Thursday, August 18, 2022

The obituary the Dom Post couldn't be stuffed publishing

Alan Burnet (pictured) died on July 18, aged 101. I offered to write an obituary for The Dominion Post but was turned down.

I assumed at the time that the paper preferred to have the job done in-house, which would have been fair enough. But here we are, exactly one month after Burnet’s death, and not a word has been published. I suppose it’s possible something will eventually appear, but it seems unlikely.

Why should this matter? Only because Stuff, the company that publishes the Dominion Post, wouldn’t have existed without Burnet. In fact it’s possible the Dom Post itself wouldn’t have survived.

You’d think that might have justified an acknowledgment on the Dom Post’s Saturday obituaries page, but evidently not.

As I noted in the obituary I ended up writing for BusinessDesk, Burnet was, for two decades, the dominant figure in the New Zealand newspaper business.

He started out in 1964 as general manager of the Wellington Publishing Company, owner of the Dominion – a job for which he was head-hunted by a young Rupert Murdoch, who had recently acquired a controlling stake in the paper – and built it into Independent Newspapers Ltd (INL). In the process, Burnet reshaped an entire industry.

Through a bold and deftly executed series of mergers and acquisitions, INL became by far the biggest player in the New Zealand print media, with a stable of newspaper titles that included the Sunday Star-Times, the Auckland Star, Wellington’s Evening Post, the Dominion, New Zealand Truth, the Christchurch Press and seven provincial dailies from Hamilton to Invercargill. 

Biggest isn’t necessarily best, but it was a profitable and well-run company that valued editorial independence (Burnet refused a demand from prime minister Robert Muldoon that he sack Geoff Baylis, the Dominion’s editor) and gave its journalists the freedom and resources to pursue important stories. It's not overstating things to say it was a golden era of print.

Burnet was managing-director of INL for 10 years and chairman for another 10, retiring in 1993. Murdoch remained in control of the company throughout but was content to leave decisions to Burnet and his right-hand man, former Evening Post editor Mike Robson (who took over from Burnet but died suddenly in 2000).

After Murdoch withdrew from New Zealand in 2003, INL was acquired by the Sydney-based Fairfax group – a wretched fate, as it turned out – and eventually morphed into what is now Stuff, a name originally coined for INL’s website when it was created in 2000.

I wrote in my obituary for Burnet that Stuff, which present proprietor Sinead Boucher bought from its Australian owners in 2020 for the token sum of a dollar, is a pale shadow of the company Burnet left behind. That was a gross understatement. Over a period of nearly 20 years, the company’s bosses unerringly took every wrong turning available to them.

I also wrote that what Burnet thought of the fate of the once formidable newspaper company he had painstakingly built up was not recorded. He was too polite. 

It's possible Stuff ignored his death because he was an old white guy and a capitalist. Being impeccably woke, the company may not want to remind present-day readers of its origins. But newspaper readers were infinitely better served in Burnet's day than they are now.

Stuff’s failure to honour him with an obituary simply confirms what had long been evident – that it’s a company with no respect for (and probably scant knowledge of) its own heritage.

Footnote: I worked for The Dominion from 1969 till 1972 and again between 1986 and 1992, including a period as editor. I also wrote the paper’s history for its centennial in 2007.



David McLoughlin said...

Interesting that the DomPost/Stuff wasn't interested in an obit on such an important media figure, Karl. I loved this line:

Stuff... is a pale shadow of the company Burnet left behind... Over a period of nearly 20 years, the company’s bosses unerringly took every wrong turning available to them.

But I do wonder if Stuff's lack of interest in Burnet's death might be because nobody there today remotely knows how important he was to journalism? All kinds of once-important people die now with no mention of their passing.

Even back when David Lange died in 2005, the DomPost got me to write his obit (and cover his funeral) because apparently nobody else on staff able to write such a thing had been around when he was prime minister from 1984 to 1988. I was hardly old (then or now). But newsrooms now seem no longer to have the many very senior journos with working memories going back several decades they used to have, journos who could bring institutional knowledge to stories and know the importance of someone who just died but whose relevant life was last century. Many such journos sat on the subs desk. Their demise has robbed the industry of their wisdom.

Odysseus said...

I seem to recall Stuff sanctimoniously cancelled all the pale, stale white men in their history around the end of 2020, as they laid the groundwork for their taxpayer funded campaign to promote Labour's He Pua Pua inspired legislative programme. They ostentatiously repented their "racism" over previous generations, implying that all who went before were stained with this guilt. So no obituary of such an important person in Stuff's history comes as no surprise. He has probably been disappeared.

Nigel said...

And the Herald has not run an obit page for years.

Karl du Fresne said...

The Herald did, however, run the Alan Burnet obit I wrote for BusinessDesk (they're now part of the same stable). So the old Wilson and Horton paper (INL's main opposition) honoured him, but the company he created didn't. As you say, extraordinary.

Trev1 said...

Under the Trade Descriptions Act Stuff's publishers should be required to rename their product "Shite".

Dean said...

Nicely written Karl, good to see you in top form!