Fifty years ago, I found my dream job – and I’m not done yet
Written by Ross Gittins for his 50th anniversary at The Sydney Morning Herald.
When I arrived at The Sydney Morning Herald in 1974, I was the square peg that had fallen into a square hole.
If a genie ever sprang from a bottle and offered me one wish, it would be to have a job as a columnist on the biggest and best newspaper in the country, The Sydney Morning Herald. If he offered me a second wish, it would be to have my columns also published in the country’s other great newspaper, The Age.
For the first seven years after I left school, I worked to achieve my dream of becoming a chartered accountant. Not any old accountant, a chartered accountant. Unfortunately, by the time I achieved that exalted qualification, I’d realised I didn’t enjoy being an accountant and wasn’t particularly good at it.
I had a premature midlife crisis at the age of 24 and, after some casting around, on February 7, 1974, found myself as an over-aged cadet journalist on the Herald.
It took me only a few weeks to realise I’d stumbled into the only job I’d ever want. One I was good at and found greatly interesting and rewarding. I’d dropped a lot of money to become a mere cadet, but that didn’t matter. I was the square peg that had fallen into a square hole.
I wasn’t much good as a reporter, but the old boys who ran the Herald had the wit to steer me towards the feature and column writing I was good at. After three years, and having written many unsigned editorials, I got my first column. A year later I was made economics editor, and by 1983 I had the three columns a week that I’m still writing, on the same day and in the same section of the Herald, 40 years later.
That’s all you need to know to see why I’ve stayed in my job at the Herald for 50 years, ignoring the usual retirement age when it flashed past 11 years ago. I’ve never been able to think of another paper I’d prefer to work for or another job I’d prefer to have.
Editor of the Herald? I have a lot more fun than he or she does, with much less responsibility.
Doing it my way
Perhaps because I was older and starting a second career, or perhaps because my upbringing in that strange uniformed Protestant sect, the Salvos, had made me a bit of a loner, I decided to join Frank Sinatra and do it my way.
I wouldn’t try to impress my peers, or even the editor, but would write a column that better met what I thought the readers were looking for. Later, I realised this could be my moral compass: Serve the Reader.
Because nature had intended me to be a teacher, I decided that, while all the others were off chasing scoops, I’d concentrate on explaining to the reader what on earth it all meant. I’d try to figure out how the economy worked, and when I’d got something figured, I’d tell all.
Because economics has so much potential to be boring, I’d pull every trick I could to make it simple and readable. I’d write in the first person, in an easy, conversational style. I’d even put myself and my doings in the story.
Because the world gets ever-more complex, I’d try to ensure the young people we hired to write about the economy had some formal education in the topic. Then I’d teach ’em the tricks of the trade. I’ve had the privilege to mentor a couple of dozen of the Herald’s ablest recruits.
An unrecognisable economy
Over 50 years I’ve written well over 5000 columns, and worked for 16 editors – one of whom lasted for about 24 hours. I’ve covered 50 federal budgets, 19 federal elections, and seen 11 prime ministers and 16 treasurers come and go, starting with Gough Whitlam and Frank Crean, Simon’s dad.
In that time, I’ve seen huge changes in the economy, in politics and economic policy, not to mention – which I will – changes at the Herald. One of the latter is that, these days, newspapers prefer to refer to themselves as “mastheads”, in recognition that far more of our readers do so on our website than on dead trees.
I want to recall some of those changes, so let’s start with the shape of the economy. If a Rip Van Winkle fell asleep in 1974 and woke in 2024, I doubt he’d recognise our economy.
Every economy is changing continuously, partly because our customs and practices change and partly because government economic policies change. But the greatest source of change is advances in technology, and the past 50 years have seen the spread of computers, a revolution in telecommunications and the birth of the internet.
When I was first in the workforce everyone was paid weekly, in notes and coins stuffed into little brown envelopes. Any money you didn’t want to spend immediately had to be taken to your particular branch of your bank, with your deposit recorded by hand in a little passbook.
City workers would go out in their lunch hours to pay their utility bills in cash at the company’s office. Bills came in the mail, and you’d write a cheque and post it back. In 1974, the banks combined to introduce the first credit card, Bankcard.
You had to beg your bank to lend you less than you really needed to buy a home. Until the Whitlam government’s Trade Practices Act of 1974, it was legal for businesses to collude in setting the prices they charged, or agree to carve up the territory between them, limiting competition.
The prices of bread, eggs and petrol were set by the state government. You bought your electricity from a government monopoly. Annual inflation of consumer prices averaged 10 per cent in the 1970s and 8 per cent in the ’80s.
People stay a lot longer in the education system than they used to, and emerge with higher qualifications. This is related to the much bigger role that women now play in the paid workforce. More girls are staying longer in education, doing better than boys academically, and getting a growing share of the good jobs.
Over the past 50 years, the size of Australia’s workforce has far more than doubled, to well over 14 million, while the industry structure of the economy has changed greatly. In round figures, agriculture’s share of total employment has fallen from 7 per cent to 2 per cent. Despite successive resource booms, mining’s share has risen only from 1 per cent to 2 per cent.
Manufacturing’s share has fallen markedly from 22 per cent to 6 per cent. With construction’s share unchanged at about 9 per cent, that means the services sector’s share has jumped from 61 per cent to 81 per cent – something that has favoured the increased employment of women.
The huge decline in the proportion of workers needed to grow, dig up or manufacture goods is explained by continuous advance in labour-saving technology. But where have the many additional jobs in the services sector come from? They’re mainly in health and aged care, education, and professional, scientific and technical services.
My career at the Herald has seen many major changes in government policies, though most of these presumed “reforms” occurred long ago under the Hawke and Keating governments. First came the decision in December 1983 to allow the value the Australian dollar to float, then the deregulation of the banks and, later, many other industries.
The removal of the high import duties protecting our manufacturing industries was begun under Bob Hawke, but completed under John Howard. But this does less to explain the declining employment in manufacturing than many imagine. Automation and the rise of China should get more of the blame – or, for consumers, the credit.
The privatisation of government-owned businesses began under Hawke-Keating, but continued under Howard and state governments of both colours. The outsourcing of government-provided services, a much more debatable “reform”, continues to this day.
For many of my early years as a commentator, our centralised wage-fixing system delivered pay rises of the same percentage and on the same day to virtually every worker in the country. People like me wrote unceasingly about the evils of excessive wage rises.
At the time, I thought Keating’s move to wage bargaining at the enterprise level a big improvement. Now, having seen the way employers have used the less regulated system to chisel workers’ wages, I’m less sure about that.
Do you realise that, in 1974, all capital gains and employee fringe benefits were untaxed? Keating’s reforms in 1985 changed that. And Howard’s introduction of the goods and services tax in 2000 gave us the same sensible indirect-tax system most other rich countries had long had.
We had spent a quarter of a century trembling at the thought of such a tax since it was first proposed in the Asprey report of 1975. Today, it’s no big deal.
Labor gets the credit for introducing our first universal healthcare system, Medicare, and compulsory employee superannuation which, more than 30 years later, ensures most couples will live more comfortably in retirement than they would under just the age pension.
Palace revolutions and digital disruption
But now, a remembrance of a topic no other people still working on the Herald can say they lived through at close quarters: the many changes at this august organ.
I’ve hung around long enough to see all the palace revolutions that have progressively turned this 193-year-old paper from being owned by the two branches of the Fairfax family – each led by cousins, Sir Warwick and Sir Vincent – to now making up about a third of the Nine Entertainment media conglomerate.
I wasn’t here long before, at the urging of management, the ageing Sir Warwick was replaced as company chairman by his elder son, James. James was far less interventionist, allowing the editors of the various papers to make their own decisions and leading, I believe, to Fairfax’s Golden Age.
But the retirement of a powerful general manager soon saw the Herald’s new editor-in-chief, David Bowman – who’d done most to advance my career – deposed and replaced by the former managing editor of The Australian Financial Review and The National Times, Vic Carroll.
Urged on by the new chief editorial executive, Max Suich, Carroll set about belatedly dragging the Herald into the modern age. I hate to admit it, but the great transformation of Australia’s broadsheet newspapers was spurred by the advent in 1964 of Rupert Murdoch’s startlingly clean, good-looking and energetic national broadsheet, The Australian, when I was still a schoolboy. Under its great reforming editor Graham Perkin, The Age was the first quality paper to take up the challenge.
When I joined in 1974, and until Carroll began his changes in 1980, the Herald’s failure to move with the times was reflected in its declining circulation. It saw its mission as ensuring news was reported the way it always had been.
Its language was very formal and its reporting largely devoid of explanation, context, interpretation or emotion. I concluded that the chief subeditor saw his job as taking a story and draining all the colour out of it, to make it fit for publication.
Most news stories were anonymous, being “by a staff correspondent”. We were committed to being “a paper of record”, which meant keeping stories short so as to cram in as many as possible. This produced a paper that was black and white in both senses and visually messy. It simply failed to match the competition coming from radio and, particularly, television.
Carroll changed all that. While he was at it, he reformed me – more with kicks than pats on the head. He freed me from my self-imposed duty to ensure my economics fitted with the proprietors’ commitment to endorsing conservative governments before elections.
Since Carroll, my opinion really is my opinion. He was, without doubt, the best of all the editors I’ve worked for.
Not many years later, we were hit by ructions within the Fairfaxes, as Sir Warwick’s other son by a different marriage, Young Warwick, sought to avenge his father and please his mother by borrowing heavily to buy up all the company’s shares, paying far more than they were worth.
His new managers closed our afternoon paper, The Sun, and sold off whatever assets they could, but it was no use and by 1991 the company was in receivership.
The business continued to trade as normal, and remained profitable, but not sufficiently profitable to cover all the money Young Warwick had borrowed to buy it.
Kerry Packer’s plans to buy the business failed to eventuate – thanks to the machinations of some financier called Malcolm Turnbull – and the Canadian media baron Conrad Black ended up with a minority but controlling interest.
Keating wouldn’t allow a foreigner to increase his interest in the company, so Black eventually sold out. Like so many Australian companies, Fairfax’s ownership ended up being shared between a host of superannuation funds and other “institutional investors”, making it a plaything of the stock exchange.
All this, however, was nothing compared with the challenge from the digital revolution. At first, the move from typewriters to screens, and from “hot metal” to digital offset printing was just a nice money-saver. We were able to greatly reduce the number of printers we employed, move our printing plant to the outer suburbs and escape all the “restrictive work practices” – lurks and perks – of the militant printers’ union.
But then we – like every newspaper – discovered that the rise of the internet had taken away most of our advertising revenue. Before the revolution, every big city had a broadsheet newspaper with a virtual monopoly over classified advertising. A monopoly it exploited to the full.
This “river of gold” kept Fairfax profitable, even though most of the money was used to employ more journalists and compete for the best journalists by paying them well.
But when it became obvious that people wanting to sell houses or cars, or fill job vacancies, could do much better by advertising on the net, the river of gold ran dry.
From the beginning, newspapers’ business plan had been strange but simple: use your news to gather an audience, then charge advertisers for access to your audience. To maximise the audience, keep the paper’s cover price nominal.
At first, we – and other newspapers around the world – just tried to move the same formula online. We put all our editorial content online and freely available, hoping to attract enough digital advertising. We tried using “clickbait” to get as many people momentarily clicking on our site as we could.
It didn’t work. Eventually, we realised that almost all the digital advertising revenue was being scooped up by Google and Facebook. Following the lead of The New York Times, we moved to putting much of our online content behind a paywall and charging readers a subscription for access to it.
Since the internet remains replete with free news, it’s a business model that works only if your news is different and better than the free stuff.
I was never confident a company as old as Fairfax could bring itself to make the radical changes necessary to survive in the strange new world of digital news. Without the classifieds’ river of gold, we had to lose a lot of journalists, cut a lot of costs and change a lot of practices.
I give much credit to former Fairfax chief executive Greg Hywood – a former editor-in-chief of the Herald, who I’ve known since we worked in adjoining offices in the Canberra press gallery in 1975 – for ensuring the survival of the Herald and other great mastheads.
Some other chief executive might have secured the company’s survival by ditching all those terrible old newspapers, but Fairfax without its mastheads was of no attraction to a life-long journo like Hywood.
Ably assisted by Antony Catalano, who belatedly established Domain to capture a large chunk of the online property classifieds market, Chris Janz, who devised the mastheads’ rescue plan, and Michael Stevens, whose one goal is to prolong the life of our print editions (and is the man to credit – or blame – for attracting all those Harvey Norman ads), Hywood secured the future of the Fairfax mastheads.
The digital subscription model is working – these days, the meaning of the word “subs” has changed from subeditors to subscriptions – and as we tighten our paywall it works even better.
At one level, our valuable sources of non-news revenue, Domain, and our joint venture with Nine in the Stan streaming video business, helped ensure the company stayed profitable.
At another level, however, Hywood knew that, without a family with majority control, we were vulnerable to some sharemarket raider keen to buy our side assets and happy to dump our reason for being.
His last act was to find another, bigger company to which he could marry us off, and so protect us from hostile takeover. It needed to be another media company, one that was a good fit with the assets we brought to the marriage, and one that understood the need to preserve the independence and reputation of the classy dame it was acquiring.
Hywood chose well. It’s been a happy, respectful marriage. Our many media competitors have banished the word Fairfax and delight in demeaning us as “the Nine newspapers”.
Those more susceptible to conspiracy theories see us as controlled by daily talking points issued by the chairman of Nine Entertainment, Peter Costello.
Nothing of the sort. I guess I’ll have to retire someday, but I don’t expect unhappiness with our owners to be any part of my reason for hanging up my boots.
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