Culture. Powerful medicine

In this guest post, Peter Miller argues that management upheaval can give newsrooms a common enemy to unite against

In the last couple of weeks I have enjoyed posts by Cathie McGinn on her giddying experience inside Photon, and by Anonymous from inside one of the Fairfax newsrooms, described by the correspondent as ‘toxic’.

These posts conjured up a conversation I recall with a gifted but aggrieved SMH journalist who joined ACP in the early 1990s after the Warwick Fairfax-led Tourang take over and subsequent shambles. She described leaving a great newspaper company that she described as having lost its soul.

To my surprise, only a few short months later she was on her way back to her old job at Fairfax. Over dinner I asked her what on earth had happened, imagining that she had fallen victim to an editorial witch hunt, common at the time and quite probably as common today.

I could not have been more wrong. My colleague explained that what she missed most about Fairfax, and what had drawn her back, was the newsroom camaraderie that had sprung directly from the management and ownership shambles that had driven her to leave.

I didn’t know much about human behaviour then so I concluded she was addicted to being beaten over the head. Looking back, I think I get it.

I myself had rewarding gig at Fairfax ten years later in the senior sales and marketing role. I was tasked with growing one great Fairfax franchise – premium display advertising, and fortifying the other – the famed rivers of gold. Note to the young’ens: Look it up.

An unkind mate of mine rang up and described mine as a job “no-one could fuck up, you lucky bastard”. He was quite right then. Ten years on he would be dead wrong.

One of the privileges of that job was working with terrific journos and editors.

John Alexander was doing a fantastic job editing the SMH until he and then CEO Bob Muscat decided they didn’t like getting into the lift together anymore. JA as we all know went on to fame and considerable fortune at Park Street.

Alan Revell was rescuing the damaged Sun Herald with clear thinking, aggression and a bundle of cash from the aforementioned Bob Muscat who knew plenty about the papers.

Steve Harris and Michael Gawenda were rescuing the Age from a hammering meted out by Jeff Kennett, firstly re-focussing; then re-designing and finally re-launching.

And Michael Gill was keeping the AFR on course whilst eyeing off Bob Gottliebsen’s job on BRW in his spare time. Both projects worked out.

Towards the end of my enjoyable stay Greg Hywood stepped up to replace JA as editor and publisher of the SMH, a job he did with great distinction before removing himself from Fred Hilmer’s immediate vicinity and heading to Melbourne to lead the Age.

It was a dynamic and confident time characterised by investment in mastheads and marketing to match. As a consequence the readers and advertisers were happy. The only people not so happy were the investors.

So I have zero experience of ‘toxic atmosphere in Fairfax newsroom’, nor the sense of being ‘trapped in an ice floe slowly breaking up’.

So cane me, but I see nothing but upside for gifted newshounds in Fairfax and for that matter News Limited. For in these situations, the 1000 or so employees walking out the door involuntarily will be followed by another 200 who cope poorly with convulsive change. This creates openings for the energetic and talented on the outside who missed the carnage.

And there may be many who leave those organisations for presumed greener pastures elsewhere who, like my former colleague, find themselves missing the very camaraderie that springs from fighting the bastards upstairs.

  • Peter Miller is MD of Adstream. He has held senior sales roles at Fairfax Media, ACP and Pacific Publications


Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing