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This time it's not personal

Posted August 16th, 2010 by debritz

We journalists are a sensitive breed. We take it personally when people say bad things about our profession or our particular medium. In fact, we often get so emotional in defending ourselves that we don't do what we're trained to do -- and that's look clearly and objectively at the facts. For years now, many newspaper journos have had their heads in the sand about the implications of declining circulation. If they are not in denial about it -- and how could you be when you look at the figures -- they are full of wacky ideas about how they can reverse the trend. The sad fact is that the decline of newspapers is terminal, it's just a matter of when the plug will be pulled. Specialist publicaions may have a little longer, but it's likley that print will be dead within a decade or two. This doesn't mean newspaper journalists are necessarily doing a bad job, it means the demand is for online delivery. All very good -- except that too many online consumers expect their news for free, and it's near-on impossible to deliver a quality product for nothing. In the UK, the Daily Mail may have found a formula that works -- but it's too early yet to say whether advertising alone can support the major mastheads as we know them. Even if it does, further staff cuts are inevitable -- and, of course, that will impact on quality. It's hard to know what to make of Rupert Murdoch's plan to introduce a national "newspaper" for delivery on iPads, but some commentators have already written it off. At least Murdoch is putting his money where his mouth is and giving it a go. And, by doing so -- and by constructing paywalls around some of his existing online products -- he's acknowledging the thing many of his own employees can't accept: that newspapers are living on borrowed time.

Whither online video?

Posted August 15th, 2010 by debritz

I was complaining on Twitter recently about the trouble I've been having with video on the websites of Australia's two biggest newspaper publishers. On the Fairfax sites (including and, videos auto-load after a short delay in which, if I can find the right place to click, I can switch them off. Videos on the News Ltd sites ( and its subsidiaires) give me the option to watch or not but they take an age to load (and I'm not a patient person, so I often abandon my attempts). Neither situation, I ventured in a Tweet, is ideal. One of my tweeps said video has no place on newspaper sites. I disagree. I think they should offer video -- and, inevitably, they will have to do so just to be able to compete -- but they should invest more not just on the content (which can be amateurish) but on getting the technology right. Then I remembered one provincial newspaper where I worked as a younger man, where the IT guy (as he would be called today) was a slacker who deliberately made maintaining the very basic computer system seem more difficult than it really was. Because nobody else on staff knew much about computers, he'd created a nice little earner for himself and his secret knowledge. Of course, nowadays there are many different technologies at play and different delivery platforms to consider, so the job is genuinely difficult. But the fact is, they've got to do it. If the product doesn't work to the expectations of the potential readers, they will go somewhere else. A technological failure could sink a masthead just as easily as an editorial error.

Paper chase

Posted August 8th, 2010 by debritz

As Peter Preston notes here, video didn't kill the radio star, and UK radio listenership is at record highs. That doesn't surprise me at all, and I'm sure listening figures are still buoyant in Australia too (although last time I looked, the radio audience wasn't keeping pace with population growth). But I must take issue with some folks on Twitter who think this is a good sign for all "old media" --specifically that newspapers will continue to thrive the way radio has. The simple fact is that radio, whether it's delivered on the AM and FM bands, on the free digital spectrum or over the internet, is basically the same beast as it ever was -- spoken word plus music designed to inform and/or entertain various targetted markets. And so long as we humans have to do things -- like drive cars or iron or watch the children play -- that require the separate employment of our eyes, radio has no need to change. Newspapers face a different challenge, because the method of delivery is changing more radically and the audience is splintering. While the printed word will survive as long as people can read, the medium of words on newsprint will decline and almost disappear. There will undoubtedly be, even in the distant future, some people who keep books and old papers, and maybe even some who publish them. But as far as the business side of things goes, putting words and pictures on paper, and delivering the product by truck, simply will not be viable. And, as we've already seen, once you start to publish newspapers electronically, they cease to be newspapers as we know them. They can have audio and video and interactive elements -- and, crucially, they can be accessed from anywhere in the world. So far, newspaper publishers haven't excelled in delivering quality sound and vision, except when it is lifted from their professional colleagues at radio and TV stations. Meanwhile, over at Twitter and other social media sites, the really breaking news is being delivered in 144 characters or fewer and in "real time". So when it comes to news "hot off the press", the whole dynamic is changing. Many newspapers are already evolving into magazines that combine longform feature articles and endless opinion pieces at the expense of actual news. Publishers are investing in a small number of highly paid columnists and other specialists rather than in large numbers of flexible foot soldiers who can dig out news at the local level. Looming large over these changes is the big question: who's going to pay for it? Rupert Murdoch is already betting some of his considerable farm on the fact that readers of The Times will pay for online content, while Peter Preston notes that the UK Daily Mail's website is doing fine by creating its own online niche. He says the online edition could be profitable by advertising support only, without a paywall. Australian publishers are already weighing which way to go. The current thinking is that The Australian will embrace a paywall but its News Ltd stablemates (The Daily Telegraph, Courier-Mail, Herald Sun etc.) will not. Not yet, anyway. Farifax already has internet-only titles in Perth and Brisbane and a recent Macquare Bank report suggests taking the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age wholly online would be a profitable move. What the publishers all know is that print is declining and they must invest in quality online products. And they know there are two groups of readers out there: those who will pay, and those who never will. Readers who decide to pay will demand extremely high standards of journalism that reflect their own world view; those who don't pay will still want a product that engages them and tells them what they want to know. Even the online "freesheets" must have unique, targetted content. There is so much choice out there that readers have no reason to bookmark and regularly visit any one product unless it really stands out in a crowded market. My hope is that publishers will see the wisdom of investing in journalism -- not just big-name, big-buck columnists but old-school journos who know their patch and can consistently unearth good yarns that might otherwise go unreported. After all, if we want to know the latest on Lady Gaga or Lindsay Lohan, we merely have to type their name into Google and select one of thousands of choices. But where do we go if we want to know what's happening in our own backyard? The way things are going, there will soon be no news at all from the parish pump -- and we'll all be the poorer for it.

Deja-vu all over again

Posted July 30th, 2010 by debritz

The quickened pace of the news cycle continues to confuse traditional media. For newspapers, one of the big questions these days is: should we publish something in print after it's already appeared online, especially on our own websites? In the case of the Courier-Mail today, the answer was yes (in regards to a picture on page 14 which was all over its webpage yesterday). Today, the printed C-M finally caught up with the death of the world's oldest Twitterer, Ivy Bean, who passed away on July 28. A two-day lag for news from Britain used to be commonplace, but it's not now. Meanwhile, mX surely set some kind of record yesterday with an item about this controversial new website, Sorry to burst the bubble, but it's been around since June, 2006 (do a search on the Wayback Machine if you doubt me)! A hip'n'groovy, youth-oriented paper like mX oughta know stuff like that.
PS: This intro from the C-M could have been written by the copywriter for a washing powder commercial:

NEW tests have smashed Queensland's first case of DNA innocence testing after analysis found a convicted killer was 45 billion times more likely to be linked to blood from the scene.

More likely than who or what?

Moderation, please

Posted July 26th, 2010 by debritz

This comment slipped through the net at The Australian online today. The blacked-out words have been censored by me; they appeared in full on the Oz's site:

The comment, which probably isn't from the well-known journalist it's attributed to, has since been removed from the Matthew Franklin article.

Appsolutely fabulous?

Posted July 12th, 2010 by debritz

There's much excitement in journalismland about apps for iPads and other devices. If we believe all we read, they will be the saviours of newspapers. This Sydney Morning Herald article trumpets the fact that readers can now access the SMH and other papers in multiple digital formats for varying amounts of money. That's all very well, but it's based on the possibly erroneous assumptions that Australians a) still want to pay for news and b) still want to pay for news as it's packaged by News Ltd and Farifax. Will more people buy the SMH just because it's accessible via an iPad app, or will the dwindling number of loyal readers simply swap their print subscriptions for digital ones, meaning no significant net gain in paid circulation? While the publishers may save on printing costs in this event, they really won't be rescuing their businesses in the long term if they don't do something to grow the pie.
P.S. Another big question: will advertisers see the same value in an advertisement on an A5 screen as they do in one on A3 newsprint?

Bangkok: the lighter side

Posted May 17th, 2010 by debritz

Journalists, you just can't trust 'em ... The Nation newspaper's website ran this pointer on its front page.

The actual story reads somewhat differently.

For my updates on the violence in Bangkok and beyond, follow my Twitter feed, @debritz. I was on 612ABC with Spencer Howson this morning (Monday) and will be again in my usual Tuesday 6.50am slot. Also, I am due to speak to Carol Duncan on ABC Radio Newcastle this afternoon.

Numbers game

Posted May 15th, 2010 by debritz

The BBC's Have I Got News for You pointed out this gaffe from an item by Jason Beattie in the UK's Daily Mirror:

Guest host Martin Clunes quipped: "Forever, d-ckhead. The next one will be the 54th."

May 17 updateIn a similar vein, Channel 9 Brisbane has sent out this media release:
Sorry, but you can only win week 12 once.

Bad news year

Posted May 15th, 2010 by debritz

Nero from I, ClaudiusNewspaper sales in Australia are declining, but in an impersonation of Nero fiddling while Rome burnt* or an ostrich with its head in the sand, the official body representing publishers is reportedly blaming a "slow news year". The simple fact is that the population is rising but newspaper sales are falling -- across the board, by 3.1 per cent. Not only are papers losing numerical sales, they are reaching a smaller and smaller percentage of the total population. They are in grave danger of becoming irrelevant. Rupert Murdoch knows this; that's why he's fast-tracking plans to sell online content (but, as I've mentioned before, some of his titles really haven't got their online act together). I'm not prepared to set an extinction date for newspapers, but the figures don't lie (well, not since they changed the methodology) . Urgent action is needed not just on the online front, but in bolstering the print editions by paying attention to what people who buy newspapers actually want to read, rather than filling them with dross meant to appeal to people who don't buy newspapers and never will. (I'd suggest it's no coincidence that the Sun Herald, a huge offender in this area, dropped by 7.7 per cent.)
P.S. Of course, if Newspapers Work boss Tony Hale is right and it has been a slow news year, maybe Fairfax and News should channel William Randolph Hearst and commission staff to go out and create better news.
* Yes, I know the fiddle wasn't invented in the first century AD and the story is spurious.

Nothing to see here

Posted May 12th, 2010 by debritz

Not only is Catherine Deveny no longer writing for the Fairfax group, it seems history has been revise 1984-style so that she never did. The no. 3 result in a Google search comes up with a link to a National Times/ The Age page that says: "Unfortunately we currently do not have any content for Catherine Deveny. "

Going for broek (sic)

Posted May 9th, 2010 by debritz

There's no stopping Britain's Daily Mail when it comes to pursuing its own agenda. According to the rightwing newspaper's website, a poll says "most voters want Tories to govern without Lib Dems". Well, that's not what the voters said at the only poll that counts just a few days ago. The truth is that Tory leader David Cameron snatched defeat from the jaws of victory when he failed to win a majority despite the pathetic performance of the Labour Party. He may end up running the country, but his mandate is pretty shaky.

Meanwhile, in Brisbane, the Courier-Mail's website is running the following blurb for Terry Sweetman's column. Things must be very dire indeed for LNP boss John-Paul Langbroek if the web production staff at Brisbane's only daily paper can't spell his surname properly. For the record, Sweetman gets it right in the actual column.

Update: Since I wrote this, the mistake has been corrected.

A matter of standards

Posted May 5th, 2010 by debritz

I was just looking at a news story on the website of a well-known newspaper and noticed how the formatting - in this case the presentation of quotation marks - changed midway through the story, then reverted to the previous style towards the end. Once upon a time, newspapers employed professional sub-editors and other production staff whose task it was to make the product read and look as if it had been compiled by professionals. A lot of what they did was not immediately noticeable to the general reader, but it was considered important because it ensured consitencey and separated the work of professionals from that of amateurs. The standard of design and editing often marked the difference between a paid-for quality paper and a free rag. So, I find it ironic that in the same week Rupert Murdoch revealed that a pricing policy for his papers' websites is imminent, many of his (and other publishers') titles are still presented online in an extremely amateurish fashion. I don't know a lot about running a business, but I reckon you should get the product right before you start charging for it.
P.S. Just in case you're thinking of criticising the production standards of this site, bear in mind that it's free and it's written and published by me on my own in my very limited spare time.

Will the iPad save newspapers?

Posted April 10th, 2010 by debritz

Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes has his say on the issue of whether tablet computers like the iPad will "save" traditional newspapers. He draws on his interview with Chris Mitchell, the editor in chief of The Australian, which hopes the new technology will help his paper charge for its online content. As Holmes points out, its success is really dependent on how many people want to buy the Oz's news agenda, rather than do as most people do online now -- switch from site to site searching for the news that interests them. You may care to read just one thing -- a favourite columnist or a quirky story -- from each site you visit. It pains me to say it, but I think tablets will just delay the death of newspapers as we know them rather than be their saviour. It could well be that it's the concept of a newspaper -- paying to read somebody else's selection of news and opinion -- that is dying, not just the idea of it being printed on paper.

The future of news

Posted April 7th, 2010 by debritz

If newspapers are to survive, they should stop playing catch-up with news on the internet. So says Peter Preston in this Guardian column.

Courier becomes more social

Posted April 6th, 2010 by debritz

Maybe, despite what some newspaper stories tell us, Facebook isn't the work of the devil after all. Fresh from putting a Twitter stream on its front page, is now displaying pictures and links to a changing random selection of its Facebook fans. I wonder what, if any, liability the paper has for the profile pictures these fans might post or the content of the Facebook pages they link to. Perhaps a disclaimer is warranted.
PS: Every time I load the page, I've known at least two of the eight people displayed. It's still a small town ...

A bunch of tweets

Posted April 1st, 2010 by debritz

Brisbane's daily newspaper has introduced a Twitter scroll on its front page, aggregating tweets from several staff members. A good idea - as long as the staff involved realise that tweets hitherto seen only by their followers are now open to all readers of the website. So far, we have one staff member talking about going to a gig and getting drunk, and another bidding us all good night. Not exactly the stuff of a great metropolitan newspaper.
PS: The rest of the tweets tend to point to stories on the website. But, of course, anybody reading the feed is already there.

Editor under the influence

Posted March 30th, 2010 by debritz

The former editor of The Sun has admitted he was drunk every night for 24 years, including the five years he edited the influential British tabloid. David Yelland admits he was the wrong choice for the job, not least because he didn't agree with the title's rightwing politics, didn't want the popular Page 3 girls in the paper, and even once turned up for a meeting with boss Rupert Murdoch wearing two shirts and ties. Roy Greenslade has his take on it here, and the orignal story, from The Mail on Sunday, is here.

Times announces online price

Posted March 26th, 2010 by debritz

From early May, The Times and Sunday Times will launch new, separate websites and charge users £1 a day or £2 a week for access. The Independent has the details here. How long before News Corporations's Australian titles follow suit, and how much will they charge?

New C-M editor speaks

Posted March 23rd, 2010 by debritz

Michael Crutcher, the new editor of Brisbane's The Courier-Mail, spoke to Spencer Howson on 612ABC. Spencer asked him about plans for the paper and the website. You can listen here.

Bad for your health?

Posted March 23rd, 2010 by debritz

Charlie Brooker, who writes a column for The Guardian in the UK, has issued a warning about a dangerous drug: newspapers. Brooker writes that, in their purest form, newspapers "consists of a collection of facts which, in controlled circumstances, can actively improve knowledge". However, he continues:

Unfortunately, facts are expensive, so to save costs and drive up sales, unscrupulous dealers often "cut" the basic contents with cheaper material, such as wild opinion, bullshit, empty hysteria, reheated press releases, advertorial padding and photographs of Lady Gaga with her bum hanging out. The hapless user has little or no concept of the toxicity of the end product: they digest the contents in good faith, only to pay the price later when they find themselves raging incoherently in pubs, or – increasingly – on internet messageboards.

Credit where it's due

Posted March 22nd, 2010 by debritz

Are egos out of control in the modern media? And is that part of the probelm when it comes to declining circulations? There was a time when a byline in a newspaper was a reward for excellence. Nowadays, it's a routine part of the page design. In smaller papers, or in specialised sections of larger papers, this mean the same writer's name can appear multiple times on a single page - and credit is given equally for a piece of investigative journalism and a rewrite of a media release. Reporters come to expect it and, it could be argued, that they aren't prepared to go the extra yard to get what's already a given.

What's it all about?

Posted March 20th, 2010 by debritz

The headline from the front page of City News has me intrigued. It says "Police beggar strike". Its three words could all be verbs or nouns, and its meaning is not immediately clear. I wonder if it was done deliberately to provoke further investigation by the curious reader. I suspect not. For the record, the intro reads: "Beggars in the CBD are the target of a two-year police operation to crack down on the practice after a raft of complaints."

Changes at The Courier-Mail

Posted March 19th, 2010 by debritz

The editor of The Courier-Mail, David Fagan, has become editor in chief of the Courier and Sunday Mail; Michael Crutcher has become editor of the Courier and Scott Thompson will be Sunday Mail editor. Sunday Mail editor Liz Deegan will fill an unspecified new senior role at News Ltd. The changes were announced by CEO John Hartigan in a staff memo hailing a "new era" at the papers. In the memo, Hartigan said:

“Our Queensland titles are poised to enter a new period of growth through the development of paid content and truly integrated multi-platform publishing that will result in the full convergence of our print and digital publishing operations and greater collaboration and cooperation between The Courier-Mail and The Sunday Mail.
“While the Courier-Mail and The Sunday Mail will very clearly remain individual mastheads in their own right, this new editorial structure will allow us to develop coordinated strategies for the growth of print, online and other digital applications seven days a week in a way that allows each title to contribute to the success of the other.
“I am delighted that David Fagan, Michael Crutcher and Scott Thompson have agreed to their new roles.
“I am also looking forward to Liz Deegan taking on a new role for the group. Liz has transformed The Sunday Mail in her three and a half years as editor and the newspaper is now significantly better positioned for growth as a result of the wide range of improvements she brought to the paper.
“Liz is one of our finest journalists. She has been an outstanding investigative reporter and one of the best European correspondents the company has had."

The changes follow the establishment last year of the News Central sub-editing operation, circulation losses for the print editions - the Sunday Mail has lost 100,000 sales in the past five years - and the recent announcement by News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch that his papers will begin charging for online content.

Awards, what awards?

Posted March 18th, 2010 by debritz

Any one who has ever seen me in person knows, I'm not a dedicated follower of fashion. But I can understand that it's important to some people. What I can't understand is media obsession with what the stars, female usually, are wearing rather than their craft. The UK Tabloid Watch website said it succinctly in this tweet:

BBC wins 18 out of 25 Royal Television Society awards. The Sun and Mail lead on how three actresses from Coronation Street were dressed.

Newman in the thick of it

Posted March 16th, 2010 by debritz

Congratulations to the Courier-Mail for exposing the demands made by Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman's spin doctors in return for an exclusive story on the Clem 7 tunnel. For any politician to suggest that a newspaper give a certain prominence to a story, to demand copy approval and to expect that no balancing comments from the opposition would be sought is pure arrogance. And it's further proof of my assertion that local government has become far too politicised. When I spoke to Spencer Howson on 612ABC about the possibility of an independent running for Lord Mayor of Brisbane, I mentioned that the current regime was starting to resemble scenes from the British television sature The Thick of It. Well, Campbell Newman's spin team has apparently done its central character, Malcolm Tucker, proud.
PS: I wonder how much the ratepayers of Brisbane are paying for this kind of PR nonsense?
Update: Campbell Newman cancelled an interview with 4BC's Michael Smith at the last minute on Tuesday afternoon.

Numbers game

Posted March 15th, 2010 by debritz

In The Australian today, Michael Bodey looks at the reasons the Vega radio stations in Sydney and Melbourne failed. He points, quite rightly, to a failure in the market research, with potential audience members misleading the researchers about what they actually wanted to hear. Of course, radio isn't the only medium that relies heavily on research. Many of the changes in newspapers over the past decade have been driven by surveys and focus groups. And, while it's undeniable that newspapers worldwide are losing readers, the papers that have had the biggest drops in circulation include those that have had dramatic makeovers driven by this research. Television, of course, is in a different situation. Since they advent of people-meters, programmers have an instant, accurate snapshot of what people actually are watching (and what they are not watching) - assuming the researchers have their demographic sample sorted out properly, that is.
Update: A Twitterer suggests that maybe it wasn't the research to blame, but the flawed implementation of the research.

A meeting of great minds

Posted March 14th, 2010 by debritz

It's good to see that Sunday Mail columnist Terry Sweetman agrees with me on a very important issue. In May last year, I wrote here about the deafening music in pubs at a time when the patrons really just want to converse. Sweetman drew similar conclusions after a recent pub crawl with "an overweight bloke with not a lot of hair".

A tawdry tale

Posted March 11th, 2010 by debritz

Is it time for the media to lay off Lara Bingle? Sure she's done her best to be famous, but is there any reason now for blow-by-blow coverage written by journalists who are apparently being paid to trail her every step. And do the public really care that much?

Only in the Territory

Posted March 9th, 2010 by debritz

One of the first things journalists learn is how to write an attention-grabbing intro. I suppose it helps to do this when you work in the Northern Territory, where out-of-the-ordinary events (often involving crocodiles and alcohol) are commonplace. Take today's NT News story, bylined Alyssa Betts, that begins:

A MAN who pleaded guilty to his 11th drive unlicensed charge believes his troubles began when he was stabbed in the back while having sex.

But wait, there's more! Those who choose to read on - and who wouldn't? - discover that the stabbing occurred while the defendant was "having sex and trying to organise a three-way orgy". Apparently he invited a 19-year-old woman, who was watching the act, to join in. Instead, she stabbed him in the back with a kitchen knife. The NT News reports that the man "paused in his sexual activity and noticed the knife sticking out of his back". As you would ...

Pay day approaches

Posted March 8th, 2010 by debritz

It's inevitable that we will be soon asked to pay for certain content on news websites that have hitherto been free. The Australian reports this morning that Rupert and James Murdoch and senior News Corp executives (including News Ltd managers) attended a meeting last month to discuss plans to charge for online content. The paper reports:

News Limited (publisher of The Australian) has undertaken a research study into the types of content for which Australians are likely to pay, although it's understood the company has no plans to release details.

And, of course, that's the key. What will people pay for? I'm assuming that the News bosses realise much of what is already on its websites is not worth paying for -- not because it's not informative, but because the same stories are mostly accessible elsewhere for free. This puzzles me, because I would have thought that if you were going to start, apparently imminently, to charge for a product, you'd be doing your best to make the free version so outstanding that many people would have no hesitation in paying when asked to do so. This leads me to the thought that it's not the exisitng news websites that News intends to charge for, but new, targetted sites or subsites yet to be unveiled.

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