Downfall of a great Australian icon | Innovation Tech
THE path accidentally laid out by “young” Warwick Fairfax just over 30 years ago has reached a dismal terminus.
But the decades-old ambitions of the Nine network to own Fairfax have finally been blessed, in one of the most dramatic and significant media deals of our history.
The great and elegant Fairfax galleons will become an offshoot of Nine Entertainment. Once a company with TV stations as subsidiaries, Fairfax is now the junior partner of a network.
The driving strategy of its senior executives has been to strip the unnecessary elements of the company — sometimes its most distinctive features — to prepare it for a takeover.
In a corporate sense, to save the Fairfax fleet it had to be sunk.
The Nine Entertainment ownership will have some obvious consequences. For example, the future of joint ABC/Fairfax investigative journalism exercises would appear doubtful.
And there is apprehension over the fate of “the venerable mastheads” as daily events in print. They could become online products Monday-to-Friday and only appear as newspapers on weekends.
The titles include the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age in Melbourne, and the Australian Financial Review.
In terms of history, the door has been slammed shut on the great Fairfax family as important participants in the nation’s political and social parade.
The Fairfax clan were as close as we could get to homegrown royalty, with a Sydney harbourside mansions as its palace.
One of the last links to that era was Lady Mary Fairfax who died last year aged 95.
This reduced corporate independence of Fairfax has been a lingering and excruciating process which began with a bold bid for sovereignty.
In 1987, after the death of Sir Warwick Fairfax, young Warwick, 26, his son by his third wife Mary, launched a bold bid to privatise John Fairfax Holdings and resume full family ownership.
A declining market and botched handling saw the plan for a brighter Fairfax future turn into disaster, and by December, 1990 the company was in receivership. A year later young Warwick left for the United States were he has lived and worked since.
Owner of Nine at the time, the late Kerry Packer, wanted to buy the crumbled remains of Fairfax and his imported American corporate gunslinger, Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap, was poised to enter the newspaper offices to slash expenses.
It didn’t happen. Nine back then was fended off.
What Fairfax got was Conrad Moffat Black, a British newspaper executive with big plans for Fairfax, news of which reached here before he did in 1991 to scout out purchase options.
“I hope that my arrival will dispel the notion that I have cloven feet and pointy ears,” Mr Black joked.
Many were never convinced, particularly after the Black takeover in 1994.
He had his own “Chainsaw” Al, a South African named Stephen Mulholland who roused considerable Australian hostility.
The Black experiment lasted just five years during which circulations dropped alarmingly and after which he moved on. The man who became Baron Black of Crossharbour was later jailed in the US on charges related to fraud.
Then came an unsettled period in which all media outlets struggled with the brutal dynamics of the internet, digital commerce, and the fracturing of advertising sources. Fairfax was less successful in this adjustment and realignment than others.
But it continued to produce journalism of substance, and helped maintain diversity in the industry.
After the Nine takeover, all that could be a mere memory.