If Fairfax is serious about going compact why wait nine months?

If there’s one thing you can’t accuse Fairfax of being, it’s decisive.

By the time the organisation finally takes The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald to compact format next March (if they actually go through with it), it will be almost exactly a decade since the strategy swept through Britian’s broadsheets, transforming – at least temporarily – their fortunes.

But I have my doubts it will actually happen.   

Back in September 2003, the Independent led the way, nervously.

So nervously, it published in dual format. The reader could buy it in compact or broadsheet, as they pleased. Imagine that little subbing exercise.

But it was a hit, and they quickly dropped the broadsheet version. Circulation – which had been on a downwards slope – rose nearly 20%.

At the time I edited Media Week in the UK. We named The Independent as media brand of the year on the back of the brave move, if I remember rightly.

News Corp’s The Times quickly followed. It also saw a circulation uplift.

The Guardian took slightly longer – mainly because it went for the in-between Berliner format. But again the move undoubtedly extended the print lifespan of the newspaper.

But there were downsides. Although circulation bumped upwards, the decline began again almost straight away, merely from a higher base.

And media agencies smelled blood. They were able to brutally renegotiate the ratecards.

None of which is to say that taking the newspapers to tabloid sized even at this late hour is the wrong move. It’s the right one – particularly for consumers.

If more of the upper echelons of Fairfax management had spent time on cramped public transport, I’m sure it would have happened years ago. At least the current management are finally getting to grips.

I am, however, suspicious why it’s going to take them another nine months as per today’s announcement.

Of course you need time to renegotiate ad rates, organise the presses, design the pages and prepare marketing plans. But not nine months. I can see no logical reason to wait that long.

My suspicion is that the Fairfax management still has a nuclear option in mind. Some time nearer March 4, the real decision will happen.

Recent weeks have seen people begin to seriously speculate about when the print editions will end. That’s bad for advertiser confidence. It won’t help long term subs much either.

By announcing a distant date to go compact, the hope may be that it underlines – at least for now – that Fairfax remains committed to print editions in some format.

I’m not convinced.

First, events may get in the way. Gina Rinehart on the board may well lead to a spill – and new management. Nobody knows what she’ll do.

On March 4 2013, they may indeed go compact. But I suspect there’s another real possibility, depending on the economics at the time.

That could end up being be the date that print editions of The SMH and The Age come to an end.

Tim Burrowes



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