How do you solve a problem like the media?

By Jonathan Pealman

Peter Fray, former editor of the SMH and now Adjunct Professor at the University, says the media needs to restore public trust, and discusses the research that may aid this process.
Image of Peter Fray

Credit: Brian McInerney

As one of Australia’s most experienced newspaper editors, Peter Fray made a career out of trying to look ahead to tomorrow’s news. But the uncertain future of the 182-year-old newspaper where he spent the bulk of his career prompts a sombre backward glance.

Asked about the challenges facing print media and the Sydney Morning Herald – a topic he is asked about frequently these days – he sets aside the journalist’s instinctive cynicism and turns sentimental. “I cannot conceive of a Sydney without the Sydney Morning Herald – I cannot conceive of it.” He pauses and adds: “I do not want to conceive of it.”

Fray, 51, says the loss of the Herald will be a loss for the city. At its best, he says, the newspaper is not merely a “watchdog” but helps to define and add to the character of the city. He believes print journalism has a future but that newspapers may be limited to weekends as readers rely on a mix of technologies and media for their news. Increasingly, he says, readers will turn to smartphones for their quick news fix and to tablets, televisions and print for longer stories.

“There is still a demand for weekend reading. It’s a great institution – papers such as the Saturday Sydney Morning Herald and The Saturday Age… I see the mobile handheld device being the future for spot news, and then a combination of technologies where you will get deeper, more immersive information. One of those will be the morphing of our television sets into total news pipelines. That opens up a bunch of new opportunities for journalists and content providers.”

But Fray has no illusions about the difficult future of the print media or the prospect of the newspaper’s imminent demise. Earlier this year, he said in an interview on ABC Radio that the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Melbourne would last another five years. But he now believes it may be sooner. “Five years?…the Monday-to-Friday newspaper, I think, might not be around in two years…

“News Limited has always wanted to push the Sydney Morning Herald into the sea in Bondi. I suspect they may get their wish. I think that will be a terrible thing. I have always said this city is big enough for multiple media voices.”

Fray was editor and publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald from 2009 after decades as a reporter – including as London correspondent – and stints editing the Canberra Times and The Sunday Age in Melbourne. His Fairfax career ended last June, just days after the dramatic announcement by the company that it was axing 1900 jobs, closing printing presses in Sydney and Melbourne and shifting its broadsheet newspapers to tabloid formats. Fray believes the Sydney Morning Herald has a future – both online and possibly in print – but it needs to be clear about what it stands for “on every platform, at every second of the day”.

“There is no denying it has a big audience online, but how does that translate into influence? They are not the same thing. How does the SMH change the debate and challenge what’s going on? How does it stop public officials doing the wrong things by exposing what they’re up to? How does it inspire people?

“The Herald should be for Sydney. It should be deeply tapped into what people are worried about and into the zeitgeist. It needs to challenge what people are thinking. It is a big goddam city… Newspapers need to challenge what people are thinking. They need to bring down ministers and play a watchdog role, but at the same time the media should be a reflection of the place that you live.”

Fray says he also hopes to work with the University’s media students and academics to create a “newsroom”…

Fray admits that the challenges for print media are immense and potentially insurmountable, particularly the rising relative cost of print and distribution as circulation drops and readers shift to online.
“It is easy for me to sit here and be an editor in hindsight,” he says.
“I am fully aware of the revenue challenges – of the challenges posed by the social media transition and audiences going everywhere. Everyone gets that the rivers of gold [the streams of revenue from classified advertising] have dried up.”

Fray arrived at journalism – and in Australia – somewhat by accident. He grew up in Swindon, west of London, in a family that was “aspirational working class”. His father worked on the factory floor for British Rail and his mother “made bras for Triumph”.

As a teenager, he worked as a copy kid on the local newspaper, The Evening Advertiser, and encountered a world he found enthralling but seemingly out of reach. He left school at age 16 and studied farm management in England and then learnt from a fellow student that Australia was offering scholarships to study agriculture in Western Australia. So, at the age of 20, he ended up in the wheat belt in the town of Moorine Rock, a 164-person town about 350 kilometres east of Perth.

“I was a chubby cheeked Pom turning up there in the middle of summer,” he says. “I was not very good with my hands and not very good with machinery. I always had this sneaking suspicion that I was not cut out to be a farmer. As luck would have it – it was really pure luck – the Western Australian [now Curtin] Institute of Technology had just started a degree in rural journalism. Deliverance.”

Fray wrote to the school to request admission, telling the head, Lawrence Apps, now a lifelong friend, that “I can’t do crap with my hands – I keep killing things and setting things on fire”.

He was accepted – his first by-line was a story about a rodeo for the Northam Advertiser – and ended up completing his studies at the University of Queensland. He then landed his first job in journalism as the Queensland correspondent for the National Farmer magazine. “My rounds were tropical fruits, sugar, cattle and social affairs,” he recalls.

Though he covering the Queensland farming scene, he moved to Sydney to follow a girlfriend and found a job at Choice magazine. He lasted less than a day – “my first story to do was 5000 words on electric frying pans” – because he quit after he was contacted in the afternoon and offered a job as rural reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald, then based on Broadway. Incidentally, he points out, he now serves as a non-executive board member of Choice.
“I was not a brilliant writer,” he says. “I don’t think I wanted to be a great writer. I was a late maturer in a career sense. I look at younger journalists – they know so much more than me and have deeper and broader skills… I have gone a long way on curiosity, natural charm and a shitload of luck.”

Since leaving Fairfax, Fray has taken up a position at the University and started a website, PolitiFact Australia, which checks the accuracy of claims by politicians and other prominent Australians and then provides a rating on a “Truth-O-Meter”. It is the first version outside the United States of the Pulitzer Prize-winning website, PolitiFact.com, and has signed media partnership deals with Fairfax for the election campaign and with Channel Seven. Fray says he hopes to start similar fact-checking sites, either in other countries or as local sites that check claims made outside politics such as in the health sector or the business world.

Despite his concerns about the shaky future of the media – and its struggles to find new sources of revenue – he has not given up on journalism. Having departed the country’s oldest newspaper, he is ready to experiment with new digital projects which, he says, may have a slightly shorter shelf-life. “There is a great marriage of skills – people like me, grey haired old bastards, who are meeting up with younger people who hopefully can benefit from having grey hairs around but feel at ease and savvy with the digital world,” he says. “But what you do has to be compelling. The good thing about the digital world is that if you fail, you fail fast.”


Researching the role of the media in democracies

Peter Fray began his association with the University of Sydney in 2010, when he was appointed the First Decade Fellow in the Department of Media and Communications while he was still editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun Herald. His research focussed on the role of the editor and the relationship between the media and audiences, including ways to rebuild the public’s trust in journalism. “I was preoccupied with trust,” he says. “How do you trust the media? Has the trust relationship broken down?”

Fray says he was angry that the Australian media had been tarnished by the phone hacking scandal in Britain, particularly after the Gillard Government used the scandal to attack local media outlets. “We don’t operate in the same way as the UK media,” he says. “We don’t go around bribing cops, paying people to tap phones. Labor and Julia Gillard were getting a hammering from the News Limited tabloids and saw the phone tapping as an opportunity to use it as a big stick to basically beat up Murdoch. It was a bad call.”

Fray ended his fellowship with a speech in which he said editors should allow readers to be involved in creating content but should also lead campaigns and push for “measurable change”.
Earlier this year, after leaving Fairfax, Fray was appointed an adjunct professor in the Department of Media and Communications. He will mentor students, research the role of the media in democracies in collaboration with the University’s Institute of Democracy and Human Rights, and work on websites and platforms which will promote the University’s research and harness the expertise of academic staff. He has already begun working with the director of INCUBATE – the University’s entrepreneurial start-up engine – on a political website which will canvass the views of Australian politicians on key issues.

“What you have in the university is an incredible resource,” he says. “But what you don’t always have is a way of taking that resource across into the broader community. I am trying to find a few easy-to-understand, easy-to-use tools that will have Sydney University badging on them and that will make a difference.”

Fray says he also hopes to work with the University’s media students and academics to create a “newsroom” which would focus on specific research and reporting projects. “I would love to go back into the University and set up a newsroom with a defined project in mind and then draw on the University’s resources,” he says. “It could be something that links the University with the region. The Institute of Democracy and Human Rights is a great place to start – it’s a great bridge between the academy and society.”