Though a conservative family dynasty surviving 150 years implies long-term thinking, the Fairfax family, shaped by the culture of competition as well as moulding it, sometimes made crucial decisions rashly.
From 1856, the publication of the Sydney Morning Herald and the operation of family business were undertaken by John Fairfax & Sons. The first new medium to follow the standard-bearer was the eight-page weekly, the Sydney Mail, published on Friday to catch country mail coaches. First published on 7 July 1860, it sold 5000 copies by the end of the year and lasted until 1938.
The ill-conceived penny daily the Afternoon Telegram was launched on 1 January 1870, edited by Samuel Cook; it lasted just four months. On 1 May 1875, he tested the afternoon market again, this time with a penny Echo, again edited by Cook. Fairfax and Cook hoped fresh Echo news on country trains would find a market among readers for whom the Herald was sometimes a day late. The paper went through four editors in 18 years, and folded in 1893. In 1916, the Fairfax partnership became a limited company, John Fairfax & Sons Ltd. This was converted to a proprietary company, John Fair- fax & Sons Pty Ltd, in 1937.
The Herald afternoon edition, first published on 5 January 1899, ran until 13 January 1940. An ambitious quality broadsheet, the Sunday Herald, pushed by governing director Sir Warwick Fairfax, managing director R.A.G. Henderson and general manager Angus McLachlan, started on 21 January 1949 but could not draw enough national advertising and ran, according to Gavin Souter, ‘at a heavy loss’ for four years.
In August 1953, (Sir) Frank Packer made a bid for Associated Newspapers Ltd (ANL), publisher of the afternoon daily the Sun and the Sunday Sun. Alarmed, Henderson persuaded the ANL board to sell John Fairfax & Sons a share in the company, which thwarted Packer and merged the companies and the newspapers, creating the popular tabloid Sun-Herald, first published on 11 October 1953. It also acquired the ANL subsidiary, magazine publisher Sungravure Pty Ltd, which by the 1970s employed 500 people and published Woman’s Day, People with Pix, Cosmopolitan, Dolly and Electronics Australia, and became Fairfax Magazines Pty Ltd.
The merger also yielded a consortium comprising John Fairfax & Sons, ANL and several broadcasting and manufacturing companies, Amalgamated Television Services Pty Ltd, which successfully applied for a Sydney commercial television licence. ATN7 went to air on 2 December 1956. The next year, John Fairfax & Sons contributed to a consortium applying for a television licence in Brisbane and came to control QTQ9.
When Ezra Norton offered Truth and the Daily Mirror for sale in 1958, what followed, according to Souter, ‘was not Henderson’s, nor indeed John Fairfax’s, finest hour’. Fairfax owned the Sun, the Mirror’s competitor in the Sydney afternoon market. Henderson decided Fairfax should buy the Mirror and Sunday Mirror (the old Truth) through a shelf company, O’Connell Pty Ltd, designed to deceive readers and advertisers about Fairfax’s controlling sensationalist, money-losing, newspapers competing with its own.
One of the most competitive newspaper markets in the world would become a fake. That this might lead to market or political embarrassment was self-evident. In fact, it led to an opening for 29-year-old Rupert Murdoch, who was looking for Sydney newspaper opportunities and in 1960 made a bid for Mirror Newspapers Ltd.
The country’s most successful post-war newspaper, the Australian Financial Review, launched as a weekly on 16 August 1951, went bi-weekly in 1961 and daily in 1963. In 1961, John Fairfax & Sons acquired 45 per cent (later 100 per cent) of Newcastle Newspapers Pty Ltd, publishers of the Newcastle Herald and Newcastle Sun. In 1964, John Fairfax & Sons acquired Federal Capital Press of Australia Pty Ltd, publisher of the Canberra Times and part-owner of Canberra’s CTC7, and in 1969 the South Coast Times Pty Ltd, publisher of the Illawarra Mercury.
John Fairfax & Sons bought the Australian assets of the British broadcasting group Associated Television Corporation in 1964, in another move to contain Sir Frank Packer. This led to a restructuring and John Fairfax & Sons’ floating of Macquarie Broadcasting Holdings Ltd, whose six radio stations included Sydney’s 2GB; by 1978, Macquarie was a wholly owned Fairfax subsidiary.
Under David Syme’s will of 1908, the Melbourne Age was controlled by a trust during the lifetime of his five sons, after which it went to the grandchildren, of whom there were 18 in 1965, when Oswald Syme, the one surviving son, was 87. There was no prospect of the grandchildren perpetuating a Fairfax-style dynasty, and when Oswald died that would open the door to takeover.
The opposition Herald and Weekly Times had bought almost 10 per cent of the David Syme & Co. Ltd shares by 1965. Confidential talks yielded an agreement announced by Sir Warwick Fairfax and Ranald Macdonald, the Syme managing director and Oswald Syme’s grandson, on 13 December 1966 of a shareholding partnership. In 1972, Syme became a Fairfax subsidiary.
John Fairfax & Sons acquired an interest in the rural weekly the Land in 1970 and started the weekly National Times in 1971 on the inspiration of Vic Carroll, the managing editor of the Australian Financial Review. After a series of talented editors, writers and investigative journalists whose disclosures were not reflected in sales or revenue, the paper, then named the Times on Sunday, closed in March 1987, along with the afternoon Sun.
Sir Warwick died on 14 January 1987. Young Warwick’s takeover ‘succeeded’ but the company collapsed with debts of $1.7 billion. On 10 December 1990, a receiver was appointed.
Conrad Black, a Toronto tycoon who at his peak owned the Chicago Sun-Times, Jerusalem Post, London Daily Telegraph and Toronto’s National Post, made a successful bid for what was now known as John Fairfax Holdings Ltd. Black later served 71 months in prison in Chicago after defrauding his US companies of $285,000.
After acquiring New Zealand’s Independent Newspapers Ltd in 2003 and the RSVP dating site in 2005, Fairfax created the Brisbane Times website on 7 March 2007, acquired Southern Cross Broadcasting and announced staff cuts of 550 in a ‘business improvement’ program, followed in June 2012 by the experiment of paywalls on the online Sydney Morning Herald and Age, which switched to tabloid size in March 2013 and closed printing plants as advertising shrinkage forced another 1900 staff losses.
In December 2011, Fairfax Media included 430 newspapers and magazines in cities, towns and agricultural markets, newspapers and websites from Goondiwindi to Singapore, papers for dairy farmers, computer geeks, grape-growers, lot-feeders and ageing travellers, 15 radio stations and 13 narrowcast licences. It claimed ‘the largest news talk network in the country’ and more than ‘200,000 news tablet applications downloaded’. The newspapers’ print prospects, like all other prospects, remained unknowable in the first generation of the digital revolution transforming the world.
REFs: G. Souter, Company of Heralds (1981) and Heralds and Angels (1990).