The shake-out at Fairfax last week has led to wild claims that newspapers are on the brink of extinction.
That is not the view of Seven West Media, the owner of this newspaper, or of News Ltd, the nation’s biggest newspaper publisher.
Chris Wharton, chief executive of Seven West Media (WA), dismissed the pessimism about newspapers in some quarters as premature.
Mr Wharton said The West Australian remained the heart and soul of Seven West Media’s WA business and has a lot of good years ahead of it.
‘‘It’s been said that the newspaper industry is a sunset industry,’’ he said.
‘‘Maybe for Fairfax it is, but Seven West Media has the best assets in the country, covering the gamut of media.
‘‘For us it’s more like a sunrise. It’s exciting and we have solid plans to meet the challenges ahead.
‘‘Over the past four years we have been dealing with the problems that Fairfax seems to be grappling with only now.’’
News Ltd boss Kim Williams agreed, saying: ‘‘We believe in print and are committed to print.’’
And why wouldn’t they be.
Fifteen million copies of metropolitan and national newspapers are sold in Australia every week.
The West Australian accounts for about 1.2 million of the copies sold.
And the WAN group’s regional paid papers add tens of thousands of copies.
Mr Wharton said: ‘‘For us, it’s still print dollars and digital dimes’’, with The West Australian expected to generate the lion’s share of the group’s WA revenue into the foreseeable future.
‘‘You can’t make the same sort of margins in the digital world at the moment as a newspaper company,’’ Mr Wharton said.
Six months ago, Fairfax boss Greg Hywood declared he was confident the group would find ways to monetise its growing onl ine audi enc e wi thout charging readers for content.
Last week, he jettisoned that position.
Seven West Media is adamant it will not be rushed into introducing pay walls, preferring to wait and evaluate the success of the various models now in use around the world.
‘‘We have plans but we don’t feel inclined to disclose them,’’ Mr Wharton said.
The panic apparent in the Fairfax announcements this week has damaged the whole of the newspaper industry.
It has been particularly damaging for Fairfax.
Much of that could have been avoided if the Fairfax board had understood and addressed the issues confronting the company much earlier.
Boards of publicly-listed newspaper companies have a right and a duty to ensure that their newspapers meet their responsibilities to their readers and that the business meets its responsibility to its shareholders.
That means appointing competent editors and giving them the freedom to exercise their editorial judgment in a way that serves their readers and the democracy in which we live. Newspapers have a vital role in the functioning of our parliamentary democracy and of our justice system.
They are in that sense a public utility.
But good journalism costs money and the best newspapers are those backed by successful commercial enterprises that fund the editorial costs in return for the right to make profits for their shareholders.
Poor journalism — particularly journalism tainted by commercial pressure, political bias, government interference or lazy, inaccurate reporting — leads to loss of readers and, ultimately, job losses and lower returns for shareholders.
The late Robert Holmes a Court, who made a spectacular but brief foray into the media in the 1980s, had a very clear understanding of the relationship between editors and the boards or proprietors of media companies.
It is this: The ultimate right of the board or the proprietor is the right to sack the editor. The ultimate right of the editor is the right to resign.
The late Sir Keith MacPherson retired in 1986 as chairman of the Herald and Weekly Times after a disastrous decade which saw massive circulation declines of the company’s Melbourne mastheads and led to its takeover by Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd.
In an interview on his retirement, Sir Keith said the board had known for 10 years that editorial control of the papers was in the wrong hands, but was unable to do anything about it.
That seemed to me like the Nuremberg defence.
The hysteria from some quarters about Gina Rinehart’s quest for Fairfax board seats and thus a say in the running of a company in which she has a sizeable investment is entirely predictable.
It is also entirely irrational.
The gall of Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan in labelling Mrs Rinehart’s increased stake in Fairfax a threat to democracy and editorial independence beggars belief.
The real and present danger for democracy is the apparent desire of Mr Swan and his Labor Party colleagues, egged on by the Greens, to impose on editors government controls backed by sanctions, fines and, if the Finkelstein model is adopted, possible jail terms.
Given her undoubted business acumen, Mrs Rinehart would appear to be an asset to a board that has presided over the disastrous decline of the oncemighty Fairfax, with catastrophic consequences for its shareholders and employees alike.In the meantime, newspapers will continue to provide value for their readers and advertisers and those of us who believe in them will soldier on.
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