1943 - | Western Australia | Editor
Bob Cronin demonstrated strong journalistic leadership and was one of the industry’s strongest advocates for media freedom during a 56-year career in four States. After rising to deputy editor of the Courier Mail, he edited the Albury Border Mail, the Sun News Pictorial in Melbourne and the West Australian. The Walkley Foundation awarded Cronin the 2014 Journalism Leadership prize after two stints leading West Australian Newspapers for more than 15 years. Cronin defied Australian’s richest woman Gina Reinhart and vowed to go to jail himself rather than have his reporter divulge his sources for Reinhart stories. Cronin pulled his company out of the Australian Press Council in 2012 because of what he saw as a heavy-handed approach to self-regulation.
Bob Cronin blew into Perth as a Queenslander from Victoria with a big reputation on a mission few believed was achievable. In parochial WA in 1987, people like that were still labelled as "wise men from the East." And he was.
But Cronin became a titan of WA journalism, transforming newspapers and the careers of hundreds of people who worked in them in the second half of a brilliant career that spanned six decades.
Charismatic, popular, with an eye for layout, prodigious production skills, a sportsman's feel for fair play and an editor’s nose for a top-selling story, Cronin was the complete newspaperman.
Billionaire WA businessman Robert Holmes à Court recruited Cronin as part of his plan to take over The Herald and Weekly Times, where the 43-year-old was editor of its highest-selling paper, The Sun News-Pictorial, in Melbourne.
The plan was to attack the venerable Victorian institution from its western arm, WA Newspapers, which Holmes à Court had been eroding with a weekly paper called The Western Mail, started in 1980.
The grand plan fell short, winning WA Newspapers as a consolation prize, but not before Cronin had turned the struggling Mail into a feisty model for the group’s crusty flagship, The West Australian.
Cronin took over as its editor-in-chief in the middle of 1987, progressively transforming the paper with his style of modular layouts, the introduction of colour presses and transferring a glossy magazine from the Mail to The West which won it readership and circulation superiority in the weekend newspaper market over Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times.
He survived the passing of Holmes à Court’s control, the purchase of the group by WA Inc figure Alan Bond and his subsequent financial collapse, and the eventual public listing of a refinanced operation.
After falling victim to corporate infighting in 1996, Cronin reinvented himself for another WA billionaire's thrust into Chinese newspapers, moving to Shanghai and eventually returning to The West Australian in 2008 and repeating the renewal process all over again.
Journalism and broadcasting lecturer at Edith Cowan University and the WA Academy of Performing Arts, Jo McManus, had only recently moved to Perth when Cronin lobbed on January 4, 1987: “I met Bob as a young reporter just arrived from a Sydney cadetship. He gave me a job. I was terrified of him. He was direct, gruff and brutal in his criticism of my work. But he also gave me time, direction and important journalistic tutelage.
“He insisted on multiple sources and iron-clad documentation for stories. He taught me patience and accuracy ... and the art of the (very) long lunch. He has newspaper ink in his veins, and I have enormous respect for him.”
Michael Southwell was a firebrand young Mail reporter who wrote a piece for the journalists' union paper, Scoop, branding the new head of Holmes à Court’s Bell Publishing, who was ringing in the changes, as “Cronin the Barbarian” after the Schwarzenegger action movie character, the muscle-bound Conan.
Bob was not amused. When Southwell later wrote him a memo seeking a pay rise, wrongly citing it as his “renumeration”, Cronin repaid the favour. He called him 17 and let the newsroom know. That amused everyone.
Many years later, Cronin led a judging panel that awarded Southwell a Walkley for articles in The West Australian exposing Alcoa's polluting of the small WA town of Wagerup.
Although he’s a passionate Queenslander, Bob Cronin was born in Glen Innes, New South Wales in 1943, just three days before his father - a drover and truck driver who had been in Army training just over the border at Goondiwindi - was shipped out for Milne Bay in New Guinea.
He grew up in Central Queensland and was educated in Brisbane, representing The Associated Schools in rugby union and cricket and playing club rugby league. Cronin was awarded a cadetship at The Courier-Mail in Brisbane in 1960. He didn’t work as a reporter for long. In 1964 he went on to the sub-editors’ desk and within two years he was head-hunted by The Daily Mirror in Sydney.
A year later he was at The Sun News-Pictorial where he rose to chief sub-editor before becoming deputy editor on the ill-fated HWT-Syme hybrid, The Sunday Press.
His first editor’s role came in 1974 at The Border Mail in Albury. Home called in 1982 and he returned to The Courier-Mail where he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming night editor and deputy editor in 1984.
The next year, the Sun News-Pictorial, still in HWT ownership, was in trouble and Cronin was offered the editorship of the biggest-selling daily newspaper in the nation.
That went well until 1986 when two Holmes à Court executives made him an offer he could not refuse: come and join Bell Publishing and within a year you’ll be running all of Australia’s top-selling newspapers.
Holmes à Court had been after the empire for the whole decade with a series of audacious raids. But Murdoch ended up with the HWT prize in January 1987, agreeing to sell the Perth-based businessman WA Newspapers and Melbourne’s HSV 7 television station to avoid media cross-ownership laws.
Cronin knuckled down to the job in front on him in Perth, as the 1981 winner of the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award, Norm Aisbett, remembers: “One key measure of Bob Cronin’s possibly unique contribution to journalism and the newspaper scene in WA is the many journalists, of all grades and statures, who flourished when working with him.
“Informal, knockabout, friendly and approachable, he oozed a calm confidence that rubbed off on his reporters, who responded to the call for enterprising journalism, both of the brave and colourful kind. He was as open to the youngest reporter as to the seasoned, heavyweight operator.”
In 1996 Cronin left The West after the newspaper’s CEO made his position untenable. After an uncharacteristic – and unsuccessful – dabble in politics he was scooped up by Kerry Stokes and from 2003-2008 managed his interests in the Shanghai Daily Press in China.
That involved dealing daily with Chinese censors on the editorial floor, a test for one of the most enduring champions of press freedoms Australian newspapers have seen.
When Stokes gained control of West Australian Newspapers in 2008, Cronin returned as editor-in-chief and once again set about reshaping the editorial side of the business, winning a Walkley award in 2014 for journalistic leadership.
“He has continued to show the same outspoken and uncompromising leadership that has marked out his career, standing up to some of the most powerful vested interests in WA, including mining billionaire Gina Rinehart,” the citation said. “When Rinehart took The West Australian’s journalists to court, demanding they reveal sources for negative stories about her, her family and business interests, Cronin said if anyone was going to jail it would be him.”
But until his retirement in 2016, that distinction was one line in an illustrious CV that eluded him. Not much else did.
Paul Murray edited The West Australian from 1990 to 2000 before joining radio 6PR as morning host, retiring in 2015. He writes two columns a week for The West.
Receiving a Border Mail award from the army. Courtesy of Bob Cronin
Bob Cronin with chairman Melbourne Mott and GM Gordon Dowling on first day as editor of Border Mail. Courtesy of Bob Cronin
Piers Akerman, Bob Cronin and Mike Smith in South Africa to observe progress on The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), circa 1992. Courtesy of Bob Cronin
Bob Cronin with Kerry Stokes and the Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister. Courtesy of Bob Cronin
Bob Cronin at the West Australian offices. Courtesy of News Corp
Walkley Awards website profile