How the AFR is adapting to dislocation in media

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The ‘Australian Financial Review’ has lost about 40 per cent of its staff in recent years but is now “out of the decline and is growing again”, according to Joanne Gray, the paper’s managing editor. It has several initiatives to boost readership and revenue on the go.

With a redesign for digital readers, the paper will introduce “My AFR” for the customised selection of news. It will also be launching soon a newsletter for the legal industry and is currently looking to put on more staff.

“Don’t tell anyone at News Corp, because they are always copying us,” she said at an industry breakfast in Sydney last week, “but we be developing all sorts of specialised content.” On the publishing side the paper has instigated an “enterprise” licence for corporate subscriptions, whereby all staff can access the digital edition and the company pays only for what they have read.

“We’ve been through substantial cost cutting… but we are now in the re-building phase. We do have a license to find areas of growth.”

Gray was speaking at an event organised for alumni of the Melbourne Business School. A career journalist, mostly at the AFR, she decided to do an MBA at the School in 2006 because she “saw something going on with the internet and the media… We have experienced great disruption to our business model over the past 10 years.”

She said that the move to greater reliance on revenue from its digital platforms was continuing, as the AFR, like most papers, was seeing a continual gradual decline in its print edition. She predicted that digital platforms would become the principal source of revenue over time.

“The AFR has always been behind a paywall [in digital]. At some stage, that paywall was way too high. But it’s a costly publication… Our focus, through Michael Stutchbury, the editor in chief, and Paul Bailey, the editor, has always been on breaking news. We are lucky we can have a paywall.”

She was critical of “online publishers” – as opposed to traditional publishers who are making the transition – for not creating news and not investing in journalism.

“We know we have a growing readership of young professionals who want to succeed and we want to help them do that.” She said the newsroom was very focused on how stories are being “rated” by the readers – as defined by the number of unique page views or ‘clicks’. Each journalist gets a weekly report on how well his or her stories have been rated.

This is actually contentious among traditional media types. In his autobiography, Ross Gittins, the long-time economics editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, devotes the last chapter to the future of journalism. He argues that the big media companies such as Fairfax (now Nine), have lost control over their own metrics, used to inform advertisers and their agents about details of the readership. It’s “the cult of the clicks”. Clicks can be influenced by sensational headlines or racy images.

Gittins uses an interesting hypothetical example. Two SMH.com.au readers go to the site. One wants to read the latest column by Ross Gittins and the other wants to read the column by Peter FitzSimons. Both readers are momentarily distracted by a story on a celebrity’s latest antics and troubles, say Brittney Spears, and they spend 10-20 seconds reading a bit of it. They then resume their initial journey and spend several minutes reading their favourite columnist. The scores, as presented to advertising agents, are: Brittney Spears 2, Gittins 1 and FitzSimons 1. Surely the SMH should devote more stories to Brittney Spears?

Gray said: “Advertising is a huge part of our business. We have a big advantage because of all our subscribers [mostly bulk copies bought by companies]. That will eventually happen with free-to-air TV as well,” she said. “We have a lot of data at our disposal and, with Nine, we have a total reach of about 11 million.”

She said the Nine executives had not interfered with anything that AFR or the big general papers – the SMH and The Age – was doing. “So far it has all been very positive,” she said. “There hasn’t been a clash of cultures. When the merger happened, most of the redundancies were in the sales team.”

– G.B.

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