1938- | VIC | Publisher
Macdonald was the last of the Symes to run The Age in Melbourne. Appointed Managing Director at age 26 in 1964, Macdonald resuscitated the slumbering broadsheet by appointing the dynamic editor Graham Perkin and giving him the resources and corporate encouragement to transform it into one of the world’s great newspapers. He was the chief instigator of the Australian Press Council, a self-regulatory body that was imperfect but for many years provided a bulwark against government regulation of the media. He provided his paper’s expertise for the launch of the China Daily when the People’s Republic opened its door to the world at the end of the 1970s, but like many other Western business hopefuls of the time, was politely thanked but not rewarded.
Late one September afternoon in 1983, senior executives and department heads of The Age were summoned to a meeting in the newspaper’s personnel department in Melbourne. Their managing director, Ranald Macdonald, appeared and made the shock announcement that the Syme family partners were selling out to Fairfax in Sydney and he was stepping down as chief executive.
After 127 years the Syme family would no longer play a significant role in the affairs of Melbourne’s most respected daily newspaper. The last Syme was about to leave The Age. A great family newspaper tradition, one ‘inextricably woven into Australia’s history’ was coming to an end.
Greg Taylor, a former editor of The Age who replaced Macdonald as chief executive, said of him that day that he had earned his place as one of Australia’s great newspapermen; and the editor of The Age, Creighton Burns, added: ‘We are all sad to have lost a distinguished newspaper executive who has fought for the right of free speech and a free press and who has preserved the editorial independence of The Age.’
C.R. (Ranald) Macdonald was born in Melbourne in 1938. His mother, Nancy, was a grand daughter of David Syme, the famous early proprietor of The Age and his father, Hamish Macdonald, died on active service in World War Two. Ranald Macdonald was educated at Geelong Grammar, studied history and law at Cambridge and joined The Age as a cadet journalist. He subsequently completed a Masters degree, combining journalism and management, at Columbia University, New York.
Macdonald was just 26 when he was appointed managing director of David Syme and Co Limited in 1964. It was a one newspaper company and that newspaper, The Age, was moribund; dull and out of touch. The new managing director put together a team which transformed the newspaper during his period of stewardship, setting new standards for the Australian press through its journalism and its business practices, particularly marketing. Key members of the team, headed by Macdonald, were Graham Perkin, a brilliant editor of the paper (1966-1975), John Paton, an inspired marketing and advertising specialist and W.G. (Bill) Bland, a wise and widely respected business manager. It was a rare union of high level editorial and newspaper management skills.
During Macdonald’s nineteen years at the helm the Syme organisation expanded to embrace suburban and regional newspapers, magazines, audio and video operations.
He masterminded the development of a new head office, printing and publishing plant on Spencer Street at the western end of the Melbourne CBD. As for The Age itself these were years of enormous business growth and production development. Once again the newspaper enjoyed an international reputation, with circulation in the Macdonald years rising from 178,900 to just over 241,000.
Macdonald’s enthusiasm created an environment that encouraged boldness and innovation. A resurgent Age looked modern and dynamic and demanded to be read ... particularly by Victoria’s leaders and those in the top socio-economic groups. Vastly increased advertising revenue followed the surge in readership.
A number of entrepreneurial moves were not successful, notably the launch in 1969 (and brief life) of an afternoon daily called Newsday and a television venture in Hong Kong. But Macdonald and journalist Robert Gottliebsen were the driving force in the establishment of Business Review magazine, later BRW (1981-2013); and The Age was instrumental in setting up the English language China Daily, after a small group of Macdonald’s executives visited China and he responded to Chinese requests for assistance on the project.
Both Macdonald and Graham Perkin (until his untimely death in 1975) were constantly appearing on television, speaking on radio and addressing seminars and conferences. This was part of a clear strategy to promote coverage of issues such as journalistic freedom, media credibility, ethical standards, access and accountability. The Bulletin magazine was once moved to ask: What makes Ranald Macdonald run? It went on to claim that the chief executive of The Age ‘speaks at more meetings, dinners, conferences and seminars in a month than most other newspaper executives would do in a lifetime. He writes, broadcasts and telecasts.’
Macdonald was an early advocate of an Australian Press Council. The fact that one was established was due in large part to his conviction and efforts, and despite vigorous opposition from Fairfax in Sydney. In 1978 he was elected chairman of the International Press Institute, the first Australian to head the world peak council of editors and publishers since it was set up in 1951.
One of his first challenges (and achievements) had been to put in place the Syme –Fairfax partnership, a complex agreement which ran from 1966 to 1983. It protected the independence of The Age and allowed its Melbourne management to drive remarkable growth and development. In that time Macdonald not only revived The Age but led it through what can now be seen as a high point in Australian newspaper journalism and publishing.
Macdonald reinvented himself when he left The Age: first as a journalism educator and broadcaster in Melbourne, and then as a Professor of Journalism at Boston University in the United States and chairman of the university’s Journalism Department. His final role saw him based in London and responsible for more than 700 undergraduate and graduate students as director of Boston University’s study program in the United Kingdom.
John Tidey was a journalist and executive at The Age from 1965 to 1994.
Ranald Macdonald, left, at the White House with Graham Perkin being briefed on the Vietnam War by President Johnson. In the spectacles is Roy Macartney, The Age correspondent in Washington.
The Last Syme: Ranald Macdonald’s impact on The Age 1964-1983, John Tidey, Australian Journalism Monographs, 1998.
David Syme, Ranald Macdonald, Daniel Mannix Memorial Lecture, Melbourne University, 1981 (published as a monograph, 1982).