1952- | VIC | Journalist, publisher
Kohler became one of the most significant leaders of the new digital media environment in the early years of the 21st century, creating two commercially successful new digital-only media mastheads. The sale of the Australian Independent Business Media business he founded to News Corporation in 2012, for $30 million, provided tangible evidence of that success and marked Kohler as one of Australia’s first successful pioneers of journalism’s digital age.
Alan Kohler first registered on my consciousness back in the 1970s when, as a young business reporter at The Sun News-Pictorial, I first became aware of this bearded young journalist at The Age with his corduroy jackets and Hush Puppy shoes and made the connection between him and the by-line on some of the most beautifully-written and readable business stories of the time.
The son of a builder, Kohler started his career in journalism as a copy boy at The Australian, straight from Huntingdale High School in Melbourne in 1970. At the end of his four-year cadetship he bobbed up at the Northern Territory News in Darwin, just in time for Cyclone Tracy, which flattened the house where he was living. In the aftermath of the cyclone, he and a group of friends ‘’borrowed’’ a ute (he’s hazy about whether they had permission), ‘’borrowed’’ (without permission) a Roneo machine, set up shop at a Darwin police station and produced an emergency edition of the NT News, which they then distributed by hand.
He then had a short stint at the ABC in Perth and worked for Lang Hancock’s The National Miner before returning to Melbourne and The Australian. It was there he met his future wife, journalist and acclaimed author Deborah Forster. She had already booked a plane ticket for Europe before they met and he must have been smitten because his return to The Australian lasted only a few months before they headed off to Europe together. While in Britain, Kohler added the Exeter Express and Echo to his rapidly-lengthening CV. When the Kohlers (Alan and Deborah married while overseas) returned home in 1978, he joined The Age.
It was for his story-telling ability that saw Robert Gottliebsen adopt him a year later as his protégé and understudy on the Chanticleer column that Gottliebsen had founded at The Australian Financial Review.
Kohler took over sole authorship of the column for the first time in 1980 when Fairfax assigned Gottliebsen to create Business Review Weekly to protect the group’s business journalism franchise from Kerry Packer’s imminent launch of the Australian Business magazine.
By 1985 he was editor of the AFR, a position he held until 1988, and which was characterised by a flurry of changes to the appearance and content of the paper including, unsurprisingly, an emphasis on story-telling and good writing.
After an attempt by a debt-laden Warwick Fairfax to sell the AFR to Robert Holmes a Court fell through, Kohler left the AFR to work on plans for a joint-ventured weekly business newspaper with Melbourne publisher Peter Isaacson that didn’t get off the ground. He returned to the AFR in 1988 to again write the Chanticleer column until he left in 1991 for an unsatisfying six-month interlude as an investment strategist at stockbrokers James Capel. He came back to journalism with an equally brief stint at The Australian before being appointed editor of The Age in 1992, just as Fairfax came out of receivership. He held that position until 1995, when one of the very last acts of outgoing Fairfax chief executive Bob Mansfield was to end his editorship.
Over the next few years he was primarily a business columnist within the Fairfax papers, although he added a multimedia layer when he began contributing to the ABC’s 7.30 Report in 1995. By 2002, that relationship had segued into his nightly appearances, armed with his famous graphs, on the ABC’s news. That same year he took the concept of a weekly business program to the ABC and Inside Business was launched. It was to run, hosted by Kohler, until 2013.
Kohler was writing a bi-weekly column for the (then) Fairfax broadsheets in 2005 when he had his “Eureka Moment.”
He was taken aback by the strength of the audience reaction to pieces he had written attacking the conflicts of interest built into the arrangements between financial advisors and their clients. His columns struck a major nerve among readers and awoke a latent entrepreneurial gene in Kohler himself.
Kohler saw an editorial and commercial opportunity in creating a website devoted to providing information and advice to the rapidly growing number of Australians managing their own superannuation and investments. As a group they were cynical about financial advisers and looking for an independent source of insights to inform their investment.
Fairfax wasn’t interested in his proposal for a joint venture so he found backing from prominent investment bankers John Wylie and Mark Carnegie and launched Eureka Report as a purely digital, journalism-based product within a subscription model. Wylie and Carnegie subsequently introduced another more established media entrepreneur, Eric Beecher, to the partnership.
By 2007 Eureka Report was trending towards break-even and dominance of its investment “newsletter’’ category and Kohler came up with a far more ambitious project, another digital-only masthead but this time one directed at a much broader audience.
It was early in 2007 that Kohler and Beecher approached me to join them from The Age and subsequently convinced his friend and mentor Gottliebsen to come out of semi-retirement to form the core of the commentary team for the new product, which subsequently became Business Spectator.
While it was never stated explicitly, at least not in public, the target audience for the new masthead was the same as the Australian Financial Review’s. At that point the AFR was behind a very thick paywall and it was decided that Business Spectator should exploit that by being a free site rather than pursuing the original strategy of offering free news and paid-for commentary.
Business Spectator was from the outset – despite its modest capital base – an innovative, aggressive and continuously-evolving product. Kohler wanted to realise the potential of a digital-only business, one with no legacy products or value to protect, to deliver comprehensive news and commentary in ways that leveraged the 24/7 and real-time environment of the web.
He recognised the value within the cluttered online media space of established individual brands, with the site’s editorial and commercial strategies built around its core commentary, which was produced in as close to real-time as practicable and distributed not only on the website but via a series of intra-day emails that grew rapidly to about 150,000 a day.
When Business Spectator went live at the start of November 2007, Kohler was chief executive of AIBM, editor-in-chief of Business Spectator and Eureka Report, a daily columnist with Business Spectator and bi-weekly with Eureka – while still appearing on the ABC news each night and hosting Inside Business at the weekend. He also somehow found time to chair Melbourne University Press from 2008 to 2012.
Kohler put the editorial, commercial and administration teams for the greatly-expanded business together and was heavily engaged in every detail of the creation and ongoing management of Business Spectator, while continuing to manage Eureka Report. The timing of Business Spectator’s launch in late 2007 meant the audience grew rapidly because it was the most comprehensive local source of news and commentary during that early and uncertain phase of the global financial crisis.
The site was staffed and updated through the night (initially within the AIBM office but eventually from North America) and Kohler and Gottliebsen would be up and writing by 5 am most mornings to make the content as current as possible – while the newspapers and their websites were carrying reports of what had happened at least 24 hours earlier. Commentary would continue to pour through the site during the day as news occurred and was digested.
There was a competitor response. News Ltd first, and then Fairfax, greatly bulked up their business commentary (we had a pronounced and very favourable impact on business commentators’ salaries) and began updating their websites far more assiduously during the day.
Eventually the AFR was forced to lower its paywall and pricing to compete. By then, however, Business Spectator, funding its growth from the cashflows and profits of Eureka Report as well as its own growing advertising revenues, was firmly established with an audience broadly the same as its direct competitors.
AIBM wasn’t created with the intention of an eventual sale but in 2012 we received an approach from Fairfax, expressing its interest in acquiring the business.
Mindful that there were purely financial investors in the business and that Wylie, Carnegie and Beecher, while always supportive, would ultimately want to exit their investments, all the shareholders agreed to conduct a proper tender process.
Ultimately, while there were some twists and turns in the sales process, News Corp prevailed and AIBM was sold on 30 June 2012.
While the journalist founders might have had mixed feelings about the sale, it was a validation of the Kohler’s original entrepreneurial vision, his journalistic skills, his understanding of the detail and potential of the new digital media environment – and the intensity of the effort and thought he put into every aspect of the business.
It could be argued that the sale and the price-tag for the business confirmed the status of Business Spectator as one of the most significant new mainstream media mastheads since The Australian was launched in 1964.
It might also be said that Business Spectator, as one of the few digital-only mastheads targeting a mass audience, has influenced the pace at which traditional media groups have adapted to the digital new environment and embraced real-time news and commentary.
In 2014, Alan remained editor-in-chief of Business Spectator and Eureka Report and the guiding force in the business. He also continued to write, beautifully and prolifically, for both mastheads and still appeared nightly, with his graphs, on the ABC.
Stephen Bartholomeusz is an Associate Editor of Business Spectator and one of its founding shareholders. He was previously an Associate Editor of The Age, where he wrote a daily column on business for two decades.
Courtesy of Alan Kohler.
The Kohler Report, on ABC.