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(Global Mail) -- Inside the oldest continuously published newspaper in the southern hemisphere, a lone Internet terminal in the early 1990s was regarded as a novelty, not as the time bomb it turned out to be.
When the editors of Australia's oldest newspaper gather late in the afternoons in a long, narrow, harbourside conference room to plan the next morning's front page, the best of their efforts to frame news and calamity for The Sydney Morning Herald stare from the walls: the news of Steve Jobs's death is marked by a front page with him peering out from an iPad; another declares flooded Brisbane the drowned city; a third shows an Asian hurricane's far-off destruction.
Editors find inspiration in bad news, but this week, as calamity heaped itself at their own front door, they struggled. Shortly after 9 a.m. last Monday morning an email had zipped around Fairfax Media, owners of the Herald, inviting staff to an address by the chief executive, Greg Hywood. His news would stun: 1,900 staff would be shown the door. Printing presses would be shut down. Journalists, already wearied by waves of layoffs, would be culled again. By early evening, Gina Rinehart, a West Australian mining billionaire and the world's wealthiest woman, had secured almost 20% of the newspaper publisher and was demanding three seats on the coveted Fairfax board, including the deputy chair.
As Fairfax's executives and some board members struggled on a floor above with how to respond to Rinehart's demands amid her refusal to renounce interference in the newspaper's editorial affairs, the Herald's editors concerned themselves with where to put her.
Did Rinehart compel "splash" treatment on their front page? Some of the editors forcefully argued that Rinehart's push for control of the newspapers in the Fairfax group -- which include not only the country's oldest broadsheets in Sydney and Melbourne but also the prestigious Financial Review business daily -- most certainly was the day's biggest story and justified the greatest prominence on the Herald's front page. But Amanda Wilson, the first woman to serve as the Herald's editor, was unmoved. Wilson, who can oscillate between an airy charm and a brusque aloofness, declared that Rinehart's battle for control of Fairfax was less important to the Herald's readers than it was to the paper's staff. The next morning Rinehart made the front page -- along with the Fairfax layoffs -- but she was overshadowed by Wilson's choice as the lead story: an update on the Euro crisis.
It seemed a questionable decision and by Wednesday the Herald had decided that Gina Rinehart was indeed their biggest story.
Founded in 1831, The Sydney Morning Herald is an old newspaper in a young country. It is, as the Herald's historian, Gavin Souter, has written, one of the few surviving links with Australia's first half-century of white settlement when convicts were still being tied to flogging triangles, and the infamous Tank Stream sewers flowed into Sydney Harbour.
The newspaper's first motto "Sworn to no Master, of no Sect am I" would, however, be barely recalled today at Fairfax's low-rise, modern headquarters, where a click culture increasingly rules as the publisher, under Hywood, moves ever hastily to a digital-first publishing strategy, reflecting the world's tumbling demand for newspapers and the ascent of computers, smart phones and tablets.
Yet the old motto's sentiments do live on inside The Sydney Morning Herald. Older, well-respected hands on the paper, such as the journalists David Marr, Kate McClymont, Anne Davies, Ross Gittins and Matthew Moore, are fierce defenders of the Herald's editorial independence and the collegiate way its editors operate, where hard argument and dissent are tolerated daily in deciding the next edition's news priorities.
It was, of course, far easier for the Herald to live by the old motto in its many decades of lush profits -- sustained by acres of classified and display advertising. Money was power and the Herald's largesse was legendary. Its teams of reporters and photographers arrived in Suva aboard a chartered Lear Jet when Fiji's military staged a coup in early 1987.
That was also the year that marked the beginning of the Fairfax publishing empire's great fall; Warwick Fairfax, then 26 years old, embarked on an ill-fated strategy to privatize his family's publishing house. The world's share markets crashed, and the Fairfax family lost the company -- and The Sydney Morning Herald lost its more than 150 years of supervision by a benign family of owners dedicated to publishing and principle.
A succession of ownership regimes and managers would follow, most notably the Anglo-Canadian grandee publisher Conrad Black, who was to later end up behind bars in the United States for fraud but who, while at Fairfax, launched an all-out assault on a journalists' culture he thought too far Left, too powerful and too entitled.
Black made some inroads, but strong editors inside Fairfax, notably the hardened, mercurial John Alexander -- later to run much of the Packer empire in Australia -- were able to maintain the Herald's independence and, while the cash from advertising still flowed, the Herald's enormous editorial budget.
When Alexander was editor-in-chief of the Herald, journalists were routinely dispatched across Australia and around the world. One was sent to America to research monorails when Sydney began planning its own. This reporter was sent off to Papua New Guinea on a slow Friday to write what was described as an update on that country's state. And again, later, to cover a Port Moresby bank heist. A fabulous end-of-year lunch at an upmarket restaurant awaited the scores of Herald reporters who'd pleased Alexander. Those who didn't were, pointedly, left at their desks.
Alexander reveled in his notoriety for offending the politically correct -- of whom there were legions -- on the Herald. Once at a news conference when the news editor suggested that there was a good story arising out of research that suggested women's brains shrank during pregnancy, Alexander shot back: "Dare I ask how big they are to start with?"
It was at the height of this rollicking period on The Sydney Morning Herald that on a day in the early 1990s a lone computer terminal -- different from the banks of Atex screens in use — appeared in an out-of-the-way corner of the newsroom. Bob Beale, then the paper's prolific science writer, had learned of the internet through his academic contacts, who urged Beale to obtain an email address. It took Beale a full six months to persuade the Herald's technology chiefs -- concerned about the integrity of the Herald's notably moody electronic editorial system -- to agree. Beale was almost the lone user of the quarantined, Internet-connected terminal until one night in 1994 when he was asked to write a quick background piece on Asperger's syndrome. Beale turned to his Internet terminal, and the story he produced in around 20 minutes drew the attention of his editors because of its depth and its fast turn-around. Soon there were queues to use Beale's Internet terminal.
If those journalists on the Herald alert to the power of the Internet could see its potential, their managers were less enthusiastic. Soon after Beale's experience, Tony Sarno, the paper's then-computer editor, backed by an editor, Liz Sterel, tried to convince the paper's chiefs to allow the uploading of the Herald's computer articles to the Internet. They were warned off and instructed that their task was to grow the circulation of hard copies of the paper. Sarno and Sterel however persisted in secret, and once they had the first of Sarno's articles uploaded to the Internet — using Sarno's battered laptop — they asked John Alexander to take a look.
Sterel recalls that her editor-in-chief stood arms crossed and skeptical as they switched on Sarno's computer. When the screen came to life and Alexander saw the first of The Sydney Morning Herald on the Internet, he declared "Good job. Carry on."
While Alexander's conversion that day to the worth of the Internet was welcomed, nobody could really foresee just back then -- in the mid-1990s -- just how ruinous the Internet would prove for newspapers.
Despite the paper's later intensive and expensive efforts to ring-fence its advertising into its own online specialist websites, including those for property, jobs and cars, the Herald and Fairfax struggled mightily to keep advertising dollars leaching away to competitor sites. And, like many newspaper publishers, Fairfax would become crunched in a vortex of plunging advertising while, at the same time, readers moved away from buying newspapers to instead consuming news online through computers, smart phones and, latterly, tablets.
The Sydney Morning Herald has been living in a declining state of resources for the past decade. Ten years ago, the paper -- together with its Sunday edition, The Sun Herald -- had a combined staff of about 600. Today that is reduced to about 280. Up until last year the wages of its most senior staff, now paid around $130,000, had been frozen nearly a decade.
Dedicated reporters no longer cover what were once core beats on The Sydney Morning Herald — industrial relations and religious affairs are but two examples. Other staff are routinely pulled off their beats to plug gaps elsewhere. Editors complain that whereas in John Alexander's day the paper routinely assigned about one-third more stories than it could publish, now there is a constant scramble to provide the barest of coverage on some days.
So curtailed is the paper's travel budget that many assignments are paid for by outside bodies that benefit from the coverage. According to Herald staff, a recent outback assignment to cover the impact of feral animals was paid for by an environmental advocacy group, and a number of international aid organizations picked up the bill for a senior reporter and photographer's trip last month to west Africa, something noted at the end of the story when it was published.
Greg Hywood, Fairfax's CEO, could not be comfortable with the reliance on free travel and accommodation for traveling staff. In 1998, when he succeeded John Alexander as the Herald's editor-in-chief, one of Hywood's early moves was to order a review of freebies offered to Herald staff. The next year he offended more than a few editors when he ordered that all gifts accepted or declined by the newspaper's staff over one week be declared so that the Herald could publish a story that outed the extent of gift-taking on the paper. When the story was published in the Herald, Hywood said that in an ideal world he would prefer that there were no such influences. "I would rather see opinions shaped by force of argument."
The anxiety about the paper's future has been real for a long period. In August 2011, staff on the Herald were told to gather one morning for an announcement at the news desk. Many went in dread, fearing they were about to hear the paper was closing. Instead they learned that the Herald's celebrated police reporter, Les Kennedy, who had been battling cancer, had died.
Even when Hywood made his announcement on Monday that staff were to be culled again, printing presses shut down and foreign bureaus placed under review, some staff confessed to great relief. They had expected an announcement -- long rumoured -- that the Herald would cease publishing Monday to Friday.
For all of the adversity, however, The Sydney Morning Herald has been able to maintain leadership in Australian journalism. Kate McClymont and the former Herald Canberra journalist, Mark Davis, uncovered the Craig Thomson affair, which still threatens to bring down the Gillard Government. The newspaper's political commentator, Peter Hartcher, is regarded as the country's best in print and the paper's long-serving economics editor, Ross Gittins, carries an influence unequalled elsewhere. David Marr's elegant, opinionated writing continues to distinguish the paper.
Under the coming round of cuts, The Sydney Morning Herald stands to lose another 70 editorial staff. In the eyes of many who remain, the number is more than the paper can possibly bear.
Journalists Ross Gittins, David Marr and Kate McClymont appeared at the front of Fairfax's headquarters on June 19 to argue against the entry of Rinehart onto the company's board without guarantees, by her signing a charter of editorial independence, that she will not interfere with the paper's editorial content.
Gittins was asked if The Sydney Morning Herald would survive the fresh staff cuts. He said: "I think it can remain viable," he said. "I think that it would be a different paper and probably a different news organization and perhaps not as good as it was, but we do have to cut our cloth to fit what the commercial situation allows."
It seemed a realistic assessment from a hard head.
For now, however, Rinehart's intentions for Fairfax and The Sydney Morning Herald overshadow much of what has been announced this week, if only because they are so unclear.
Does she wish to make an investment in the paper's future, or is she -- as Australia's Treasurer, Wayne Swan, suggests -- out to buy influence?
David Marr is one Herald writer who believes she cannot have both.
"As we understand, she is asking for the personal right to be able to intervene directly in editorial matters on these papers," Marr said.
"If it were to happen, then it would be known publicly that she could speak directly through the Fairfax papers. That would not be good for the Fairfax papers. It would not be good for the brand. That would surely be clear to anybody who understands what Fairfax has stood for in the past," said Marr.
In an exquisite piece of timing, the Herald on June 23 will begin running excerpts from its business writer Adele Ferguson's long-anticipated, unauthorized book on Rinehart. The Herald's arrangement to publish the excerpts was made well before Rinehart upped her stake in Fairfax. Insiders say the book's revelations and style will make it a bestseller. So will the timing. It might be the Herald's last chance to publish something its new majority owner doesn't like.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bernard Lagan and The Global Mail.