Why newspapers don’t need to shrink with Gawenda

Oct 07, 2008 at 06:33 pm by Staff

Newspapers that shrink will grow? Don’t blame Michael Gawenda for the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ headline to extracts from his A.N. Smith journalism lecture … he probably didn’t write it. The former editor-in-chief of the Melbourne ‘Age’ put the future of newspapers in the elements he says the internet can’t do, and asserts that only investigative journalism and building “a community of readers” belong in that list. Out go “the rest” ... and we’d have no problem with some of the content he singles out – reports of news conferences, PR-driven events and announcements if it wasn’t for the fact that these two, could be worthwhile if they had more editorial attention, and the rewrites were not consigned to the least discerning staff. That “most of the lifestyle sections should go online” is certainly up for debate. Australia has a voracious appetite for magazines and daily newspaper readers relish the idea that the plethora of inserts and supplements they get these days deliver some of that content for free. And of course, they have been one of the newspaper marketing successes of recent years … perhaps even ‘the new classified’ with the growing content of focussed small display advertising. One of Gawenda’s Fairfax colleagues even once asserted that the news section could even be regarded as a wrapper, into which to place all these goodies. At the risk of being just another commentator dismissed by Gawenda as being one of those “who actually know less than their readers,” I’d also challenge his claim that there isn’t a future for newspapers in commentary and analysis. Yes, the internet is “awash with commentary” – just as it is awash with what purports to be news and analysis … but that doesn’t mean there is no place for it in a newspaper. The “shared sense of what a newspaper is about” ensures the value of commentary and analysis in a newspaper – something web publishers are having difficulty with. So can newspapers have smaller circulations and no lifestyle sections? The premium cover price and absence of circulation deals might help … a recent resurgence of interest in weekly news magazines – not helped by the demise of the ‘Bulletin’ – suggests there may be a model here. But do they need to? Gawenda says newspapers should build on their strengths: One of these is the distribution network which – despite the love-hate relationship with newsagents – manages to deliver their daily message within a tight timeline. Putting more content of demographic or geographic relevance into that package would be a way of exploiting that strength. Digital print technology could be an enabler, but the success of Fairfax’s localised ‘Domain’ section (this week’s ‘Domain North’ totalled 144 tabloid pages across two days) required nothing more than an upgrade of Chullora press capacity – to the real world of 100 per cent colour – and a little imagination. And they say classified is dead. Perhaps the biggest tragedy is that of the duopoly/monopoly which exists in Australia’s capital cities. News’s position is so strong that Fairfax seems to live in fear of a predestinate blooded nose if it moves outside its traditional print markets. But a bloody nose isn’t fatal, and little of value was ever achieved without a struggle. Perhaps now it’s time for the expanded Fairfax to start to exploit the territorial opportunities it gained with the acquisition of Rural Press. A new double-width newspaper plant about to come on stream in Brisbane (and identical to that being installed for the Chrstchurch ‘Press’) delivers enough capacity to print a substantial daily newspaper. It could print some extra copies of the ‘Age’ and ‘Herald’ for Melbourne and Sydney ‘expats’ … or something tailored more specifically to the local south east Queensland audience, and supported by local advertising. It might be smaller than its Sydney and Melbourne counterparts. Hell, it might even command a small premium in cover price. Hopefully, if the content was sufficiently unlike that of the incumbent tabloid, it could even meet Michael Gawenda’s approval. But more importantly in a town where the staple is a choice between the News ‘Australian’, the News ‘Courier-Mail’ or the News Quest suburbans, it might be welcome and a success.
Sections: Columns & opinion


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