Saturday, December 27, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - more on the media

My post More on perceptions, selection and bias in the Australian media drew an informed comment from Michael Gorey, the editor of The Border Watch in Mount Gambier.

Michael's personal web site can be found here, his blog on newspaper matters here. Michael began his career as a journalist in, I think, 1987 and has had extensive experience with the non-metro press.

I plan to use Michael's comments to extend my arguments with a special focus on New England media's newspapers. However, I want to set the scene first, so bear with me while I ask you to do something.

First click here and then on the NSW tab. A window will open up showing all the Rural Press owned newspapers in NSW. A lot, aren't there?

What will be less clear unless you really know your geography, is that with the exception of a few independent community papers, Rural Press owns every New England newspaper in Newcastle and Hunter, the Northern Tablelands, Western Slopes and the Mid North Coast up to Coffs Harbour. This is an almost complete monopoly.

Now click here and you will find the APN papers. APN owns major papers from Coffs Harbour through the Northern Rivers into Southern Queensland. Two companies thus control New England's newspaper press, each with something approaching a monopoly in specific regional areas.

If we compare this with 1968, the comparison point I used in my previous post, the Newcastle daily was owned by John Fairfax and controlled out of Sydney.

The other four Northern dailies (Maitland Mercury, Northern Daily Leader, Grafton Examiner, Northern Star) cooperated as they had done since the 1920s through the Associated Northern Dailies. This provided a joint marketing platform. They and the other generally locally owned New England papers also cooperated through the Country Press Association, an active and influential organisation representing the independence and interests of the country press.

As I said with the previous post, this is not a history post. However,this brief background sets a context for my discussion of Michael's comments.

Michael wrote:

Country papers: Rural Press has cut them to the bone and introduced syndicated content which nobody wants to read. Their niche is local news. Those papers that also own the web space will do well.

Michael's comment here is the tip of a rather large iceberg.

Both Rural Press and APN Regional have been very profitable entities, yielding better returns than the major dailies. This return has been based in part on their local monopolies, in part on their business models.

The New England and country press and, more broadly, the country media have not always been so profitable.

The press operated as a business, but they did not see their key roles in business terms. They had to make money, but the delivery of news and the representation of the local community was the key, not a constant increase in shareholder returns.

All the New England media - press, radio and later TV - faced similar commercial difficulties.

Because of the research I was doing at the time, I read the board papers of the Armidale Express, Broadcast Amalgamated (the Tamworth Higginbotham family controlled company that ran the New England radio network) and the first years of TV New England.

The same issues recurred. How to meet the increasing fixed costs imposed by Government regulations and by changing technology? How to spread maintenance costs? How to find more cost effective ways of accessing city and national advertisers?

A small example to illustrate the point. Changes to NSW industrial legislation in the 1950s required the Armidale Express to install a staff toilet. This may sound a small and very reasonable thing. However, the capital costs involved in modifying the building were substantial and were the subject of considerable Board discussion. The Board worried about their ability to maintain local independence in the face of increasing fixed costs.

They were right to worry.

To improve economics, the Board agreed a little later to merge The Express with the Sommerlad controlled Northern Newspapers, creating an entity with papers in Armidale, Glen Innes and Inverell, plus a 50 per cent share in 2AD Armidale.

Then a little later again, Rural Press made an unsolicited bid. I actually tried to fight this takeover, in part because I thought the price was too low, in part to preserve Northern Newspaper's independence because I saw the move as yet another loss of New England independence. I had enough proxies to force a very long meeting - the cups set out for morning tea went unused as the shareholder meeting dragged on and on - but in the end I lost.

I was in fact right on both counts. However, that is little consolation.

Rural Press greatly improved the economics of the papers it acquired.

It centralised many activities including printing, so the Express as an example came to be printed in Tamworth. It cut news gathering costs. It introduced network supplements, the syndicated content that Michael refers to, that increased advertising and bulk. And, finally, the size of news content in the paper was directly linked to the volume of advertising, not the volume of news. This was not necessarily immediately clear because of all the other stuff included in the papers.

I will not deal with Michael's comment about web space in this post because I want to make it the subject of a full post. For the moment, I would simply note that Rural Press has been very profitable, but this has come at a local cost.

Michael continued:

Reporter opinion: There should be no such thing. Newspapers should report, not commentate. I know there's a trend towards "campaign journalism" especially at APN papers, but I don't agree with it.

Now here I absolutely agree with Michael, while also disagreeing with him at a different level. This second level raises a number of complexities that bear upon my concern about selection, perception and bias in the Australian media.

Reporting is reporting. If a journalist wants to commentate, then (like me) they can start blogging or write opinion columns. If they are dealing with news, then they should just report. This actually requires a fair degree of discipline, something that I feel is lacking today.

The question of newspaper campaigning is more complicated.

The relationship between the country media and their audience is a complicated one that is very different from the city equivalent.

To begin with, there is a very different personal relationship in that country journalists live in the community in a very different way.

Growing up in Armidale, the Express editor (Roy Blake) lived one block up, half a block in the opposite direction lived the main Express journalist (Mr White). A little later on the opposite corner to the Blakes lived the woman in love with a radio station reporter. In two out of three cases, I was friendly with the daughter. One of my nicknames, Chalky, comes from my friendship at primary school with Margaret White.

This is a completely different world, one in which personal relationships have to be taken into account. The type of journalism practiced in Sydney may simply tear a community apart. This means that different set of ethical and professional issues are involved.

Country papers are also journals of record and voices for their communities in ways inconceivable to their metro cousins. This is where issues of campaigning come in.

The Sommerlads were a German family who migrated to Tenterfield. Ernest Sommerlad became a reporter on the Inverell paper and then with assistance from friends purchased the Glen Innes paper. The Sommerlads became one of the major New England press families, one inextricably linked with my own family.

In 1950, Sommerlad published MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD. A Handbook on Journalism, Broadcasting, Propaganda, Public Relations and Advertising (Angus & Robertson). In this, I think the first ever Australian book on journalism, Sommerlad discussed in part the relationships between press and community.

We need to set a context here.

A strong supporter of self-government for the North or New England, Sommerlad campaigned actively for country development and the new state cause, using the editorial columns in his papers as one vehicle. In Mightier than the Sword he explained, simply, that part of the role of a newspaper was to campaign for the interests of its own area. The paper and the people it served were inextricably mixed.

This is a little different from Sydney's Granny Herald where the paper is happy to fulminate on a variety of issues that really have little to do with Sydney's concerns. However, in both cases the same issue arises: how do your make a distinction between the paper's editorial position and reporting? One reflects views, the second is meant to be factual, objective.

I think that the key is to be conscious of the different roles. Once, as has happened recently with some of the SMH's campaigns, reporting and campaign become mixed, then there is a problem.

I want to finish by linking the discussion back to Rural Press and APN.

A few years back I was on the periphery of marketing Country Week to Rural Press.

Developed by Armidale's Peter Bailey, the Country Week concept was simple enough. Given the systemic problems stopping Sydney people moving to country New South Wales, let's get all country areas to combine in a single annual marketing push to sell the country story to Sydney residents. The response from Rural Press illustrated the problems created by current media structures.

In the past, the need to individually approach multiple papers would have been a problem. In theory, concentration of ownership might help. The reality was very different.

To begin with, we had two main owners, Rural and APN. Take one, and you lost the other. This one was fairly clear cut - Rural Press had better NSW coverage, so APN was out even if this meant loss of Northern Rivers coverage.

We then faced two problems. Rural Press explained that they could not direct their papers' editorial content. They were prepared to consider broad sponsorship so long as we could guarantee a cash return from advertising and, as part of this, would let their papers know. After that, it was up to the papers and to the amount of advertising that could be placed with individual papers.

In the 1919 Victor Thompson editor of the Tamworth Observer (now Victor ThompsonNorthern Daily Leader) and with the support of his board began planning a campaign for a new state for Northern New South Wales. This quickly grew into a newspaper campaign involving 120 newspapers.

With modern ownership structures, this type of coordinated campaign is now very difficult.

The fact that the owners leave formal editorial independence to their editors means that you still have to coordinate at local level. However, when push comes to shove, those editors must still meet their revenue targets. Further, broader non-local campaigns that raise corporate issues do end being considered at head office notwithstanding editorial independence, if only because such campaigns involve cost.

For Thompson to do today what he did in the early 1920s he would probably need to get senior management, possibly board, support from Fairfax (Rural Press is now part of Fairfax) and APN. Both companies would need to at least agree to let editors participate. He would then need, as earlier, to sell the idea to individual editors. I don't think that this possible.

I will pause here. I hope that I have at least fleshed out some of the issues involved.


Rod Kirkpatrick's history of the NSW country press is entitled Country Conscience. That was what the country press was and, to a degree, still is.

One of the sad side effects of the growth in concentration of ownership of the country media was an inevitable decline in the role and influence of the Country Press Association as the Association struggled with changing economic and ownership conditions.

The Association's history, Serving the Country Press 1900 - 2000 by Lloyd Sommerlad with a chapter by David Sommerlad, charts some of this.

Reading between the lines, the growing influence of Rural Press led to APN's withdrawal, leaving the Association without representation north of the Bellinger Valley. APN rejoined, but seems to have left again because none of its papers are included in the latest membership list.

In a comment on this post, Michael refers to the young age of some of the country journalists and editors. There is, to my mind, a substantial difference between the old country press where editors had a long term commitment to their community and the new world where placement at a paper is one step in a career path within a large organisation.

Has the country press maintained its soul? I'm not sure.

I do know from reading many of the papers that the idea of service to the community is still there. However, there is less continuity and, I feel, cooperation across areas.

From a narrow New England perspective, the changes that have taken place continue New England's fragmentation. Rural Press looks to Sydney, APN to South East Queensland. Neither looks to New England.


Anonymous said...

Jim, I think you've tackled the issue of campaign journalism more thoroughly than I did in one sentence, and I agree with what you wrote.

Papers will adopt a cause from time to time and that's appropriate. Through their reporting they have an advocacy role on behalf of their communities.

This is a significant responsibility and I wonder how 25-year-old editors with three years experience in the industry (as occurs frequently in country areas) deal with it.

In Western Australia there's hardly a single reporter in country areas over the age of 30.

What I object to is journalists writing opinion pieces and allowing unattributed opinion to appear in news reports.

Like you say, start a blog if that's what they want to do.

As for infotainment, I'm not keen on the celebrity stuff that seems to be so popular on newspaper websites and appears in weekend papers, generally syndicated.

There's nothing wrong with lifestyle content. At The Border Watch I run daily lifestyle features on EGN pages, eg recipe, music, career, etc. The reporters have a roster and they enjoy writing them.

The generic lift-outs have little appeal to me and I wonder how many people bother to read them.

Fairfax faces a huge challenge in the recession. There's nothing left to cut (at most regional papers), so costs can't be reined in more than they have been already.

The Australian Press Council's state of the media report talks about a flight to quality. Country papers have a niche with local news and they need to invest in their products to exploit that niche.

Interesting times ahead.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for the comment, Michael. I have extended the post a little in response.

I agree very strongly with you points re quality and local news. I want to write about this because I feel that the papers are not tackling this at all well.

At a corporate level, Rural is miles in front of APN in captuting some of the benefits of the on-line world. At a local newspaper level, neither is very good.