Missed opportunities: a review of “Killing Fairfax” by Pamela Williams

killing-fairfaxI read Pamela Williams’ book Killing Fairfax about four months after joining Fairfax Media as a property reporter on the Australian Financial Review (AFR).

The book about the online maelstrom that sucked the life out of Fairfax and the part James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch played in facilitating this was published to great acclaim at just the time I was in discussions about a role on the AFR.

It certainly caught my attention as I contemplated moving from an online venture, Property Observer, to a newspaper group; so I made a mental note to read it once I’d settled in.

On the cover pose Packer and Murdoch with a distinctly smug expressions, the apparent victors in a battle against the old foe, Fairfax.

By backing three websites – seek.com.au, realestate.com.au and carsales.com.au – they helped destroy the “rivers of gold” – the classified advertising revenue that funded Fairfax’s journalism and its newspaper empire.

The distaste both have for Fairfax is apparent in the opening pages. Williams describes a triumphant lunch at famed Sydney dining spot Rockpool in August last year:

“Fairfax just didn’t see any of this coming. They thought it was all beneath them. They thought we were idiots. You know I think we killed Fairfax.” said James Packer.

The two men looked at each other for a moment.

“I think so,” said Lachlan Murdoch.

One lifted his glass in a toast. And then the other

Also sitting at the table though not mentioned in the narrative was Pam Williams. The reference notes at the back of the book state “author present”.

A 26 year veteran of Fairfax, where she had risen through the ranks to become one of its senior journalists, I wonder how Pam Williams felt at this celebratory lunch. It surely must have been an uncomfortable moment.

Hello Pam

I spent my first week at Fairfax in the Sydney office at Darling Point Coincidentally, sitting in the cubicle next to me was Pam Williams. I introduced myself and we spent a few pleasant minutes chatting about common acquaintances. As the day wore on and people paused to chat with her, I formed the view that she was highly respected by her colleagues and a formidable presence in the office.

“Killing Fairfax” is a page turner, a corporate thriller about billionaires with giant egos and the battle for control of Australia’s media industry through buyouts, takeovers, deals, schemes and plain good luck.

In a wider context, its one of many stories about the impact the digital age and social media has had on traditional print journalism – or to steal from a media analyst quoted in the New York Times documentary “Page One” –  “It’s a fucking revolution”.

Large newspaper groups like Fairfax and countless others around the world have struggled to shift their business models in the face of the emergence of online “pure plays” as Williams terms online publishing businesses with a singular focus.

As a Fairfax employee, the narrative grated at my nerves as I thought about what might have been had Fairfax taken the opportunities to invest in the three start-up entities when they were worth nothing. Time and time the opportunities came along to buy controlling stakes in realestate.com.au (now called REA Group), seek.com.au and carsales.com.au, but were lost or spurned.

The great power of Williams is her ability to use her burgeoning contacts book (the back of the book details all her information sources – emails, conversations, meetings she attended) to take you right into the Fairfax boardroom and the very private, wood-panelled meeting rooms where James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch struck their deals.

A dysfunctional boardroom

Certainly, the impression of the Fairfax board that Williams creates from the early 2000s up until recent times is one of complete shambles and dysfunction with rival factions, egos and hidden agendas – think the Labor Party under Rudd and Gillard. It reaches its apex following the merger between Rural Press and Fairfax and the appointment of Rural Press boss Brian McCarthy (a man who apparently refused to use email program outlook to schedule meetings) as chief executive in 2008, replacing the forward-thinking David Kirk.

As Williams writes:

“But it was in the boardroom where the real divide occurred, in ways almost unparalleled in corporate sagas of dirty washing. From the very start, tensions between the directors from Rural Press and everyone else had revolved around power, the company’s debt and whether making acquisitions for future growth had been the right or the wrong strategy.”

The other great aspect of the book is its chronicle of the changing media landscape with every major manoeuver chronicled including James Packer’s decision and the steps he took to sell out of the media empire created by his father and grandfather to get into casinos (disastrously at first), the battle for control of pay television, how the three start-up websites came into being and grew into giants, Lachlan Murdoch’s fight to convince his father that realestate.com.au should remain a key part of News Corp and the unsuccessful attempts by mining magnate Gina Rinehart to gain control of Fairfax.

What becomes clear is that Fairfax certainly was not oblivious to the growing threat of the internet as some have claimed – the company set up a string of its own websites – Domain, Drive, Mycareer  and made online acquisitions (TradeMe being the biggest)- before the nimble start-ups began eating into their revenue.

Fairfax, like so many other newspaper groups, was caught up in the bind of how to invest in new online businesses, which offered advertising ten times cheaper than print, without cannabalising its own earnings.

In hindsight, it may have seemed obvious to invest in independently run start-ups with strong brands, but looking back, most things appear that way. For a company the size of Fairfax, with its proud newspaper history, it was never going to be easy to change so profoundly or at  a speed to capitalise on these opportunities.

Who is James Packer?

But what of Packer and Murdoch? Should they really be so smug?

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the portrait of James Packer that Williams paints: a sensitive, highly emotional and physically aggressive character struggling to emerge from the shadow of Kerry Packer, it’s certainly neither a sycophantic nor a sympathetic portrait of one of Australia’s richest and most powerful business leaders.

One particular incidence sticks in my mind – when Packer confronted former Fairfax chairman Ron Walker at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in 2006. Walker, chairman of the games organising committee, saw Packer – an old friend – and invited him and his girlfriend Erica Baxter into the enclosed VIP area with the possibility of meeting the Queen:

[Walker] lifted the red tape to beckon them in.

But Packer had something else on his mind: he purposefully took the long way around the tape to Walker; and then put an arm around his neck, pulling him tight and close in anger. Packer was completely furious…

The anger was the result of Walker welching on a deal to buy Packer’s ACP’s magazine group in New Zealand, which he considered an act of bad faith while conveniently forgetting that he’d tried to gazump Walker on a deal to buy NZ website TradeMe (after saying he had no plans to buy the business).

The irony was not lost on James Packer, he later apologised to Walker for his strong-arm tactics.

Earlier in the book, Williams describes Packers agony at the collapse of One.Tel and his suicidal decline at the shame of this very public failure. It’s hard to feel sorry for some born into privilege, unimaginable wealth and opportunity, but when you consider who his father was, you feel a slight twinge.

While Packer and Murdoch should rightly be lauded for having the vision to invest in the “pure play” businesses that cost Fairfax so dearly, Williams reminds readers that James Packer lost around $1.7 billion through disastrous US casino investments on top of the One.Tel fiasco.

Less is divulged of Lachlan Murdoch apart from shrewdness and an eye for a good opportunity – but the impression one gets is of men playing with the billions inherited from their fathers (It reminds me of one of Ghandi’s seven deadly sins: “Wealth without work.”)

For both James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch, it seems their ambition is to make more money with money rather than producing anything of value for the greater good of society (They are true capitalists).

Fairfax, despite its depleted ranks, decimated earnings and challenges employs some of the hardest working people in Australia. I know because I work with them every day. Journalists on Fairfax publications recently took home a clutch of Walkley Awards – testimony to the quality of the work they do.

Among the Walkey Award winners was Pam Williams, who deservedly took home the Book of the Year award for this very entertaining and thought-provoking corporate saga.

In her acceptance speech she declared that Fairfax had in fact not been killed – I wonder what James Packer made of that comment?

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6 thoughts on “Missed opportunities: a review of “Killing Fairfax” by Pamela Williams

  1. Good review Larry. I scarcely think those smug guys killed Fairfax, sounds more like a series of bad choices made it pretty sick… Here’s hoping the health routine it’s now on grants it another hundred years of health!

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  2. I just bought the book but am finding it very hard to read. The word ethics is never mentioned. And little it seems is said about the social and political responsibilities of journalists and newspaper proprietors in the evolving old / new media 4th Estate mix. It reinforces my judgment that old-style journalists are a breed apart facing possible and unmourned extinction.

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