The end of News Limited being led by a journo – now it’s the man who gets paid content

John Hartigan, News LtdThe character of News Limited is about to change.

The opening words used by John Hartigan when he gave the Andrew Olle Media Lecture in 2007 give the clue why:

“My name is John Kenneth Hartigan. Occupation: journalist. A journalist is what I am, who I am, and what I will always be. When you wanted to be a journalist as fervently as I did, took as long to become one as I did, and love it as much as I do – you are never anything else.”

It used to be that a key point of difference between Australia’s two behemoths was that News Limited was run by a journo and Fairfax by a suit. In almost exactly a year that has reversed.  

On December 6 last year, journalist Greg Hywood took charge at Fairfax. On December 5 this year, Foxtel’s boss Kim Williams will take the helm at News Limited.

Undoubtedly, many News Limited journos will be sad to no longer be led by one of their own. Although they may note that Rupert Murdoch will become chairman – previously Harto was both CEO and chairman.

But there are a couple of reasons why Foxtel CEO Kim Williams is arguably better placed than anyone to drive the company as it moves into a new phase.

First, he understands the intricacies of getting consumers to pay for content. And there’s every sign that he also understands that you have to continually invest in creating that content if you want consumers to go on paying for it.

Somehow, although the rate of growth has slowed dramatically, he never failed to keep growing Foxtel’s subscriber base. In part, that is because of how well run it was. Considering that Telstra (the tel of Foxtel of course) is a 50% owner, it’s always been remarkable how the often-toxic customer experience of Telstra (albeit recently improved) did not infect the pay TV company. No doubt it helps that despite only having a 25% share, News has management control. There’ve been the a couple of times over the last five years where I’ve rung Foxtel to cancel and the call handler has persuaded me to stay.

Inevitably, there will be lessons around the marketing and dynamics of subscription TV that can be applied to digital subs too.

Second, Williams understands the screen industry. Actually, that’s an understatement. As well as Foxtel, Williams has run Fox Studios Australia, the Australian Film Commission, Southern Star Entertainment and even once worked at the ABC.

At a time when News Limited’s journalists are grappling with learning the art of storytelling beyond text, Williams is again in a position to know how to take them there. With IPTV soon to be ubiquitous, I wonder how long before Williams creates a News Limited channel or channels.

It also means that in both the UK and Australia, Murdoch’s news operations are now run by former Foxtel CEOs. The kiwi Tom Mockridge took the helm at News International in July after the News of the World phone hacking scandal.

Richard FreudensteinMeanwhile, the replacement of Williams by Richard Freudenstein is a no-brainer. Before he came back to Australia he was GM and chief operating officer of BSkyB in the UK, the subscription TV service Foxtel is modelled upon. Before that, he helped launch Foxtel. There will be, I suspect, very few first day nerves when Freudenstein walks into his office in North Ryde.

An obvious unanswered question is who will replace Freudenstein, both as CEO of News Digital Media and The Australian? My suspicion is that some of his role will disappear, as News Digital Media’s digital mastheads have grown closer to their print brethren.

A further clue comes in Freudey’s note to staff. He tells them: “I think you will all agree that John Allan has hit the ground running, and is exactly the right person to lead The Australian’s commercial growth.” Allan became The Australian’s COO in June.

In the scheme of things, that particular issue seems relatively minor.

In the minutes that followed the announcements, I found myself doing some radio interviews. The common question: was Harto pushed?

Of course, it’s no coincidence that these moves followed a visit to Australia by Murdoch. That’s when the big decisions get made. And Murdoch’s executives only ever serve at Murdoch’s pleasure. So of course, Rupert had the final say on whether it was time. And that comes to an end for everybody, even if it sometimes takes four decades. In July, Les Hinton went, after 50 years.

But I’d be very surprised if it was News Limited’s poor relationship with parts of the Government that triggered this. That’s not Murdoch’s style.

What is about to change though, is the style of leadership at News Limited, which is of course soon to be rebranded as News Australia. The rebrand will start at the top.

Tim Burrowes


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