Tim Longhurst's Blog

The future of newspapers – the Herald hasn’t found it yet

September 8th, 2008 · 7 Comments

In January this year, 128 year old newsmagazine, The Bulletin was shut down by its publisher. Although there had been attempts to keep the mag relevent, including a move to online, it wasn’t successful enough to justify the cost of publishing.

There are a lot of news magazines / papers who must be looking at The Bulletin‘s fate, and wondering, ‘how long until that’s us?’. It’s a tough question. In a rapidly changing world, spearheaded by web technologies that have made publishing the domain of anyone with a computer and a web connection, rising above the noise and keeping people engaged is hard enough; without having to pay for a newsroom of journos and editors.

I’m currently reading “The Content Makers”, a book that examines the possible futures for media in Australia. Margaret Simons’ book, so far, paints a picture of anxious insiders feeling an awful lot like they’re riding a toy boat in a bath tub.

Well, the anxiety of those in control at the Sydney Morning Herald is starting to show… The SMH website is turning into a wilderness devoid of interaction and overgrowing with foreign content and advertisements.

A bit of background
I grew up with the Sydney Morning Herald – when I was a kid I loved Column 8, the column that was essentially thrown open to Sydney locals to send in their observations: the things they overheard on the train; the questions they had about their city. It was talk-back radio in print: engaging and short. For me, a kid, a great introduction to the paper.

Over the years, various elements of the Herald have held my interest, most recently, it’s been the smh.com.au website, which offers a taste of how things are going in Sydney – whether I’m in town or overseas.

Well, friends, I’ve had enough of the Herald and the way it’s treating me as a reader. Here’s a few points –

Where’s the conversation?
Here’s a fact: media is increasingly about conversations, but only on a tiny fraction of Herald stories do they allow their readers to discuss / object / add to content. Reading Paul Sheehan’s article praising Sarah Palin, I really would have liked to read how Sydneysiders have reacted to the recent Republican pick for VP nominee. Hell, I’d always be interested in reading how people are responding to Miranda Devine. But no, Paul and Miranda talk – we just have to shut up and read.

Where’s the local content?
The whole point of turning to a Sydney-based newspaper is for me to read news written from / for a Sydney perspective. Like many papers, the Herald subscribes to ‘wire services’ like the Associated Press. Unfortunately, instead of taking these stories and updating them or editing them for their audience, the Herald seems to have taken to ‘dumping’ wire stories on their site, regardless of the relevance or possibility of a local angle. It’s lazy and it waters-down the experience – I can read an AP story ANYWHERE on the web… I don’t come to SMH.com.au for cheap, syndicated content.

Where’s the sub-editing?
My blog’s full of typo’s and misspellings – I do my best to avoid them, but it happens. You know why? Because I don’t have a newsroom with sub-editors looking through my content before I publish it. Increasingly I’m wondering if the Herald has a newsroom, because it seems almost every story features the word, “and” twice in a row, or some other hastily-written mistake that even a second reading would have picked up.

What’s with the rotating puff?
The Herald’s website front page is dominated by a litany of photoshopped images of movie stars and Herald “relationship bloggers”, the two Sams… It makes me question my city when ‘those in the know’ seem to think we’re only interested in trying to work out ‘what makes men tick’, ‘how to please a woman’ or WTF Paris Hilton is doing today… Don’t get me wrong, I like the two Sams, it just feels that they’re promoted at the expense of all other contributors.

Why doesn’t the Herald ask me what I want, ever?
It was more than TEN YEARS ago that Excite showed that it was possible to know a little about your audience and tailor information to their interests. I’ve been a ‘member’ of SMH.com.au (I can log in to the site) for a long time – possibly ten years – and I’ve never been asked a question beyond “Which newsletter do you want us to send you?”.

Thanks, but working out how to send me “Electronic Direct Marketing” does not count as taking an interest in me. I would be prepared to answer a reasonably detailed survey of my interests if I was going to get ‘hand-picked’ news served to me daily. In a world of customized content (see Facebook), a ‘one size fits all’ home page is alienating (see ‘rotating puff’ above). And do I need to explain the value of detailed reader information to advertisers?

Flash animation hell
Most recently, the Herald has decided to pledge alleigence to advertisers at the expense of their readers. The gloves have come off and the advertisers are now allowed to fight dirty… In the past seven days I’ve started hearing humming sounds while reading articles – turns out that’s a banner ad for a car – WTF?!… Beyond that, entire videos are starting to play WITH SOUND as soon as I open an article. I click on ‘innovations’ and I’m met with a flash-based advertorial for Volkswagen, completely blurring the lines between editorial and advertising, the section descends rapidly from “brought to you by VW” to “all content is provided by volkswagen“…

If the Sydney Morning Herald were a restaurant…
If the SMH was a restaurant, their walls would feature animated advertisements, their soup would be watered down; the gruff waiters wouldn’t care what you wanted – they’d just bring you what they felt like; the ‘music’ would be advertisements turned up so you’d have to shout at your date; they’d send in photographers and women with flowers to your table (because they’d be getting a cut) and more than occasionally a customer would find that the bolognese had icy bits in it because it hadn’t been microwaved for long enough.

This blog post is being written during a turbulent industrial dispute between Fairfax, publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald, and many of its workers.

I don’t know much about Fairfax’s innovation program (does it have one?), but it seems to me that the conversation about the future of media and how Fairfax can best position itself is either happening without key stakeholders (such as its readers or journalists), or its happening behind closed doors, and only some journos and readers are being included in the conversation. But I’m pretty sure there’s no conversation, because if there was, there’s no way the Herald would look the way it does now.

A customer for life
Building a great business is about having lifelong relationships with your customers. There’s no way that the Herald advertising team are really interested in building a life-long relationship with their readers and I suspect that may be a big mistake.

I actually believe that newspapers – including The Herald, have a role to play in the future of media, but unless management open up and accept that they don’t have all the answers, the masthead is going to be dragged through the mud and the brand will be destroyed.

So what would you advise Fairfax? Which newspapers are having open conversations? What futures of media do you find appealing? I’ve got smart contributors on this blog – all opinions welcome!

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Category: Communication and connection