24/10/2006 - 22:00

Media shake-up is long overdue

24/10/2006 - 22:00

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Media shake-up is long overdue

“Under new management”. We’ve all seen that sign many times on an A-frame outside a business, or writ-large across a shop window.

If you’re like Briefcase, you interpret the message as meaning things have improved, and you are being invited to see how much better.

The media industry, however, is different – as we are seeing in the hysterical headlines, and zany political posturing from people opposed to Australia’s new media ownership laws.

If you believe the worst of the predictions about changes under way in the media, then the sky really will fall in by 5pm next Friday.

It won’t. And we all know that.

So why is that the promise of new owners in the media world is seen as a threat, rather than a promise?

The answer: because the people writing the stories (or, perhaps more accurately, directing how they be written) are afraid of change. They’re comfortable with the status quo and want us to believe that the current structure is perfect.

It’s not. And we all know that.

What we have under way in Australian media is a shuffling of the deck. Tired, and in some cases bad management, is being tested by the threat of change with no serious consideration being given to the potential for the new owners (and their managers) being better than what we’ve got.

As far as Briefcase can see, an awful lot of Australian media needs a jolly good shake-up. New technology has dramatically altered the media landscape and most players in the old media world are struggling to make it part of their offering.

Too many newspapers are run by people who genuinely believe that their product will sail blissfully through the internet revolution unscathed, and that one day soon they will wake from the nightmare that has decimated their readership and dried up their rivers of gold – the classified advertising revenue stream, which has migrated overnight to the net.

The future of the media, for the blissfully ignorant out there, is a skillful combination of technologies. It is all about merging print and electronic in its many forms.

But, to maximise this potential for the owners (and staff) of the businesses involved, it really is time for a changing of the guard, and for the ‘under new management’ sign to appear over a few media doorways.

Without naming names, oh, why not, can anyone seriously suggest that a morning newspaper in Perth (which shall go nameless) would be worse if its major shareholder was Kerry Stokes?

•••

Right, now let’s consider seriously what the new management teams will find when the stock market dust has settled, the assets carved up, and the legal challenges resolved.

Apart from shifting a few people in, and out, of the organisations, the new managers will find an industry in turmoil – not because of ownership shuffling, but because no-one really knows where the revenue streams are running.

Certainty, such as the classified advertisement rivers of gold, has blown out the media window over the past decade.

The amount of advertising and subscription money sloshing around has risen (but not by much), but it’s now being shared by a new player in the game – the net.

And the problem with the net is that it’s a capital sink with few players yet able to find a way to make money from it.

In time, the net will be a modern-day version of the golden river (just look at Google), but the trick will be in knowing who’s paddling the right canoe – and who’s paddling the one up that other river, in a barbed wire canoe.

•••

Enough media navel gazing; now let’s consider something much more interesting – the state of the property market, and two little gems of information Briefcase thinks worth sharing.

Last week, in one of those classic neighbours nattering over the picket fence moments, a very learned chap with his feet sunk deep in the property market made an astonishing remark.

“You know,” he said, “one of the most active real estate agents in town was telling me that he sold eight properties last week, and they were all off his rent roll.”

It took a couple of seconds for Briefcase to interpret this coded message, but the meaning is simple – investors are selling.

The other gem came from a contact in Melbourne who, breathlessly, told a tale about Perth property developers marketing their wares in his town, and even offering “free” flights across to the windy city to see their fabulous new developments.

Now, Briefcase might be a novice in these matters, having only ever sold a property once, but it seems that we have a conflict emerging.

On the one hand, investors ‘in the market’ are selling because interest rates are ratcheting up, good capital gains have been made, and the way ahead is cloudy, and possibly a period of low growth, or no growth.

On the other hand, we have developers indulging in those marketing exercises that largely involve selling their product to a ‘foreign’ audience (lets face it, Melbourne is foreign turf), which knows little, if anything, about local conditions.

Interesting times ahead.

•••

More straws seem to be blowing in the public service wind with news that the state government has delivered barrow loads of booty to exiting civil servants.

Both events fit the Briefcase theory that government, in virtually any form, is struggling (and will struggle even harder in the future) to attract quality staff – for three reasons.

First, the civil service has been grossly politicised (by both sides) and it’s virtually impossible for a competent manager to rise through the ranks on merit alone, because he or she will be derailed by a party lackey, at some stage.

Second, government service is the last bastion of unionisation and its obsessive belief in one size fits all, and pay based on seniority, not ability.

Third, pay rates and job opportunity in the private sector, during a boom, make civil service look like a loser’s option – and, the scary part in terms of service provision, perhaps it is.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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