Fairfax In Trouble

- Wayne Hope & Merja Myllylahti

Tracing the history of a major media enterprise reveals adjoining patterns of communications ownership. Such a narrative will, necessarily, tell us much about the wider capitalist economy. So it is with Fairfax, a trans-Tasman media corporation central to the economic history of Australia and, more recently, New Zealand. In this context we will examine Fairfax’s transition from family dynasty to corporate entity in the 1980s, it’s colonisation of the New Zealand press between 2006 and 2010 along with subsequent ructions associated with the shift from print to digital news, the financialisation of institutional share ownership and boardroom battles for organisational control. Fairfax’s recent troubles, we will argue, have precipitated staff lay-offs, job outsourcing, thinning of news coverage and general commercial uncertainty. These developments help to undermine the journalistic public sphere.

Fairfax Australia: From Family Dynasty To Corporate Entity

In 1841 the Sydney Herald was jointly purchased by the printer John Fairfax and Charles Kemp - the Parliamentary and court reporter. It was renamed the Sydney Morning Herald and, in 1853, John Fairfax became sole proprietor. Editors and senior journalists staunchly upheld “Protestant Christianity, the British Monarchy, private property and the rule of law” (Foley, 2009, p92). The Sydney Morning Herald was, for three generations, the masthead of the Fairfax media dynasty. By 1960, four major groups were producing 14 metropolitan dailies for a total Australian population of 10,200,000 (Bonney & Wilson, 1983, p67). Of these, News Ltd (Rupert Murdoch), Consolidated Press Holdings (Kerry Packer) and John Fairfax Ltd were family-based listed companies. The Herald and Weekly Times group was originally established by Sir Keith Murdoch. Family-owned titles within the group were divested to institutional shareholders after Murdoch’s death in 1952. These companies also obtained holdings in regional newspapers, magazines, publishing, commercial printing, film production, film processing, recorded music and other business activities (e.g., real estate, transport, insurance). Australia’s family-based media oligopoly was strengthened by the incorporation of broadcasting technologies and networks. In 1950, newspaper companies owned or partly owned 44 out of 102 commercial radio stations. Most of the outsider stations were indirectly controlled through information networking arrangements (Bonney & Wilson, 1983, pp70–71). During the 1950s and 1960s, Murdoch, Packer, Fairfax and the Herald and Weekly Times gained most of the lucrative metropolitan television licenses. Cross media ownership restrictions contained within Australia’s 1956 and 1965 Broadcasting and Television Acts prohibited a person from having a prescribed interest in more than two nationwide television stations. This precluded monopoly or duopoly ownership of broadcasting networks, but left opportunities for oligopolistic corporate manoeuvrings and Government-corporate collusions over regulatory intervention (Barr, 2000, p3).

By 1980, all of the “big four” were publicly listed multi-million dollar enterprises with diverse media holdings. Collectively, they owned every metropolitan daily, 90% of the Sunday press, 50% of the regional and suburban press, 225% of metropolitan radio stations, and all six commercial television stations in Sydney and Melbourne (Bonney & Wilson, 1983, p.62). In the year to 1986, John Fairfax Ltd delivered a $A74 million pre-tax profit from 79 magazines, 53 newspapers (including the Sydney Morning Herald, Melbourne’s The Age and the Australian Financial Review), two television stations (ATN7 Sydney, BTQ Brisbane) and the nationwide Macquarie radio network. Over the next five years, a media ownership shakeout effectively destroyed the Fairfax family dynasty. In 1987, Rupert Murdoch successfully purchased the Herald Weekly Times Group. He obtained six metropolitan dailies, a number of magazines, along with regional clusters of provincial and suburban newspapers.

Subsequently, 25 year old Warwick Fairfax Jr resolved to privatise John Fairfax and Sons. He bought out relatives and other shareholders at inflated prices after the October 1987 Stock Market crash. By 1990, receivers had appropriated the Sydney Morning Herald and associated assets from the Fairfax family (Foley, 2002, p98). In 1991, the Tourang consortium headed by the Canadian media magnate Conrad Black became a 15% shareholder and a San Francisco merchant banker Hellerman and Friedman bought 5% of non-voting stock (Souter, 1991, pp378–384). After Conrad Black cashed up his investment due to Australia’s 20% ceiling on foreign ownership of media institutions, Kerry Packer purchased a 14.9% stake via a trust fund; cross-media ownership laws prevented a full takeover (Foley, 2002, p99). Once this stake was sold in 2001, Fairfax was largely controlled by institutional shareholders such as Bankers Trust (8%) and Tyndall Australia Ltd (10%) (quoted in Rosenberg, 2008, p22). These events signalled the decline of Australia’s family media dynasties, the growth of transnational media ownership and the arrival of short-term financial investors. Such trends were soon to pervade the New Zealand media landscape.

Fairfax In New Zealand, 2003–2008

In June 2003, Independent Newspapers Ltd (INL) was sold to John Fairfax Holdings for $NZ1.88 billion. The acquisition included two metropolitan dailies (Dominion Post, The Press), three national weeklies (Sunday Star Times, Sunday News, NZ Truth and TV Extra), seven provincial dailies, over 50 community newspapers, a range of sport and lifestyle magazines, New Zealand’s largest magazine distributor (Gordon and Gotch). and Internet news site www.stuff.co.nz (Rosenberg, September 2008, pp2–4). At that time, Murdoch’s News Corporation owned 45% of INL which, in turn, controlled 66% of Sky Television’s shareholdings. INL used cash from the sale of print holdings to purchase Sky’s remaining shares. News Corporation’s dominance of New Zealand’s media landscape was extended when INL merged with Sky in 2005. In 2006, Fairfax paid $NZ700 million for TradeMe in order to increase online holdings, exploit electronic commerce and to capture the migration of classified advertising (Hope, 2012, p41).

Fairfax’s commercial domination of the journalistic, print-based public sphere in New Zealand had major repercussions. The new regime centralised its activities across individual titles by establishing two new positions; Group Editorial Development Manager and Sales and Marketing Manager (Rosenberg, September 2008, pp46–47). The net result was increases in advertising charges, advertising volumes and cover prices, cuts in staffing and a decline in local journalistic activity (King, September 2006, pB8; Steeman, February 2004, pB9). Nationalistic journalistic traditions were also undermined. During 2006, Fairfax withdrew from the New Zealand Press Association’s (NZPA) pooling system whereby member newspapers shared news content with each other (Kiwiblog, 7/4/11). In June 2008 Fairfax announced a new Auckland-based Website, www.businessday.co.nz.

Content was drawn from the Australian sister site The Independent, www.stuff.co.nz, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and other non-NZPA sources. From July 2008 Fairfax established hubs in Wellington and Christchurch to centralise the sub-editing of features, world and business news across all major titles. In August of the same year they announced 160 New Zealand redundancies and introduced a new editorial management structure to oversee both the Sunday Star Times and the Sunday News (Rosenberg, 2009, p201–202). In July 2007, Fairfax’s New Zealand Holdings were complemented by the acquisition of parts of Southern Cross Broadcasting, which had been broken up by Macquarie Media. Fairfax obtained Southern Cross’ Metropolitan operation Southern Star, Satellite Music Australia and digital media business Southern Cross View (Perry, 2007, pC3). At this stage Fairfax appeared commercially strong. Behind the scenes, however, Fairfax was starting to experience difficulties. It is to this process that we now turn.

Fairfax Under Siege

Fairfax Media is trying to transform itself from a print news organisation to a digital one amidst falling advertising revenues and boardroom battles over company ownership. Over the last three years the company has closed down non-core and unprofitable businesses, sold assets, outsourced jobs and reduced the overall workforce. These measures have already affected its bottom line. As Table 1 reveals, Fairfax Media has reported three unprofitable years between 2008 and 2012. For the last financial year it reported a net loss of $A2.8 billion (Myllylahti, 2012a). In 2012, Fairfax wrote down the value of its New Zealand mastheads, including the Dominion Post and Sunday Star Times, by more than 80% to $NZ175 million (“Fairfax slashes value of NZ newspaper titles”, 2012). To cover some of the losses and pay down its debts, Fairfax sold its crown jewel, the online auction site Trade Me in 2012. This occurred over three transactions and generated approximately $NZ1.5 billion profit (McBeth, 2012). Part of the money is expected to pay down debts which amounted to $A1.2 billion in the 2012 financial year (Myllylahti, 2012a). At the start of 2013, the downward spiral in Fairfax’s revenues and profits seemed set to continue. In February the corporate announced that its half-year profits had fallen to $A83 million, 39% less than the same period of the previous year. This figure doesn’t include profits from the sale of Trade Me (Yueyang, 2013, Fairfax Media, 2013a).

Table 1: Fairfax Media Five Years Results Summary

$A million






Total revenue






Profit (loss) before tax






Total borrowings






Number of full time employees

Estimate 6,906





Source: JMAD New Zealand Media Ownership Report 2012

In 2012 and early 2013, it was clear that the ownership of New Zealand media companies was falling into the hands of financial institutions as well as media moguls. Financialised media ownership structures make the future of such companies uncertain as they confront the prospect of takeover or fragmentation (Myllylahti, 2012a). The following list of Fairfax’s institutional owners indicates the trend toward financialisation: Hancock Prospecting (Gina Rinehart’s investment vehicle), Allan Grey (an investment house), Ausbil Dextia (fund manager), Gutenberg Investments Trust (investment unit trust). The Australian mining billionaire Gina Rinehart (as of February 2013) owns the majority of Fairfax shares (through Hancock Prospecting) holding a 14.99% stake in the company. The second largest shareholder is Allan Grey with an 8.29% (Myllylahti, 2012a). Rinehart and Allan Grey are keen to sell down Fairfax’s assets, the latter has publicly stated that it would support breaking up the company.

Rinehart’s Rocky  Relationship

So far Rinehart has had a rocky relationship with Fairfax’s Board. In June 2012, she was declined a Board seat after refusing to sign the Charter of Editorial Independence which safeguards editors and journalists from owners’ control. Fairfax’s editors and journalists were concerned that Rinehart might use the company’s newspapers to advance her own business and political interests. A Fairfax press release stated that “our readers are telling us that if Mrs Rinehart succeeds in this personal crusade they will abandon us. We have tens of thousands of letters and emails of support.” (Myllylahti, 2012a). In October 2012 Rinehart led a shareholder revolt against the company’s Board at Fairfax’s Annual General Meeting, and she voted against the pay deals for Fairfax’s senior executives. She strongly criticised the company’s financial performance which has pushed Fairfax’s share price to record lows. There are fears that Gina Rinehart might be turning Fairfax’s newspapers into “the mining gazette” whereby mining interests and climate change denialism are given prominence.

In February 2013 Fairfax obtained yet another substantial shareholder; a small Australian fund management company Ausbil Dextia. This company holds 5.3% of Fairfax’s shares and is headed by Paul Xiradis who is a strong supporter of Australian media mogul Kerry Stokes, the second largest shareholder in the Australian Seven Group (Davidson, 2013). Gutenberg Investments Trust, administered by advertising executive John Singleton and investment banker Mark Carnegie, has also acquired Fairfax shares. According to media reports they are also keen to sell Fairfax’s radio assets. Singleton and Carnegie also own controlling stakes in Australian Macquarie Radio Network Limited (King, 2013). Overall it is evident that Fairfax’s financial owners are intent upon on increasing profits, and paying down debts, even if this means selling Fairfax or breaking it up.

In a recent note to the investors, investment bank Goldman Sachs observed that Fairfax will continue to face significant structural challenges to its business model. The equity analyst Christian Guerra states that: "Fairfax has the highest exposure in the sector to publishing. Not only do we expect the revenue declines/business model erosion to continue, we expect it to accelerate" (Davidson, 2013). Fairfax has stated that it has no plans to give up its print operations completely because they still generate cash and profits for the company (Myllylahti, 2012a). At the same time Fairfax has implemented a digital strategy which has made digital/online media its priority. The company’s Chief Executive, Greg Hywood, believes that with the growth of its digital revenues it is “within reach of profitable digital-only model” (Myllylahti, 2012a). However, there is no hard evidence that the company’s online news operations will generate the necessary returns. In a recent interview Mark Scott, the former Editor-in-Chief of Fairfax, urged the company not to give up its print presence (“ABC MD Mark Scott: ‘Take away Fairfax’s print presence and what are you left with?’”, 2013).


In order to better monetise on its print newspaper assets, Fairfax is introducing tabloid formats for its Sydney and Melbourne based broadsheets the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age. Both papers saw sharp declines in circulation during 2012. The SMH circulation fell by 14.5% on the previous year and the Age 14.9%t. In February 2013 Fairfax confirmed that it will install paywalls for overseas readers (as of March 2013) and for Australian and NZ readers in June 2013 (Climpson-Stewart, 2013). In June 2012 Fairfax confirmed that it had no plans to introduce tabloid size newspapers or paywalls for its online news in New Zealand. Fairfax New Zealand Chief Executive Allen Williams explained that because readers and advertisers hadn’t pulled away from the New Zealand print media, there was no need to charge for online news content. On the other hand, APN News and Media acknowledged that paid online news content was inevitable (Myllylahti, 2012a). In December 2012 its New Zealand Listener launched an online paywall. The magazine charges $5 for a week’s subscription and $129 for a year. Paywalls seem to create some additional revenue streams for news media corporations, but they are not a viable business model in the short term (Myllylahti, 2012b). In December 2012 the National Business Review (NBR) had 3,000 individual and 165 corporate digital subscriptions earning roughly $US0.57 million for the company (Myllylahti, 2012b). The privately owned NBR doesn’t provide information about its total revenues and profits, and therefore it is impossible to assess how much of its total revenue comes from the digital online content. This is an important issue since charging might lead to a digital divide between those who can afford to pay for news, and those who can’t. If important/relevant news is hidden behind paywalls, New Zealanders will have unequal access to knowledge and information. Only wealthier citizens will be engaged in the journalistic public sphere (Myllylahti, 2012b).

In June 2012 Fairfax announced that it was reforming its newsroom operations with the buzz words such as “digital first” and “audience first” (Fairfax, 2012). In its Editorial Newsroom Review the company stated that: “We are undertaking the most significant editorial transformation in Fairfax history. We will think and act digital first” (Fairfax, 2012). The company also claimed that its editorial decisions were made “with the needs and wants of the audience foremost in mind” (Fairfax, 2012). The company decided to remove barriers between its different news platforms including Internet, print, tablets and mobile in order to create an integrated one-newsroom model. This new organisational structure was said to herald a new way of working: “We are a 24 hours a day, audience-focused, multi-platform newsroom embracing the digital future. A focus on our digital future is our priority” (Fairfax, 2012). Hirst observes that the new newsroom structure is not much different from the traditional one; and that “the convoluted explanations of roles and responsibilities that accompany it are straight from a weak Master of Business Administration dissertation” (Hirst, 2012). This is a valid observation, as the Fairfax’s Editorial Newsroom Review reads like a business strategy paper. It talks about “a new operating model” designed to “meet changing media consumption”; it highlights the importance of “processes that are disciplined and transparent” and points to an “increased commercial and product focus in the operating model.” (Fairfax, 2012).

Offshoring Jobs To NZ

Fairfax Media employed 9,800 people in 2008, and the number is falling to 6,906 in 2013, a reduction of 2,894 jobs in the past five years (Myllylahti, 2012a). In 2012 Fairfax announced that it was cutting 1,900 jobs in Australia and shutting down its main printing plants. These measures are designed to save the company between $A235 million and $A251 million by 2015. The company also started to outsource jobs to other countries, especially to New Zealand. In June 2012 Fairfax confirmed that it would shift 66 sub-editing jobs from some of its Australian newspapers to New Zealand. In response the Australian journalists’ union, Media Alliance, argued that offshoring jobs to New Zealand was only motivated by money and the company’s drive for cost savings (“Fairfax confirms Aussie editing jobs coming to NZ”, 2012). In early 2013 the company confirmed that its Financial Review Group which publishes the Australian Financial Review was shifting its sub-editing jobs to New Zealand’s new Fairfax Editorial Services. In January 2013 Fairfax also announced that it was moving some of its call centre staff and 20-30 classifieds staff to Teletech, an American-based company operating in Auckland.

As the National Business Review pointed out, the decision to move jobs over the Tasman is based on the fact that wages are lower in New Zealand (“Fairfax outsources jobs to lower wage economy”, 2013).Fairfax commented that its sub-editing arrangements would “deliver significant cost-efficiencies” (“Fairfax outsources jobs to lower wage economy”, 2013). Already, in 2011, it had moved Melbourne and Sydney based sub-editing productions to Pagemasters, a subsidiary of Australian Associated Press, resulting in 82 job losses (Myllylahti, 2011). Anecdotal evidence suggests that wages of Kiwi sub-editors have deteriorated in the past six to seven years. In 2007, a senior sub-editor was earning around $NZ70, 000 per year, and in 2013 $NZ55-56,000 per year (a New Zealand journalist, personal communication, 11/2/12).

In 2011 Fairfax and APN, the biggest shareholders of the New Zealand Press Association (NZPA) withdrew their funding for the agency so that they could tailor their own news content. In his final story, senior NZPA journalist Max Lambert noted that “the closedown means the newspaper industry has lost a truly independent source of New Zealand news” (Myllylahti, 2011). The closure of NZPA raises concerns about the range and depth of news content. The NZPA was the only media organisation in New Zealand to cover all the Parliamentary Bills before the House. It also covered local news and it was able to focus on non-commercial stories. It was also producing news stories which were unflavoured by bias, comment or opinion. Scoop was warning that the closure of the national news agency threatens news coverage and democracy: “The biggest risk to the national news discourse – and the democratic process – of NZPA closing down will be that readers will be dependent on news sources that are not truly national (Myllylahti, 2011).

An Australian media researcher Andrea Carson notes that Fairfax’s profit-oriented focus and shrinking newsrooms has had an impact on the quality of journalism: “There is already a noticeable difference between the tabloid-style presentation of the online versions of Fairfax’s publications, using popular crime and celebrity stories to attract ‘click-bait’ to get more viewers, so as to attract more advertisers” (Carson, 2012). Carson is also concerned that Fairfax’s heavy-handed measures will reduce range of viewpoints available to readers. Remaining editors and journalists might defer to the owners in terms of what is published and therefore publicly discussed (Carson, 2012).

A New Zealand journalist working for a non-Fairfax newspaper notes similar trends. The commercial imperatives of the newsroom has meant that: around 80% of the stories published in the newspaper are “sops to the audience - low-level crime stories, meaningless surveys, house prices, celebrity 'news', shark pictures etc.” The journalist also notes that “the end product in the newspaper is tainted by the interests of those involved and often presents one-sided stories. This distorts democracy” (a New Zealand journalist, personal communication, 11/2/12).

Fairfax’s Future

Further asset sales after Trade Me are likely, especially if Gina Rinehart maintains her influence on the Fairfax Board. She may push Fairfax to divest its (Australian) radio assets to other Australian media players such as Lachlan Murdoch (who is the Chairman of Ten Network). On March 4th 2013, Fairfax introduced tabloid formats for its Australian mastheads the Age and Sydney Morning Herald (SMH). Meanwhile, access to their on-line news sites became subject to partial paywalls. In New Zealand, Fairfax has not (yet) indicated any plans to change newspaper formats or introduce paywalls since its print readers appear loyal to the traditional press. Within Australasia as a whole, however, asset sales and job cuts continue as digital news platforms generate insufficient revenue. If this situation does not change Fairfax’s daily newspapers will not survive in their present form. The likely consequences for the journalistic public sphere, in Australia and New Zealand, are dire indeed. 


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