Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Reading between the lines with David Kirk

The Fairfax CEO gave a speech at the Sydney Institute last night defending his company's recent restructure announcements and outlining his vision for the future of quality journalism at Fairfax.

Here's a copy of the speech.

A lot of what Kirk said was his standard stump speech about the strength of the business and its ability to face the current cyclical and structural challenges, etc etc.

But in amongst his assertions of long term sustainability and general optimism about the future of Fairfax are some interesting conclusions. These are not obviously statements announcing direct action, but they will be the inevitable result of some of the foundations that Kirk's optimism rests on.

Here's a salient quote:
" [...] we are in the process of transforming Fairfax Media into a multi-media news and information company. We have a long way to go, but we have begun the process of converging editorial content development and management, and brand management and sales, across our distribution platforms."
Fairfax execs have been saying this for a while now. It's quite obviously become a central piece of orthodoxy in the Fairfax camp. That's good and well, but the really interesting question is - what exactly does it mean? My feeling is that a couple of years ago it meant one thing, but now it means something quite different. What might that be?

Here's another clue, from Kirk's speech:
"We have some of the most powerful brands in the country. And they carry an emotive wallop.

"Indeed, a lot of the public reaction to our restructure that I mentioned at the outset is because our audience feels very invested in the brands because of what they stand for.

"In that sense, a lot of the debate and discussion has actually been heartening to us because of the relevance of what we do for so many readers and listeners – in print, on air and online.

"And their message is to reinforce exactly what we want: to continue the high quality journalism that is so important to them, and to the strength of our brands.

"Our brands therefore are the glue in the relationship we have with our audiences built as they are on our long history of journalism of the highest quality.

"For over 175 years, our mastheads have been the newspapers that champion the community and dare to make power accountable.

"The challenge for us as a company is to stretch the brands – to modernise them – so that they are as powerful in the 21st century as they were in the 19th and 20th centuries."
Brand has always been critically important to Fairfax, but it could be that there is now a real willingness to align the brands properly across content channels.

There has traditionally been a good deal of tension between print and online representations of the metro mastheads, ie. the web sites lean towards the salacious and the newspapers steer through an AB heartland. Some feel that has been mismanaged. Others that it is the right thing for two different audiences.

The real problem, though, is not that there are two (or even three) different audiences for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, but that decisions about how the brand should be managed via each channel are not centrally controlled. Neither metro masthead editor has overall control of his paper's web site. Consequently that consumer brand attachment, which David Kirk rightly values, is at risk.

I posted on this a while back. At the heart of the problem seems to be an organisational disconnect between Fairfax Digital which owns the masthead web sites, and the editorial culture of the newspapers which maintains the tradition of quality journalism. The ongoing separation of the two businesses - print and digital - means that the newspaper journalists have every reason to stay suspicious about the way their efforts will be treated online. Whilst that continues, the brands will suffer.

But Mr Kirk's speech last night may be indicating a shift in position on the governance of the masthead web sites. Whilst he is very clear about the overall value of the digital business, the specific needs of the metro masthead web sites remain distinct from Trademe or essentialbaby or Stayz or any of the other non-news sites that Fairfax runs. For the news sites to work most productively with their parent masthead it is only logical that each metro newspaper editor be able to direct online operations.

No doubt there will be voices inside Fairfax Digital who will maintain that no Fairfax newspaper editor could possibly run a major news site. That is to be expected, but nevertheless it would be quite mistaken.

1 comment:

leany said...

Fairfax Media's $3.4 million man, failed to impress with his speech to The Sydney Institute last night. The Fairfax share price was hammered to another record low in trade today - just $2.17 per share - down from the previous low of $2.23.
-----------------------------
hennry
influencer