Saturday, February 02, 2013

Problems with Fairfax e-editions

I have written before about the challenges faced by the print media in adjusting to the new environment. Here in Australia, Fairfax Media is one of the two largest newspaper groups. The other is News Limited, the original foundation stone of the Murdoch global empire. Both groups are responding to the challenge of the internet age to the print press by trying to attract readers to their editions. Well, at least so far as Fairfax is concerned, it's not going to work. Let me explain.

I am a long standing columnist with one of the tiny cogs in the Fairfax commercial machine, the Armidale Express. Initially, I received my copy of the paper in print form. Then, this year, I started to receive the e-edition. This coincided with a restructuring and standardisation of all the Fairfax paper web sites. A little later, came the decision to reduce the frequency of publication of the Express from three to two times a week.  

We all read in different ways and for different purposes. In my case, I am a very fast reader. With a print paper, I can flick through, quickly focusing on what I am interested in. In some cases such as the Express, I would look in detail at what might seem the oddest things, such as things for sale. I was just interested in the detail and pattern of local life.

Regular readers will know that I have a fondness for New England, Northern New South Wales. While I presently live in Sydney, it remains my home country. I know it well and write of it often. This fondness forms the second part of the jigsaw I am presenting to you.

In 1950, the New England media was all locally owned. By 2000 with a few small exceptions, control belonged elsewhere. As part of these changes, the Northern print press came to be dominated by a duopoly. APN, the smaller part of the duopoly, controlled the papers in the Northern Rivers. Elsewhere, Rural Press was dominant. This included ownership of the Armidale Express.

My interest in New England meant that I accessed the paper web sites all the time. Further, in keeping in touch, I accessed paper web sites across New England from Newcastle to the Queensland border, from the eastern seaboard to the far western plain.

The APN web site was always fairly useless. That company had no conception of the idea of geographical areas, that a person interested in one of their papers might want to easily navigate to another paper, say from Grafton to Lismore. There was no list of papers that would you could use to aid navigation.

Rural Press was very different. Each paper included a link to a total title list organised by state. This aided my media round-ups. I could start in Newcastle, track to Moree, shoot down to Taree and so on. Rural Press itself had largely lost the idea of a broader Northern Commonwealth, something that continued to exist despite the decline in its political expression. Still the web site structure made it very easy for me to track things, to identify stories and trends linked to the Northern whole that were simply not reported in the conventional media with its localised focus.

  John Fairfax acquired Rural Press at the end of 2006, although this meant little immediate change. Then last year came the new standardised web sites and the expansion of the e-editions.

The new sites lacked the paper lists and regional links that had existed on the old sites. That was a real nuisance from my viewpoint because it increased my search time. On the other hand, the new sites weren't bad from a news perspective. However, to my mind, this created a new problem for Fairfax for the e-editions of the papers are far from user friendly, especially for a fast reader.

The e-editions reproduce the physical form of the paper using a version of Flash. They have added functionality such as search. But on screen, they have just two sizes, small and big. The small gives you a page view. You can see the main headlines and the big ads, but that's it. If you then click on a page, you get the big view of that part of the page. Now the print is readable, but you can't get the full story on the screen. There is no way of navigating up, down, or sideways. All you can do is click to zoom out, re-click to zoom in on a new spot.  It can take several goes to read a full story.

For a time short, fast reader like me, all this is a bit of a nightmare. This is where the new web sites create a problem for the e-editions. They are just so much easier to read even if the content is less. I find myself skimming through the e-edition headlines and then only reading those stories that really catch my eye. For the rest, I rely on the web site. And that's a problem for Fairfax in maintaining sales of its e-editions. 

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