As news broke that Stuff was closing or selling 28 print mastheads, wire service BusinessDesk called it the start of the endgame for the business – a reference harking back to the ominous 2016 warning of Fairfax group chief executive Greg Hywood that the company would struggle should the Commerce Commission block the merger with New Zealand Herald owner NZME.

"We don't have the capacity of deep pockets of private money to subsidise journalism," Hywood said at the time.

"There are many proprietorial models where wealthy individuals and families, for social and political influence, own media companies, but we have shareholders and they demand that these publishing businesses stand on their own feet."

Unless the merger was allowed, "it becomes endgame", he said.


Notwithstanding the merger appeal is still to be determined, Fairfax has decided to shake off some paper weight and bet big on digital.

Notably, this move comes shortly after New York Times chief executive Mark Thompson gave print journalism an expiration date of about 10 years.

As loathsome as chess references might be, Fairfax's move looks a lot more like a classic sacrifice than an endgame in light of the diminishing future of print. It's a case of the company giving up some well-loved pieces to give it a better position as the game moves on.

In business, as in chess, timing is everything. Make your move a little too early or a little too late, and everything that follows becomes that much harder.

Stuff is pulling back on print. Picture / NZME
Stuff is pulling back on print. Picture / NZME

Fairfax NZ's financial figures show that 17 per cent of the company's $160 million in revenue came from digital and non-print revenue.

This grew 33 per cent year-on-year to $24m, but this still has a long way to go before it overtakes print revenue. The question then is whether the timing of Fairfax's sacrifice of 35 per cent of its print titles – albeit smaller names – is right.

Hywood thinks it is. His statement said the move will deliver additional earnings and "bring forward the time when increases in digital revenue outweigh declines in print".

Alongside Stuff and Neighbourly, the company has expanded into numerous other industries, including fibre, online entertainment and energy.


However, many of these are saturated markets with a number of powerful players and it's questionable whether Fairfax will be able to make a meaningful impact as it goes toe to toe with them.

That said, Fairfax has been strategic in its choices, establishing ventures that can be run by lean teams with relatively modest budgets – a significant departure from the resource-heavy strain of producing daily news.

And although I'd argue it's a stretch to call Stuff's print sell-off the endgame, a mistimed sacrifice has been known to move that along rather quickly.