The decline of the House of Fairfax Reply

A generation of journalists took their redundancy cheques from Fairfax Media this month. The group is downsizing, abandoning its broadsheet formats and selling off its printing plants, as a result of falls in advertising revenue.

Fairfax was once Australia’s most influential media empire. From the wood paneled fourteenth floor of 235 Jones St, John Fairfax and Sons directed the nation’s highest quality newspapers, a commercial television network and a string of AM radio stations. The Fairfax building brought the commanding mastheads of Sydney Morning Herald, the Sun Herald, the Australian Financial Review and the afternoon newspaper, the Sun under the one roof for the first time. Press historian and journalist, Gavin Souter said news was being produced there even as the building was completed in 1956.

No-one could have accused John Fairfax and Sons or Stuart Brothers (the builders) of putting form before function. The building was a factory without any of the architectural dignity which [the ornate former Herald premises] the Hunter Street Building had possessed.  Gavin Souter, Company of Heralds.

Newspapers were information factories; products of the mechanical age.  The heavy machinery, the huge Hoe Press units were located in the basement; shaking everyone and everything when the editions roared into print. Above was the composing room, with 150 typesetting machines, pouring hot lead into letters to be bolted together to create printing plates  Reporters in felt hats, braces and flash suits shouted down Bakelite telephones or pounded out their stories on mechanical typewriters.  Multiple copies were made by using carbon paper, sandwiched between up to six sheets of paper. The grubby and often indistinct pages were then sorted, stapled and distributed to the relevant desks by copyboys.  Sub-editors wore eyeshades; rolled up their sleeves with nickel plated armbands, drank whiskey and played cards. Stories were dutifully recorded by copy takers, placed in capsules and whizzed around the building in pneumatic tubes. The final product was scrutinised by proofreaders; highly literate and pedantic individuals who still knew the difference between a comma a semi-colon.

An illuminated address presented to Sir James Reading Fairfax by his “obedient” staff.

Newspapers’ unique aroma of hot lead, ink and newsprint wafted through the whole precinct, mixing with the fumes from the Kent Brewery, conveniently located just across Broadway. Three noisy pubs ringed the newspaper building. The printers drank in the front bar of the Australian, while the Herald journos favoured the back bar. The Sun journos drank at another. It’s said Sir Warwick Fairfax bought and closed one of these pubs in a vain attempt to contain the conviviality.

There were even class divisions in the canteens. “The printers canteen was on the third floor, and the journalists were on seven,” columnist, David Dale told me. “So you ate pies on three and could get pasta upstairs!”

At the top of the social pile, the Fairfax family acted as remote hereditary owners. They were seldom seen by journalists and junior staff. Fairfaxes would be deposited by their chauffer driven limousines in the basement car park, before being whisked by an executive lift to their top floor offices. Senior executives were given a key to the lift, as a mark of distinction.

The family ruled until 1987. In that year, the 27 year old heir apparent, “young” Warwick Fairfax went heavily into debt, to buy out other family members and sit himself behind the desk of his father, “old” Sir Warwick. Afterwards, Vic Carroll a former editor of the Australian Financial Review, wrote that :

It has taken Warwick Geoffrey Oswald Fairfax three years and three days  to blow a family inheritance worth $500 million…He had never owned, controlled or even been responsible for any kind of business.

The Fairfax company collapsed and was placed in receivership in 1990. The end came only two months short of 150 years of five generations of Fairfax proprietorship.

Fairfax would continue without the Fairfaxes. The infamous Canadian publisher, Conrad Black, took control for a time before the company passed to a consortium of shareholders.

Assets were dispersed. Printing was relocated to the remote industrial suburb of Chullora while the journalists moved to leased premises in the CBD. The building served as the headquarters of the Sydney 2000 Olympic games before being sold to UTS.


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