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MOURNING COFFEE

November 27, 2018

By Jim Rhodes

Sad news to start the morning. I am sorry to report that today is the last day of life for Fairplay Shipping Weekly after 135 years of uninterrupted publication. I’m told that after the final issue of the magazine is put to bed this afternoon, staff and members of the Fairplay diaspora will assemble for a wake at The Globe in Moorgate.

Alas, we will never see its like again.

Fairplay, throughout its history, has enjoyed an unmatched reputation for editorial integrity, solid honest reporting, quality journalism and a unique style of presentation unlike any journal in the maritime industry.

For those of you who are not in in the world of ships and shipping, I’ll give you a brief synopsis. Fairplay was founded in 1883 by a Victorian English entrepreneur named Thomas Hope Robinson at the age of 54. He had just taken a monstrous loss on the stock exchange, but he managed to scrape up a few hundred pounds to launch himself into a new career as a publisher with a weekly magazine focused on shipping. He was said to have been a man of broad interests, strong opinions and a venomous pen. In his “Look-out Man” lead editorial, he took malicious delight week after week in puncturing the pompous and skewering those he thought deserving of being roasted on his editorial spit.

In his opening salvo on May 18, 1883, he wrote:

There is so little fairplay in the world …  If our own efforts in that direction, and with that view, should succeed in arresting attention then we shall have taken the first step towards promoting a reform more valuable that the extension of the franchise – viz. the habit of calling things by their right names, and of looking at them through uncoloured spectacles.

Leafing through early issues of the magazine, it’s surprising to see how many of the issues that were troubling the shipping industry in those years are still just as relevant in the 21st century. Take this example from June 29, 1883.

The loss of the Waitara adds pungency to our recent remarks on the subject of collisions. We can understand that in old times captains of sailing vessels would give one another plenty of room, owing to a certain amount of inherent unmanageableness in the craft, and we also fancy that steamers when first introduced were treated with a large amount of dread, which involved carefulness; but with improved – nowadays everything is improved – build and ‘improved’ steering apparatus, a skipper fancies he can cut things fine, and his ship, at the moment of his great dependence on her, runs amuck. Steamers seem to be literally played with by captains whose prevailing characteristics are carelessness and a tendency to keep insufficient look-out or none at all. It is true that shipping has increased very much of late years, and routes are consequently crowded; but the real cause of so many collisions may be imputed to a system of paying captains and crews badly.

And this from Sept. 23, 1920:

The enormous costs of litigation in the American Courts encourages charters and others there to throw their losses on foreign owners.

Thomas Hope Robinson remained at the helm until 1912, when at the age of 84 he turned over the business to his son Gordon Hope Robinson., who ran it until his death in 1953. Fairplay remained in the family until it was sold to the Financial Times in 1973. Then, in 1979, John Prime, who had been managing director of Fairplay at the Financial Times, recognizing that the magazine would fare better outside the stifling bureaucracy of the FT, organized a company, Prime Publications, to acquire the magazine. It was said to have been one of the first management buyouts in the United Kingdom at the time.

John Prime loved the publishing business and he loved the international shipping industry. He hired the best talented journalists in the business, and they happily maintained Fairplay’s reputation for tell-it-like-it is no-holds-barred journalism, tempered by a healthy dollop of good humor. Take this, for example, from the magazine’s editor, Michael Grey, in 1983:

Fairplay, from the first rages of its eccentric founder, has been nothing if not a campaigning journal…  The first editor would have found a great deal today that he would recognize immediately: the same old government ineptness when dealing with shipping, the same ignorant speculators to whom a ship is a tax fiddle rather than the most efficient method of carrying goods that the world has ever seen, the same old parasites who took all of the profit and none of the risk in the insurance and shipping markets alike.

John Prime was a good publisher and an even better businessman.  He was one of the first to recognize the importance of data and information, and in 2001 Prime Publications formed a 50/50 joint venture with Lloyd’s Register.  John – after making sure his key employees were taken care of financially – retired to the North of England. Four years later IHS – a giant conglomerate – acquired the business. Last month, IHS announced that Fairplay would be permanently closed – including the online and print versions of the magazine.

I met John Prime for the first time in the early 80s, when I was just launching my business with clients in the maritime industry. The company’s offices then were in Southwark with a creaky lift to the upstairs newsroom. Fairplay was approaching its 100th year. (I still have a on my bookshelf a copy of the 1983 centenary edition, which I have enjoyed indulging myself re-reading these last few days.)  He hired me to write a regular column on marine electronics (one of which was memorably entitled “Will Fax Replace Telex?” – remember, this was a long time ago), and later to serve as editor for the annual Marine Computing Guide books. We maintained our friendship over the decades as the business grew and prospered, and into his years of retirement.

At Fairplay, John kept a notebook in a desk drawer. In it he daily recorded the number of ad pages in every one of his competitors’ magazines. He would thump his hands on the desk top, lean across and say to me this or that competitor was in deep trouble and would soon be unable pay their printing bills. He bought some of them and made them profitable. I kept up the ad page counting habit myself, and it wasn’t hard to see that in recent years Fairplay, as a magazine based on subscription and advertising revenues, was almost certainly becoming unprofitable, so it came as no surprise that IHS decided to kill the printed weekly, Still  I hoped they would recognize the value inherent in the brand and keep it going as an online news medium, so that its distinctive crusading voice and style would not be silenced.

In his introduction to the centenary issue, John Prime wrote:

It would be asking a great deal of my Maker to expect to achieve the 41 years of service notched up with Gordon Hope Robinson. My aim is to pass on to my successor, many years from now, a company proud of its past but with its eyes fixed on the future.

How sad. How unutterably sad.

I can say no more. This afternoon I shall shed a tear and raise a glass of foamy beverage in the direction of Moorgate. Join me if you feel so moved.

Ave atque vale.