Why Steve Harris would be good for WA News

By Stephen Mayne
April 10, 2008

The board of WA News desperately needs someone with direct editorial experience after the chaotic Paul Armstrong reign and that means either Steve Harris or yours truly, but will the head hunters, institutions and proxy advisers appreciate the important of editorial to a newspaper company?

The two additional positions on the WA News board will effectively be announced on Monday when executive search firm Korn Ferry delivers its recommendation to The Seven Network. Kerry Stokes apparently made contact with all of the nine outside candidates except Steve Harris and myself, before making a late decision to bring in executive search firm Korn Kerry to conduct a five day review.

It was a shrewd move as any director that Stokes personally annointed would be in his debt thereafter. The institutions are still leaning towards supporting the incumbent directors, but the billionaire is making some significant concessions.

The move to appoint an additional two directors after the EGM and then for Seven to abstain from voting on their election at the subsequent AGM is a major concession to the institutions.

This leaves the chairmanship as the last remaining issue, but Stokes can hardly commit on that score without knowing who the two other directors will be.

Korn Ferry is seeking a full CV and then time for an interview with all the candidates but this leaves Steve Harris at a distinct disadvantage because he is currently in Europe on holiday after a taxing time as chief executive of the Melbourne Football Club.

I reckon Harris would be a good option as chairman given that his record includes the following:

  • As publisher (CEO) and editor-in-chief of The Age, he was the first person to seriously run all of the paper's editorial and commercial operations and over a three year period lifted profits by 75% to record levels.
  • This performance was thanks to revenue growth and increased performance management, customer focus, product range, subscription drives, reduced costs via rationalisation, new work processes, technology and accountabilities.
  • It was Harris who drove the business case for The Age's new print operation at Tullamarine. At the Herald Sun he played a key role in the shift from Flinders St to Southbank.
  • The West Australian is coming out of a period of editorial excesses and it was Harris who revitalised the Herald Sun by lifting its brand value and voice after the crazy Piers Akerman reign of terror in the early 1990s.
  • The Age also enjoyed increased brand and voice and under Harris both papers grew custom magazines, magazine inserts, books, events. Whilst The West Australian has completely missed the internet boat, The Age stole a march on its News Ltd competition during the Harris years.
  • The departure of Armstrong will be compared with the overthrow of The Age's former editor Bruce Guthrie after a massive battle with Jeff Kennett. Harris took charge at The Age and managed to develop very strong relations with political leaders on both sides, across commercial and editorial, without comprising editorial integrity.
  • Finally, journalistic awards are vital for the reputation of any newspapers and both The Age and the Herald Sun delivered record hauls during the Harris years.
Perhaps Korn Ferry should check with some of the following luminaries that Harris would have dealt with during his extended period running major newspapers in Melbourne: Julian Clarke, Harold Mitchell, Steve Bracks, Chris Anderson, Mark Scott, Bob Cronin, Janet Holmes a Court, Ron Walker, Warwick Smith, Ziggy Switkowski, Gerry Thorley, Nick Chan, Mark McInnes and Graeme John.