If there was ever an example of a publishing company that failed to get the transition to digital right – it’s Fairfax Media.
It’s the classic case of a publisher unsure of what step to take next in order to better make money, and to do so more efficiently, in a fast-changing media landscape.
When Chris Janz was handed responsibility for Fairfax’s metro division – which houses the likes of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review – the writing was on the wall. It was clear Fairfax was serious about its attempt to transform itself into a digital-first company – if Chris Janz, the former boss of Allure Media, can’t do it, no one can.
Shortly after the ASX announcement about the restructure – which will see the publisher look to save an annual $30m on its editorial costs – a memo to staff – headed “Metro Journalism – The way ahead” – emerged, signed by the division’s six most senior editorial executives
“As Australia’s oldest publisher, we believe that by pursuing the stories that matter we play a vital role in the nation’s democracy. We also secure the future of our business,” the document, republished by The Australian, stated.
“Technology has changed our world. It has enabled viewers and readers greater choice in what and how they consume. What hasn’t changed is the demand for high-quality content. Fairfax Media has a great history of meeting the demands of information technology.
“Never have journalists been more important. Never have journalists been more influential.”
I’m sure the journalists facing losing their jobs would have stared at their screens with a deep sense of frustration and irony upon reading that line. It’s a hard pill to swallow considering the deep cuts last year and the cuts the editorial teams at Fairfax are now facing. While well-intentioned – and presumably meant for those who will be staying – it won’t mean much to redundant journalists needing to find new work.
But more interestingly – and arguably the most encouraging sign yet that Fairfax is finally starting to think about its brands in the same way its readers do – was the memo’s hint towards the value of having the same brand in both digital and in print.
It’s something Fairfax Media, especially The Sydney Morning Herald and SMH.com.au, has struggled with. As I wrote in May last year – “Basically Fairfax’s mastheads have split personalities, the quality and thoughtful newspaper experience isn’t translated online, and as a result the websites lack cohesion”.
It was something that four years ago Fairfax’s then metro boss Jack Matthews defended to Mumbrella as brand stretch.
Too often in reality though, it amounted to clickbait online and Kate McClymont investigations in print.
The memo told staff: “The changing media landscape means our journalism must be responsive, relevant and accessible across all platforms and devices. But it does not change the essential character of our mastheads which believe the best outcomes for communities and individuals are achieved by a mix of socially liberal and fiscally responsible policies.”
It’s a message Fairfax need to start telling better – loudly and often.
For readers a ‘one brand’ strategy needs to see Fairfax Media’s mastheads match each other in tone – SMH.com.au and The Sydney Morning Herald should feel the same to readers – the serious style and tone of The SMH print newspaper should be reflected across its digital product. To readers they are one and the same thing and perhaps Fairfax is starting to realise that.
The last time we had a round of job cuts, Fairfax failed to explain its strategy, it failed to get ahead of the human reaction to hundreds of jobs going. And when it’s journos writing about other journos losing their jobs, it’s a story they’re not going to move on from quickly.
There is a key difference this time around and that is Chris Janz. The announcement was from Janz, not from higher-up management. Janz is owning his new role and the difficult decisions that come with trying to transform a legacy, struggling, publishing company into a digital-first, (hopefully) nimble operation.
Chris Janz needs to tell the Fairfax Media one brand story
But what Janz needs to do now is continue what his editors have started and tell the one brand story, explaining the strategy and get staff properly on board with the vision and then of course the other difficult job is convincing the wider market.
He also needs to be open on what the publications are not going to do any more. Written for internal consumption, the memo mostly brushes that aside.
Janz needs to be clear on what will be different from previous redundancy rounds.
From the note we know the editorial agenda Fairfax wants to stand for – “We want to be the political centre of the rigorous debate over how best to achieve these important objectives. However, we will continue to strongly argue that safety nets are necessary to protect the vulnerable and that the state has an important role to play in areas such as health, education and the environment. Considered, agenda-setting journalism is the best way our newsrooms can achieve these important goals. The mastheads must be a “broad church” in which sensible – and often differing – voices can contest the issues that will determine our cities’, our states’ and Australia’s future prosperity”.
It’s an admirable aim. But to get readers back on side, Fairfax needs to sort out its personality issues, properly align the print and digital brands, bring the Fairfax voice to the fore and start to mean something online. It needs to work out its identity and sell it to the public. Its marketers and its editors will need to agree. That’s the job that lies ahead.