My colleague Sam North, former managing editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun-Herald in Australia, has responded strongly to Umair Haque’s Nichepaper Manifesto. He doesn’t blog but has given me permission to post his thoughts. A little long for a blog post, but thought I would share it all:
If the Nichepaper Manifesto is some sort of harbinger of the future then God help us all. Unfortunately its broad sweep of generalities, trite statements and ill-informed comments are typical of the newspapers-are-dead lobby. I defy anyone to get their head around such an amalgamation of nonsense. The day the article was sent to me today (Wednesday, August 5), as usual, I read the AFR (a specialist finance and business newspaper and website which seeks – and many say succeeds in doing – to develop a perspective, analytical skills, and storytelling capabilities that are inimitable by rivals . . Nichepaper, anyone?), The Australian, the SMH and the Daily Telegraph. All three strove to impart meaningful, lasting knowledge by extensively educating, enlightening and informing me about many issues, particularly the Ozcar debacle in Canberra and the terrorism arrests in Melbourne.
Far from radically reinventing what news is, both those issues had the previous day been the subject of astonishing news breaks by The Australian, with the paper exclusively revealing that Godwin Gretch had admitted to writing the fake email and – even more astoundingly – revealing that the massive police terror raids were being carried out even as our papers were being delivered.
The SMH and The Australian had sections on local news, world news, arts, sport and business (Nichepapers?) and separate liftout sections on Money (SMH), Higher Education, Wealth and the Australian Literature Review. Both papers have interactive websites with the last figures I saw showing smh.com.au with more than 4.3 million unique browsers each month and theaustralian.com.au with 1.4 million.
The Nichepaper Manifesto says Nichepapers ‘’are different because they have built a profound mastery of a tightly defined domain – finance, politics, even entertainment – and offer audiences deep, unwavering knowledge of it.’’
One would have thought that the SMH, The Australian and the AFR – along with their attendant specialist sections – offer all that, plus something more: eyeballs.
The latest circulation figures show that, far from the sky falling, the top three quality broadsheets in Australia – the SMH, The Age and The Australian – slightly increased circulation over the previous 12 months. And, in fact, the three papers have increased circulation over the past five years. And, while I can’t talk for The Australian, I do know the SMH and The Age remain profitable.
News (of the current definition, not the yet to be disclosed reinvented definition) still sells. The Daily Telegraph in London increased daily circulation by around 100,000 during the recent period when it was drip-feeding stories about the spending habits of British parliamentarians.
It is true that advertising has tanked in newspapers. But my theory is that everyone loves a new toy and the lure of the bright, shiny new media was difficult to resist. But in the light of a post-Christmas hangover sometimes those toys are looked at in a more critical light – they might be trendy, but are they better at doing the job?
Nielsen research released in April showed that more than 60 per cent of Twitter users have stopped using the service a month after joining; the two latest ANZ job advertisements surveys have shown an increase in newspaper job ads in June (0.9%) and a decrease (0.4%) in July, while online ads fell 4.8% in June and 3.6% in July.
What it all means, I’m not sure but I’ll finish with a blog in March from Tim Pethick, the young entrepreneur who successfully launched Nudie drinks, among other products. He told of his product Sultry Sally chips, a low fat brand available in Woolworths. Woolies, which had launched a rival product, told Pethick that he had to engage in mainstream advertising to boost the sales of his chips. Pethick wrote: ‘’to be forced into a position where I have to take a traditional, main media approach is anathema.’’ His fears were multiplied when a partner suggested advertising on 2GB.
‘’My heart sank. Strategically, I couldn’t think of anything worse. We are talking radio; worse, AM radio; worse still, talk-back radio; even worse, a radio station that everyone knows is only listened to by a few old punters – way, way off target and brand for us.’’ Needless to say the product walked off the shelves, with stores emptied of Sultry Sally chips. ‘’It is working like nothing I have seen before,’’ wrote Pethick. ‘’I love the fact that the old ways still count for something; I love the fact that I can still be surprised, be wrong and learn from it.’’
Actually I won’t finish on that, I’ll finish with the Nichepaper Manifesto which writes that ‘’Nichepapers are the future of news because their economies are superior.’’ ‘’What is different about them is that they are finding new paths to growth, and rediscovering the lost art of profitability by awesomeness’’. And what is the lost art of profitability by awesomeness?
I quote: ‘’When you can make awesome stuff, you don’t need to find “better” ways to sell it. The fundamental challenge of the 21st century isn’t selling the same old lame, toxic junk in new ways: its detoxifying and dezombifying it, by learning how to make insanely great stuff in the first place.’’
As you can see, Sam holds a firm view towards the newspaper lobby and its future, perhaps being an ex hack and all that. But he makes his points very vividly and with passion, just as Umair did in his original post.
Of course, plenty to debate here for everyone.