History of Fairplay

Written by Greg Miller

When Fairplay debuted on 18 May 1883, oil was largely shipped in barrels stowed aboard sailing vessels. Radio had not been invented. The Panama Canal had not been dug. Yet some things never change. Back in the 1880s, England’s new weekly shipping journal was rife with owner complaints about depressed rates and overcapacity.

Fairplay was founded by Thomas Hope Robinson, who was over 50 years old when he embarked on a career in journalism. As recounted in A Sharp Look-Out by Rick Hogben, Hope Robinson had just lost his money in the stock market and borrowed £300 from an old friend to launch his first print venture. The journal’s credo was to “speak out, loud and bold … for the shipowner, as an advocate, not a judge”. His prose was infused with “a contemptuous hatred of hypocrisy or cant of any kind”, according to his son Gordon.

This acerbic, bully pulpit business model paid off, with the size of the journal doubling from 24 to 48 pages within its first seven years, then to 60 pages by its tenth. Gordon Hope Robinson took over as editor in 1912, three years before his father’s passing, and would remain editor until his own death in March 1953. Through two world wars he never missed an issue.

The 1960s brought the first evidence of a new adjunct to Fairplay’s journalism: data, a business component that has escalated in importance ever since. In 1964, well before the personal-computer age, Fairplay began a newbuilding data partnership with International Shipping Information Services, a joint venture that evolved into FIRS, Fairplay International Research and Statistics.

A Robinson family member remained on the masthead until 1967, when Gordon’s widow, C Robinson (who became chairman upon Gordon’s death) passed away. Predictably, the relative stasis of the publication’s first 84 years as a family enterprise was followed by incessant change during its next 46.

Fairplay was acquired by the Financial Times in 1973 and John Prime of the Financial Times’ special services department was appointed MD. In 1979, Prime formed Prime Publications, which acquired Fairplay Publications from the Financial Times in one of the first management buyouts in UK history. Prime loved both shipping and publishing, was a believer in the future of data, and felt Fairplay had been held back by the Financial Times’ bureaucracy.

Over the next two decades, Prime intensified the focus on data and had the foresight to put collected information into databases. The 1990s heralded a major transition from tailored data solutions to data products with broader appeal, and from printed directories towards CD-ROMs. Meanwhile, the rise of the personal computer brought the emergence of Fairplay on the web. In June 1996, Fairplay became the first maritime publication to transmit news electronically with the debut of its daily email service.

The next major turning point came in July 2001, when the 50/50 Lloyd’s Register-Fairplay (LRF) joint venture was formed. The Marine Information Publishing Group of class society Lloyd’s Register was merged with Fairplay Publications and their databases were combined. Included in the LRF JV was the sole right to assign and validate the IMO’s ship and company numbering schemes. The following seven years were marked by acquisitions. The internal goal was to buy businesses that served the fringes of existing customer demand, allowing for more ‘one-stop shopping’.

In 2003, LRF purchased the magazines Safety at Sea and Dredging and Port Construction from DMG World Media. By 2005, LRF was publishing five maritime magazines (including the monthly Solutions technical magazine, which debuted in 1996, and Ports & Harbors, published on contract for the International Association of Ports and Harbors).

LRF signed a pivotal deal on the data front in 2004, when it formed AISLive in a 50/50 JV with HITT NV of the Netherlands. AISLive pioneered the use of automatic identification system broadcasts to track vessel movements. HITT provided the technology and LRF contributed initial funding to commercialise the nascent concept. In February 2008, LRF acquired HITT NV’s 50% stake in AISLive. 

Given LRF’s expanded repertoire spanning journalism and data, the stage was set for a sale to IHS. NYSE-listed IHS – then controlled by German industrialist heir Georg Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza – was seeking to cover all aspects of the global market via data and analysis. It was on the hunt for maritime content and executives at defence mainstay Jane’s, which had been purchased by IHS in 2007, recommended LRF.

In March 2008, IHS acquired Prime Publications’ 50% stake in LRF. An additional 0.1% was purchased from Lloyd’s Register in December 2008 to give IHS majority control. In June 2009, IHS acquired the remaining 49.9% stake in LRF from Lloyd’s Register.

Just as shipping has radically changed over the past 130 years, so too has journalism. Today’s coverage in the magazine (rebranded IHS Fairplay in November 2011) is merely one facet of a broader and increasingly digital whole. Shipping journalism dovetails with other IHS acquisitions, including CERA in petroleum, McCloskey in coal, Global Insight in economic forecasting, and Jane’s in defence.

The future promises additional digital platforms, more synergies between maritime journalism and maritime data, and further linkages between maritime content and siste­r IHS content in the commodity, industrial, governmental and economic spheres.

 But despite all of the change of the past four decades, the legacy of Thomas Hope Robinson lingers. One hundred and thirty years ago, the founder dubbed his commentary page ‘Lookout Man’. Today, the Lookout editorial page remains front and centre, still striving to “speak out, loud and bold”.