Garry Linnell: staying true to the craft

Fairfax’s Garry Linnell has been promoted to editorial director of its metro division after less than a year with the company. He spoke to Encore’s Brooke Hemphill in February about his role, taking risks and why this is the best time to be a journalist

You can always gauge the esteem a journalist is held in by the amount of care their colleagues take when preparing a mock leaving cover. If the production values of the fake front page of The Bulletin positioned on the highest shelf of Garry Linnell’s office are anything to go by, the team at Fairfax are going to enjoy working with their new boss. Emblazoned on the cover is Linnell’s face in full Gene Simmonds Kiss makeup with the cover line ‘I was made for leaving you Gaz.’

Linnell has been in this office for just over three months and his role as national editor of metro media is something of a mystery to many. “It’s a unique sort of role, national editor,” Linnell notes. “It’s taken a lot of people, particularly outside Fairfax, to understand.” While people away from the Darling Island headquarters are still wrapping their heads around his appointment, Linnell has been busily bringing about change at the company where he began his career almost 30 years ago.

Garry Linnell joined The Age newspaper as a cadet, fresh from high school, in 1982. “When I started, I walked into The Age office and there was a desk, a Remington typewriter, a bell shaped telephone and an ashtray. And that was it,” Linnell says. “We went to shorthand classes then to police rounds to learn the craft. They were supposed to be the golden days.”

Linnell worked for The Age “on and off for about 18 years”, giving up his post as a feature writer for Good Weekend Magazine in 2001 to move to Sydney and write for ACP Magazine’s news magazine and Kerry Packer’s baby, The Bulletin. After a year at the respected title, Packer appointed Linnell editor-in-chief and delivered words of advice Linnell still remembers today: make them talk about it. Linnell did his best to get people talking about the once revered magazine, whose origins could be traced to the late 1800s, but in the upheaval following Packer’s death in 2005, Linnell was lured by close friend and one-time colleague Eddie McGuire to head up news and current affairs at Channel Nine.

In the wake of Packer’s passing, Nine faced a tumultuous period and coupled with the announcement of Linnell’s appointment was news 100 redundancies would be made at the network – most from the department he was to run.

“That was managing at a period of major disruption,” Linnell says and after little more than a year in the role, he resigned amid rumours his job had been offered to Seven producing young gun Adam Boland. Linnell joined News Limited’s Daily Telegraph as editor-at-large before taking over the editor’s chair from David Penberthy in 2008. In April last year, Linnell announced his departure from the Telegraph and it was thought he would return home to The Age. Instead, in September, he took on the role of national metro editor at Fairfax after CEO Greg Hywood and Jack Matthews, CEO of Fairfax’s metro division, came calling.

“I’d been to Italy, had four-and-a-half months off and had intended to have a year out of the media completely but Greg Hywood and Jack Matthews had both started calling me,” Linnell explains. “I started at Fairfax 30 years ago so there was a pretty strong attraction to coming back.”

But Linnell was returning to a very different company than the one he left more than a decade earlier. In the years following, the organisation had struggled to rework the business model it had relied on for more than 100 years with the loss of its key money spinner the classified sections. The publisher looked to be drifting aimlessly and while their mastheads were among the first to establish an online presence, this was arguably overshadowed by the disparities of the web offerings and a move away from the well-crafted journalism Fairfax had always prided itself on. Then, in 2011, Fairfax made the decision to outsource the subediting of copy leading many insiders to announce the death of quality journalism at the organisation.

Given Linnell’s pedigree, his appointment suggests the ship could be back on course, although even long-time colleagues are unsure what his position entails. Over at News Limited, Charles Miranda, managing editor of the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and mX, who worked with Linnell at the Telegraph, says: “I spoke to him recently to ask how it’s all going and I couldn’t get a fix from talking to him.”

Linnell is more than happy to explain, although it seems, at times, even he is still getting his head around the many divisions he oversees. “We’re taking the areas of our company in metro – so that’s The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Canberra Times, and online – and trying to bring them all together so we’re maximising the talent we have in that pool,” he says.

An example is the integration of the food and wine sections. “Instead of looking section by section, which newspapers have done in the past, where you’ve got the Good Living section on Tuesday in Sydney and Epicure in Melbourne, we’re pulling all of our food and wine resources into one area,” Linnell explains. “We are asking what our strengths are online and what resources we need. How do we get all of our recipes that we have from Good Weekend, Sydney and Melbourne Magazine, Sunday Life and the two food sections, pull all that together and get up a great search function? How do we get that out there and become the premiere food and wine brand around Australia?” The food and wine division is headed up by Lisa Hudson, former CEO and publisher of Fairfax Magazines, in the role of general manager.

This consolidation model is currently being applied across several key areas within the metro division including business with the appointment of Sean Aylmer, former editor of BRW, as national business editor. Travel, cars section Drive, and politics will follow suit as Linnell endeavours to transform the National Times online masthead into a haven for political junkies. “The National Times home page, which has been an aggregator, more or less, of all the opinion published by Fairfax around the country, will be covering more national affairs and breaking news as well. Websites in the US like Politico and ProPublicia which have become the places to go to if you want to find out what’s happening around Washington, that’s what I want National Times to become here.” Key to delivering on this promise is the inclusion of Fairfax’s Canberra bureau under the metro umbrella. After his appointment, Linnell met the team of 22 tasking them to challenge The Australian’s political reporters with the goal of breaking more stories.

Underpinning this new model is the bringing together of Fairfax’s print and online offerings, a move many newspaper veterans before Linnell resisted. “I don’t think it matters any more where people are reading your material,” Linnell says. “It took me a long time to get to that view and it will probably take others as long if not longer. But you get to that point where you say, that’s a great story, I don’t care where we publish it – we can break it at 9am or we’ll keep it back for the paper, we could put it on the tablet or the 3D holograph that will come out in three years time, I don’t know. To get to that point takes a while for an old print creature but once you get there, you start seeing the possibilities.”

As well as amalgamating his teams, Linnell has made editorial changes within Fairfax’s key brands with the appointment of Good Weekend editor Ben Naparstek who joined the company at the end of January leaving The Monthly after two years in the editor’s seat, a role he began at the age of 23. Naparstek’s work at The Monthly reminds Linnell of Kerry Packer’s directive to make people talk about the publication.

“He’s had the capacity to make a lot of noise for a magazine that sells 30,000 copies yet everyone talks about it around the country,” Linnell says. “I expect him to do the same here on Good Weekend. It will take a little bit of time for him to adjust because he’s going from a monthly magazine tempo to a weekly magazine but he’s got the goods to do it.” Sunday Life, has also seen a changing of the guard with the appointment of Kate Cox, a 12-year Fairfax veteran as the title’s new editor and Pat Ingram as editorial director.

“I knew Pat when I was working at ACP and she’s the grand dame of women’s magazines. She’ll be a great guiding hand not just for Kate but for me as well,” Linnell says. “Sometimes you start a new job and you get three months to find your way. We had three months to move quickly and get the key people into the roles we needed. I am fortunate because I’m not exactly coming to a brand new company where I don’t know a soul.”

Thirty years in the media means it is likely anywhere Linnell goes, he will find familiar faces and in most cases, friendly ones. As one time colleague Miranda says: “He’s a good egg. A well-liked boss. His personality helps that but also he is true to the craft.”

During his tenure at Nine, Linnell appointed a 26-year-old Tom Malone as the executive producer of the Today Show. Six years on, Malone is still in the role and he holds Linnell in high regard. “Garry has the ability to manage teams that are undergoing change,” Malone says. “It’s because he’s a great listener, an inclusive leader.” Malone stays in touch with his one-time boss. “He’s still a mentor for me especially in terms of managing staff and making the work environment a place people want to be.”

“An old editor of mine once said the best way to be an editor is to be a benign dictator,” Linnell says. “What he meant is you listen, you take on board the best ideas. You make sure you collaborate and consult but ultimately someone has to make a final decision. It’s a terrible word, a dictatorship, but it’s probably a pretty fair description.”

An organisation in an industry experiencing change requires a strong, decisive leader and Linnell is far from risk averse. “I want people to take a chance right now,” he says. “Some of those old rules that have kept us within the box for a long time – get rid of them. Have a dip. Have a real go.”

Some would say working for a newspaper is risky enough given the uncertain future of print. Linnell disagrees. “I’m not going to say newspapers won’t ever die, but I reckon I’ll be in the ground long before papers are. You get a lot of doom and gloom in the industry and that’s been going on since I started. I remember being told the 50s, 60s and 70s were this golden era for print and media. We’ve got more readers now than we had 20 or 30 years ago so you can’t very well say that was the golden age. I’ve spoken to a lot of young reporters and I’ve said, you’re starting at a great time because there are many more options to pursue. I reckon the golden days are here now.”

  •  This piece first appeared in Encore magazine. Subscribe to the print edition here or download the iPad edition here

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