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Michael Stutchbury on 70 years of the Financial Review and why the premium subscription model works

With the Australian Financial Review celebrating 70 years this week, Mumbrella's Zanda Wilson caught up with editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury to chat about the significance of the anniversary, and what's next for the publication.

The Australian Financial Review (AFR) marks its 70th anniversary this week and is celebrating the occasion with a series of content initiatives, kicking off with a 12-page wraparound out today.

The special edition will commemorate the seven leaders to have shaped the growth of the Australian business world over the past seven decades, but as editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury says, the story of the publication goes far beyond what can be told in a retrospective.

“The Australian Financial Review for the past seven decades has played a unique role in Australian business, financial markets, politics, and really the nation, in charting the growth of the Australian economy and the growth of prosperity, of what is now quite a well off nation,” he tells Mumbrella.

“When we started in 1951, there were only eight million people in Australia. Thins were very much based on the export profile, based on agriculture which accounted for 50% of exports. We were still very much part of the British empire.

“Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that we are a wealthy society, and we transformed our export base from wool to exporting iron ore, coal and gas to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and then China.”

AFR 70th Anniversary Wrap-Around Cover

In terms of what readers can look forward to this week, there is the 12-page wrap, but also many other stories from back when the paper first started through to 2021.

“All that history will be brought to life, the incredible stories and the people that really shaped this world that we are in and the defining characters. There’ll be things about how the Financial Review started and how it’s growing, but it’s really a story of how the business community has grown,” Stutchbury says.

“We’ll have other content in there during the week and we will keep on going [past Monday]. Andrew Clark is doing a seven-part series decade-by-decade on the growth of Australian business as seen through the eyes of the Financial Review.

“And we will cover a lot of people whose careers we were the first to report on.

“By the end of the week we’ve got the special, Financial Review 70 year magazine edited by Matthew Drummond, and that will have a world exclusive interview with Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, the world’s most valuable company.

“And big interviews with John Howard and Paul Keating, the leaders who really straddled this period.”

While it’s tempting around anniversaries to look back with nostalgia at the history, the AFR, like many other mastheads, suffered through print’s hard times in the early 2010s.

“We’ve seen print come through those tough times, which hit around 2012. The past decade has really been an intense disruption period for Australia’s newspaper world, and it particularly hit the [former] Fairfax Media publications,” Stutchbury admits.

“We weren’t a global media empire, so the Fairfax publications were most exposed and had to move quickly. We adjusted earlier than others in the market and were at the forefront, so now we’ve got a model that stood up during that period.”

The Australian Financial Review Platinum Magazine

Stutchbury believes that the publication has come out of the last decade of challenges stronger, and ready to deal with whatever is next, pandemic or otherwise.

“Now we’ve been hit by the COVID… but we had no retrenchment in the newsroom. In fact, since before COVID we’ve turned [the publication] around, and we’ve actually had an acceleration of the business model.”

Stutchbury adds that the premium subscription model is market-leading, and digital growth has easily offset the impacts of COVID-19 on print.

“No doubt If you’re reading the Financial Review, you’re no longer reading it when going into the office or catching a plane or staying in hotels…

“[But] we have more than offset that with a growth in our premium digital subscriptions. The Financial Review is leading in the Australian marketplace in building and establishing a presence in the digital subscriptions business.

“And it’s a premium thing, it’s not cheap, so you’re asking people to pay serious money and you’re moving from a business based largely on print to one based heavily on digital subscribers.”

He says under former CEO Hugh Marks and newly minted chief Mike Sneesby, the AFR is being given the resources and room to thrive under new owners Nine Entertainment Co.

“So for the horizon, we’re in a growth space, and moving to Nine has been a good part of that under Hugh Marks, and now under Mike Sneesby. In fact, he’s been very deliberate about giving us the financial resources to take the opportunity to grow.”

In 2019 the AFR was given a grant from the Judith Nielsen Institute to set up a new bureau in Jakarta, Indonesia. It’s been a tough year for the AFR’s outposts, with Mike Smith forced out of China last September.

Stutchbury explains: “We’ve got bureaus in London and in Washington, Matthew Cranston, who’s moved there reasonably recently. Then of course we had Shanghai where Mike Smith was, but he had to move out of there pretty quickly. So we’re looking to find a way to get Mike to Tokyo.

“And then in Jakarta, Emma Connors moved there with the help of the Judith Nielsen Institute, which we’re very grateful for. She’s now moving to Singapore, so she is still ensconced in a good central location in Southeast Asia. And it’s a bit easier to operate, especially in the COVID environment, easier and safer. “

The first Australian Financial Review (1951)

In response to reports earlier this year that front-page bylines skew heavily towards males at the publication, Stutchbury says that it’s one metric that doesn’t tell the full story.

“It reflects that, in business and finance, the readership does scoop the skew. But the Financial Review over its history has been a leader in employing senior female journalists, and females throughout the organisation at senior levels,” he says.

“We run a lot of political stories on page one as a national paper. So if you’re our political editor, Phil Currie, he’s a bit of page one splash machine. He takes up a lot of that and that in part explains the skew.

“If you look through the senior editors and writers on the Financial Review, we’ve got a very strong representation of women who are editing various sections.

“I’d like to get more female bylines on the front, but I don’t think it’s an overall representative indicator of the contribution [of our female writers].

Whatever happens in the world of business in Australia, the Financial Review will be there to chart it. The next challenge, Stutchbury says, will be whether we can move with the times and away from economic reliance on mining.

“Looking back at the Financial Review… and I love a bit of retro and nostalgia, but it gives you a sense of how things change.

“Now the challenge is extending that thread in our world now. How do we transform that natural resource-based prosperity into the new low-carbon world? Can we maintain prosperity during this next phase?”

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