Profile: Michael Miller on soggy newspapers and selling ads

Mariam Cheik-Hussein
By Mariam Cheik-Hussein | 28 April 2020
Michael Miller

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The media Michael Miller grew up with in regional Australia has vastly changed. From the slow daily news filled with community updates, to the fast-paced nature of online global news. But unlike most, Miller, as executive chair for News Corp Australasia, holds a key role in shaping the future of our media as it tries to forge forward amid challenges from digital platforms.

The son of a surgeon and school teacher, Miller grew up in the Hunter Valley. His childhood was filled playing sports with his two brothers and while media options were limited by today’s standards, news was another constant in his life.

“Growing up in regional Australia is probably the best part of the world to grow up in,” Miller says.

“You get the best of everything. You’re close to the land and you’re equally part of a community. Going back a bit now, media choices were not as much as you have today.”

In the Miller household, the radio, always AM, the Herald and The Australian papers were prominent sources of news.

“We always had the papers delivered and Dad would be woken up with the thud on the lawn,” he says.

“Walking out amongst the dew to pick up the paper, which wasn’t cling wrapped, it was always wrapped in brown paper which made it even wetter in the dew.

“The radio was usually played over breakfast in the morning, as well. I can remember our first TV, which was black and white.

“The role of media was papers of record. You had Peter Roebuck on Cricket, and with the ABC, you had the doyennes of Four Corners and Countrywide. So for me, what you read in the paper was not just about truth, and about research. It became a source that you cut out and was a bit of a memory bank as well.”

Miller completed high school at Knox Grammar, after which he went on to study at the University of Technology Sydney in 1989. Not set on the media industry at the time, Miller was attracted to topics relating to society, history and culture.

“I did feel that part of an inquisitive mind when you are debating, listening and contributing to discussions around the table. It’s part of how I was brought up and I enjoyed that,” Miller says.

“I don’t know whether there was a tipping point [of knowing I was interested in media]. I think society, culture, history, humanities were the areas I enjoyed more. And definitely the business side, or how it all comes together, has been an area of my interest from probably when I left school into university.”

While studying his first year at university and trying to find a way to make ends meet, Miller landed his first role in the media industry at Tonkin Media. He started at the media representation business selling ads for Countdown magazine.

“It was good, at the end of the day we’re all sales people. We have to sell what we do and sell the brands that we represent, so it was probably good,” he says.

“Did I love it? Sales is never easy, you get plenty of knock backs. So early ‘90s, there was equally some tougher economic times, so it’s probably good to go through what tough times look like.”

From 1991, Miller spent two years working at the Commercial Economic Advisory Service of Australia (CEASA), which provided analysis on the market. During this time there was also the Print Media Inquiry taking place, and Kerry Packer’s bid to take over Fairfax Media. “I think that’s when I got a broader view of the mass media,” Miller says.

After his time at CEASA, Miller landed his first role at News Corp Australia, working as a research assistant in the marketing service department.

“I’m not sure what that would mean today. I remember we used to load up readership requests and put them in the computer at night and then come back in the morning,” he says.

“This is the early ‘90s, we would sit down in the building and in the afternoon it would start to shudder and rumble as the pressers would start up. The whole of Kippax Street would be full of ink trucks or paper trucks. You were close to it. It felt like you’re working in the media, which you are seeing out of the building what was produced every morning, every afternoon with the afternoon and morning newspapers.”

With no big ambitions at the company he now oversees, Miller says he felt “fortunate” to be there. “I had a great first manager Matt Balogh, who was the research manager at News,” he says.

“He was always encouraging, with the principles of you’ll learn from your mistakes, you need to push yourself, test yourself.
“News is a company where our DNA is like that, so I was able to get involved with marketing departments, sales departments, editorial departments and get to work with a cross range of people.

“It’s not a company that is hierarchical, you pick up more responsibilities and that’s where you get promotions.”

In 1994 Miller took the opportunity to relocate to Melbourne where he worked as the marketing service manager. He spent the next four years in the city, working across the Herald and the Weekly Times.

“While they’re similar, they’re very different,” he says.

“One of the comments I make about News is that you can have multiple careers with the one company, given the brands are so different and the cultures differ as well.”

It was here, under these different cultures, Miller had some of his career highlights. But one experience he notes was working across the Sunday Telegraph and The Daily Mirror, which were edited by Roy Miller at the time.

“It was an interesting phase from a research point of view,” Miller says.

“Picking audiences, knowing audiences, working with editors in that period of time when change was occurring. You had pay-tv launching, you had probably not so much internet then, but the magazine market was spawning many different new titles, and news titles as much as lifestyle titles.

“We were introducing new colour presses at that point. So, there was quite a lot of rapid change happening around the company and also the country, in the terms of media. It felt like a lot at the time, but now it kind of doesn’t, but the mid-nineties saw a pretty fast-paced change.”

After working in Melbourne, he returned briefly to Sydney to take up the group marketing director role before moving again in 2004, this time to Adelaide. Here he led the Advertiser Newspapers, one of the most profitable businesses for News Corp in Australia, for six years.

He would later go on to be the regional director for NSW. Then in 2013 after some 20 years at News Corp, he jumped into a new sector at APN News & Media as CEO, which at the time still had its out-of-home division, which was recently sold to JCDecaux, and regional newspapers, which were acquired by News Corp in 2016.

It was under Miller’s leadership of APN that News Corp increased its stake in the business to 14.99%, becoming the biggest foreign shareholder in the company.

“It was good to have a sabbatical for a period and be doing something different.

“An opportunity comes along and, not that you always go knocking, it was an opportunity in something different, in a different environment to be equally involved with radio, out-of-home, international media.

“Being the CEO of a publicly-listed company gives you different perspectives and if I hadn’t had that experience, I probably wouldn’t be experienced enough to do the job I’m doing today. Equally, I think you know what you like and what you miss.”

“This [News Corp] is far more news-driven and that comes back to the current affairs. One of the reasons I came back to News is that I believe it’s a company that can make an impact and it’s one of the few companies that does. So, having an impact, making a difference is probably one of the mantras I am subscribed to.”

Miller returned to News Corp after just two years at APN taking up the top job as executive chair in 2015. In addition to the influence the publisher has on the Australian community, Miller said he was also lured back to the company because of its storytelling.

“One of the reasons I was drawn into media was that I was a reader, I love stories and storytelling.

“The emotion of it, the journey that people take, and the important decisions that people make at the end of their journey, and I think that’s probably the constant across all media. The best storytellers are the ones that gather an audience and connect with an audience.”

During his time heading up News Corp in Australia, Miller has been navigating the company through the emergence of digital platforms, mainly Facebook and Google, which have caused the advertising-based business model for journalism to crumble.

In addition to this, Miller has also been dealing with long-running issues news media has faced; truth, trust and transparency.
On one front, News Corp has joined other media players to form the Your Right to Know campaign, pressuring the government for legal reform to protect journalists doing their job and increase transparency.

On another, some news media companies face low levels of trust from the public. News Corp, one of the largest media companies in Australia, has faced critics who accuse the publisher of bias or of ignoring scientific evidence in its reporting. This criticism has been coming from multiple directions; the public, other media outlets, the political class, within News Corp itself, and the Murdoch family.

Recently, the publisher was targeted for its coverage of the bushfire crises, during which Sky News presenters downplayed or rejected the idea that climate change was linked to the fires, although many prominent scientists agreed the two were connected.
But, for all the apparent differences between old and new media, Miller’s justification for covering these views isn’t that dissimilar to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s when he defends the proliferation of false or harmful content as the corollary of providing a free and open platform for everyone.

“We have to be open for debate and criticism, but equally our role of trusted media is to tackle tough conversations as well,” Miller says.

“So if there’s views that there’s other contributors to bushfires, we need to not be afraid to cover that, even though the climate is changing and there’s more we needed to be doing about it.”

Miller, who followed the rare path of marketers who have gone on to lead companies, also thinks that media can play a bigger role in growing the economy during sluggish times.

“I still say I’m a marketer. As I’ve said, we all need to do an element of selling what we do and having a bit of sales in your background is not a bad thing.

“But Australia is a country of entrepreneurs, of people who are prepared to take risks, who will be the last person standing, and have a lot of courage.

“I think we need to have more courage in backing our creativity. We have some of the best editors, writers, directors, actors who always apply their trade overseas, but I fear that we’re losing our competitiveness as a creative country. That’s an area I feel quite passionate about, coming back to storytelling.

“We’re also a country that increasingly is playing it safe, and while safety is something we all want equally, you want to be courageous and be able to express. So, I feel that with the balance and the ever-changing pendulum we need to ensure that while we’re being safe, we’re not equally inhibiting what’s unique about us.” 

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