There’s a great scene in the Harrison Ford movie Clear And Present Danger in which he gives the US president some commonsense PR advice.
Under discussion is a pal of the president who has turned up dead in shady circumstances.
The advisers want the president to distance himself.
But Ford’s character Jack Ryan has another suggestion. He recommends that when the press asks the president if they were friends, he should say, “No, we were good friends.” Asked if they were good friends, he should say: “No, we were lifelong friends.”
That way, there is nowhere else to go with the inquisition.
It feels like advice that might be useful for Fairfax as the company prepares to move its broadsheets The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald to a tabloid size.
Among the biggest external criticisms are that the titles may head to the mid-market, or become more national in nature. Even the fact that one of the masthead designs tested was for SMH, rather than the Sydney Morning Herald, drew negative commentary on Mumbrella.
But here’s the thing. All of those concepts are sensible.
They’d be idiots not to look at least look at a design using SMH. Yes there’s a lot of heritage in the full version, but there’s a lot of value in SMH too. Even if they didn’t eventually go for it (and word is, they didn’t) it would have been foolish not to take a look (so they did).
And, my impression is that these days there actually aren’t many fools among the day-to-day management at Fairfax. On the whole, we are seeing sensible people trying to catch up on what their predecessors failed to do.
Today, for instance, we saw BRW finally launch an app and decent website. With the emphasis on the word finally.
Like the Irishman in the joke giving directions, I wouldn’t start from here, if I were you.
Which brings me back to Fairfax’s fierce denial – from national editor-in-chief Garry Linnell – that the papers aren’t merging. Andrew Jaspan’s claims were, he said, “complete fiction”.
I wonder if a better response wouldn’t have been the opposite: Of course we need one editorial team – we’re one national company that happens to own two great mastheads that don’t even overlap.
Much of what has gone on behind the scenes in recent months has been travel in that direction: common non-news sections, more and more news stories appearing in both papers, along with the use of the somewhat inelegant phrase “told Fairfax”, more similar smh.com.au and theage.com.au websites.
For those who are not sentimental, it makes sense. Together, the papers would make for a brilliant national newspaper. There’d even be a chance to sell more copies outside of NSW and Victoria. Look at the progress being made by Fairfax’s online-only Brisbane Times.
Clearly, there would still need to be much local content – sport, local crime and state politics being the obvious three areas. That’s no different to the UK’s national papers, which have change pages aplenty.
(I’m not saying this will ever happen, but taking it to a logical conclusion – imagine how good a single national paper combining the best of The Age, The SMH and Fairfax’s Australian Financial Review would be.)
But sometimes it feels like the SMH and The Age are unclear what their readers want them to be first and foremost – a local paper or a national one. I suspect that most readers buy only one newspaper. They want the big national stories of the day covered, regardless of whether they take place within the state’s border. As one example, The Australian’s Media Diary made a fair observation in January that the SMH had given insufficient weight to coverage of the Queensland floods.
I’m pretty sure that the powers-that-be at Fairfax know all of that. I suspect that they also fear the backlash if they say it too loud. Which leaves the critics with room to shout about it, and leaves management retreating into denying plans to take what may turn out to be the sensible path.
It may be time to take the Jack Ryan approach. I’d certainly be more scared of staring down Garry Linnell than I would Harrison Ford.
The same goes for claims that the papers will move towards the mid-market. There’s nothing wrong with being accessible. And there’s a big difference between being downmarket and mid-market.
For now, they’re doing sensible things that should have been done before – starting with the move to compact format that should have happened eight or nine years ago.
And with that, maybe it’s now time to stop apologising for predecessors’ errors, and leave the inquisition with nowhere to go.