Once Fairfax was one of the nation's stalwart institutions, and one of the world's most successful news organisations. Now it's a train wreck. In Stop the Presses! long-time Fairfax investigative journalist Ben Hills gives voice, for the first time, to the people in the boardrooms and newsrooms where the action happened.
'This is not just a book about mismanagement on an epic scale destroying one of Australia's greatest and oldest institutions. It is not just a book documenting the decline of what was once Australia's premier media company, with its empire of hundreds of newspapers, magazines, TV stations and a radio network serving an audience of millions. It is both of those and it is more." "Ben Hills, prologue, Stop the Presses!
With unprecedented access to the major players in the Fairfax story – the dynastic princes, the acolytes, the would-be owners waiting in the wings – Hills has produced an unparalleled account of the many missteps taken on the company's road to ruin. CEOs and chairmen, editors, journalists and photographers on metro mastheads and rural presses alike, printers, shareholders and readers; they're all here, each adding their frank and unique perspective to this fresh retelling of the downfall of a great Australian institution. Along the way, Hills asks this crucial question: what will the failure of Fairfax mean for the future of independent journalism and, in the end, democracy?
Stop the Presses! is a brilliantly written, no-holds-barred insider's account of the Fairfax tale.
Ben Hills is one of Australia's most respected investigative journalists and the author of five books, including the international bestseller Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne. His journalism career stretches back to the 1960s, spans more than 60 countries and includes a spell with TV's 60 Minutes, although most of his time as a reporter was spent with Fairfax, writing for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. His investigations into subjects as varied as the asbestos industry, the Exxon Corporation and the Whitlam Government's Loan Affair were widely acclaimed. Hills now freelances. He lives in Sydney.
Stop the Presses!
Author: Ben Hills
Question: Why did you decide to write Stop the Presses!?
Ben Hills: Writing this book was as painful as writing my own parents' obituary, as I said in the introduction. I worked at Fairfax for 50 years -- starting off as a police rounds cadet on the midnight-to-dawn shift in the 1960s covering car-crashes, break-ins, suiciders jumping off The Gap and raids on illegal casinos for The Sun, a long-dead afternoon tabloid. I graduated on to covering Canberra politics, investigative reporting, and three stints as a foreign correspondent for the slightly more respectable Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Melbourne, which were then broadsheets in both name and nature. Fairfax was my family, its great editors like Graham Perkin were my mentors, its journalists and photographers my friends. These, in hindsight, were the golden years of newspapers and now they are over. The company is a financial ruin, more than 2000 of its workers have been shown the door -- including hundreds of the best journalists Australia has seen -- and the papers, which have served their communities for nearly 200 years, have shrivelled to a shadow. Soon, perhaps in just two or three years, the last papers will roll off the printing presses and it will be over -- Fairfax will exist only as an online wraith, and Rupert Murdoch will own not just 70 per cent of the newspapers in Australia, but just about every single printed paper in the country. This has profound implications for the health of our democracy-- that is why I wrote the book.
Question: Tell us, why has Fairfax become a 'train wreck'?
Ben Hills: Since the company was plunged into bankruptcy 25 years ago by Young Warwick Fairfax and his manipulative mother Mary it has become a toy of the stockmarket. Instead of control by a family with a sense of social responsibility and a long-term vision it has been taken over by a board and managers with no further focus than the quarterly financial results. Astonishingly, until the appointment of Greg Hywood as chief executive three years ago, Fairfax had not a single director or chief executive with any experience in the media -- solicitors, merchant bankers, fast-food franchisers, management consultants by the bushel, but no-one who knew anything about newspapers. The chief executive most people blame for the company's demise, Fred Hilmer who presided over Fairfax for its 'seven lost years" in the 1990s -- even boasted to staff when he was appointed that he never even read a newspaper. As a result, when the internet came along, there was no-one there who could forsee the existential threat it would pose to the papers, let alone develop a strategy for survival. While the board dithered, new start-up internet companies sprang up which stole away the classified advertising 'rivers of gold" which had financed the richest and most respected newspapers in the country for nearly two centuries.
Question: Why was it important for you to write this as honestly?
Ben Hills: I felt the public was owed an honest explanation of what had happened to these great newspapers, which were once counted among the 10 best papers in the English-speaking world. They certainly were not getting it from the board of directors, the editors and executives who have ruined these papers. With my decades at the papers I felt that I would have the best access to the people with the greatest understanding of what went wrong and as it turned out I interviewed more than 60 people, ranging from the big, bombastic Canadian Conrad Black who once controlled Fairfax, to Lachlan Murdoch, Fairfax's arch-rival at News Corporation, to the printers who once laboured into the small hours of the morning to produce the papers, to the journalists, those tough, cynical journalists who wept as they collected their redundancy cheques and went out into the world to look for work.
Question: So far, what has been the reaction to this title?
Ben Hills: There has been a great deal of media interest in the book -- as you would expect. I have done about a dozen radio interviews including with the ABC in Brisbane, Canberra and Sydney and with programmes ranging from Foxtel's Perrett Report to Andrew Bolt's Sunday morning show on Channel Ten. There are links to these programmes on my website (benhills.com) But as well, I have been surprised at the number of politicians, business people and ordinary members of the public who have contacted me to comment on the book. The Herald and The Age in particular have a special place in the life of Sydney and Melbourne and many people have told me how sad they are at their decline -- and how much they appreciate some sort of an explanation.
Question: What do you hope readers take from the book?
Ben Hills: I wrote this book with as much sorrow as anger, and these are the emotions that people tell me they pick up. Anger that a board and its chief executives, arrogant in their ignorance, could make decisions that would destroy these important public institutions -- an pay themselves millions of dollars in bonuses by way of reward. Sorrow that society is going to be a lot poorer as a result. Many people mistakenly believe that all we are witnessing is the long-overdue transition of newspapers from splotches of ink on crushed-up trees, to a fast, clean signal on a screen. They miss the point. The problem is not a lack of readers -- the Fairfax papers still claim to have five million readers a month, more than at any time in their history. It is a lack of money -- for every dollar in classified advertising revenue they lose from the printer paper, they make only 10 cents in the highly-competitive online market. There is simply not the money any more to maintain those vast newsrooms with 300 or more journalists, teams of photographers, foreign correspondents that are needed for a 'full service" newspaper. People are going to have to get used not just to a new method of delivery of news, but a whole new world of online niche markets with no single reliable source - except, perhaps, for the ABC... always assuming it survives the Abbott government.
Interview by Brooke Hunter