magnets? Well, in the internet publishing industry there’s also a term called click-magnets. Check out the Fairfax web editions and you’ll see them everywhere. Images objectifying women is the standard practice to draw men into an article. Here’s an example of a click-magnet from today’s edition:

So what’s the article behind this image? Rome: Beating the tourist hordes to find the ‘best gelato ever’.   Short skirt, fishnet stockings? What’s the connection with gelato? Doesn’t really matter if it gets you to visit the advertising surrounding the article. That’s what a click magnet is.

So what’s going to happen now that Fairfax has announced it’s reorganising its business to overcome declining revenue from its paper editions?

Well, they’ve already decided to ditch the broadsheet format and go to tabloid size papers. Unfortunately this is likely to be a first step towards an attempt to appeal to a broader clientele. In other words, they will most likely be competing directly with papers like the infamous Daily Mirror. As with commercial TV, I fear this will be a race to the bottom when it comes to the ethics of editorial and journalistic practice.

A number of senior editors have already resigned. It’s not clear whether they’ve done this in protest or whether they were pushed. Doesn’t matter much; the result is the same.

The only bit of good news in all this concerns Gina Rinehart, who has been building up her stake in Fairfax. The commonly held view is that she sees the Fairfax papers becoming instruments of her business ambitions and her fierce right-wing politics. However despite acquiring 20% or more of the shares (more than anyone else) she has failed so far in her attempt to gain any places on the board because she has refused to sign the editorial separation code of conduct. She is now threatening to take her bat and ball and shares and go play somewhere else.

So at the moment I have very mixed feelings about Fairfax. While I’m encouraged by the stance of the board in the face of the Rinehart steamroller, I have great fears that the quality of the paper will diminish in the rush to gain greater profit.

Should I boycott Fairfax? That’s the way it’s heading.


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