Sydney Morning Herald faces uncertain print future in Australia

Fairfax’s newspapers now face a diminished future, with company executives even discussing whether to stop printing ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ and ‘The Age’ on weekdays. ― AFP pic
Fairfax’s newspapers now face a diminished future, with company executives even discussing whether to stop printing ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ and ‘The Age’ on weekdays. ― AFP pic

SYDNEY, Aug 18 — They pushed for women to get the vote in Australia’s national elections. They brought down a central bank board member. And they helped convict a state official.

The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and their sister publications at Fairfax Media have been among the most powerful voices in Australia for more than 150 years, shaping public opinion on politics, exposing shady business practices and targeting vast criminal operations. Once mocked as a “Granny” for its cautious, worldly perspective, The Herald long ago embraced the reputation and the nickname.

But Fairfax’s newspapers now face a diminished future, with company executives even discussing whether to stop printing The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on weekdays. If they do, it would signal a new low in the decline of the global newspaper business, the radical retreat of centuries-old, mainstream metropolitan newspapers with national influence.

The prospect has dismayed many Australians who wonder what it means for civic life and what it says about the country’s place in the world. Australians consider themselves a highly informed and highly educated society, despite their geographic isolation. And The Herald and Age, with a history of sending correspondents to far-flung locales like the battlefields of Europe and South-east Asia, have been central to the discourse.

The weakening of independent voices like The Herald also leaves the Australian market increasingly dominated by the partisan agenda of News Corp, which owns the country’s top three newspapers by weekday circulation. The struggles at Fairfax represent an especially satisfying victory for News Corp, run by homegrown billionaire Rupert Murdoch, who turned his family’s original asset — a single provincial Australian newspaper — into a global media empire. Although News Corp has faced its own financial strains, its other successful businesses, like a real estate website, have provided better support for its journalistic operations.

Trouble at Fairfax Media “constitutes a crisis in civic journalism in our country, because the resources will no longer be there,” said Eric Beecher, a former top editor at The Herald and at News Corp who is now the publisher of Crikey, a news website. “The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have always done the heavy lifting of civic journalism and investigative journalism.”

The chief executive for Fairfax Media, Greg Hywood, said the company had not made a decision whether to halt weekday printing, although it was under review. If printing is halted, he said, the company’s journalistic approach would not be affected.

“Our readers have never been hungrier for good-quality news reporting,” Hywood said.

When The Herald opened its state-of-the-art, US$260 million (RM1 billiom) presses in 1995, the newspaper’s Saturday edition was a hefty 400 pages. The company predicted it would easily grow to 600 pages.

After all, The Herald and the rest of the Fairfax Media papers had practically cornered the market in Sydney and Melbourne for classified advertising for cars, jobs and real estate. Those so-called rivers of gold helped support a robust reporting operation.

The Saturday edition has now shrunk to around 200 pages. Fairfax has cut more than 500 jobs at city newspapers during the last five years, including 100 in April, according to Australia’s union for journalists. And last year The Herald’s cherished printing presses were sold for US$34 million.

The headwinds now buffeting The Herald and Age are global, as the internet erodes the protections once afforded by geography. There is the ubiquitous competition from Facebook and Google. Digital native publications like BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post each have small Australian newsrooms without the sizable costs of legacy papers like The Herald.

The “rivers of gold” have evaporated. Advertising and subscriptions have particularly wilted on weekdays; weekends now represent two-thirds of the revenues at Fairfax’s major newspapers.

Even by the newspaper industry’s standards, readers of Australia’s print newspapers have been declining at an unusually rapid rate. — Graphic by The New York Times
Even by the newspaper industry’s standards, readers of Australia’s print newspapers have been declining at an unusually rapid rate. — Graphic by The New York Times

In the sign of the depths of the print problems, the company this month wrote off much of its investment in the newspapers.

Fairfax’s main saving grace has been its fast-growing real estate website, Domain, which has helped offset the losses.

Such industry challenges forced papers in some large American cities to rethink their print presence years ago. The Times-Picayune of New Orleans cut printing to three days a week, while The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is online only.

Facing cutthroat competition in the crowded British market, The Independent in London, which started in the 1980s to shake up the media establishment, went digital this year.

Like many media operations, Fairfax is trying to strike a difficult balance. The meatier topics may play well to the newspaper audience, generally an older crowd. But Hywood, the Fairfax chief, said that online readers, who skew younger, want a broader mix.

In terms of readers, the digital strategy appears to be clicking. The Herald is the nation’s leading website, by the number of paying subscribers.

“That can be criticised by people who prefer highbrow content,” said Megan Brownlow, an executive director in the Sydney offices of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the consulting firm. “But when you’re in a numbers game like internet advertising, highbrow content is hard to monetize.”

Even so, it strikes a nerve within the newsroom, which worries about losing its voice within Australian society.

The ranks of The Herald, like so many newspapers around the world, have been decimated by cuts over the years. Reporters have gone on strike, deriding the rounds of job losses.

Some losses have cut to the core. Four years ago, 70 journalists were laid off within one week. Gone were the urban affairs editor, a senior political correspondent, a specialist feature writer, a senior business reporter, the health editor, arts editor and senior crime reporter.

Hywood denies that reporters are now thin on the ground. Fairfax plans to use the profits from non-news properties, like Domain and a television streaming service, Stan, to promote and support the company’s journalism.

But the financial picture at the newspapers continues to deteriorate, forcing Fairfax to contemplate the once-unthinkable. If The Herald drastically cuts its publication schedule, the fear inside and outside the newsroom is that the journalistic endeavours will suffer.

Kate McClymont, 58, has been breaking news at The Sydney Morning Herald for decades. One of the newspaper’s marquee journalists, McClymont appears in the paper’s ads.

“We have been holding the powerful in this city to account for a long time,” McClymont said.

Most recently, she pursued a state government minister, Eddie Obeid, uncovering how his private businesses were improperly benefiting from his public role. Obeid was found guilty in June of misusing his public office. He will soon face a second court case over mining leases he obtained from the state government.

“We have shone a light where crooks would prefer places remained dark,” McClymont said. “I hate the idea of people getting away with anything.”

“It is bad for democracy,” she added, “if this voice is diminished in any way.” — The New York Times

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