Sunday, 8 March 2009

Death of newspapers, part 19

The relocation of newspapers to the web has destroyed what used to be the most powerful argument for a newspaper - the tendency of most people to read the entire paper. Try this experiment - pick up a paper copy of the newspaper, and count how many stories you read. It doesn't matter if you read the entire story or just parts of it - reading part of a story counts as "clicking" on it.

Now go to the website of the same paper (pick a different day so you don't get the same number of stories) and see how many stories you click on.

I just had a look at the homepage of the SMH. If you ignore all the rubbish that they've filled the page with and concentrate simply on what I would call "news" (as opposed to fasion, travel, celebrity gossip and so on), I count 50 stories.

I clicked on, and read, one of them.


Newspapers used to sell the idea to advertisers that when a reader picked up the paper, they looked at most pages that contained news of some sort (ignoring for a moment the classifieds and stock quotes and births and deaths). You could buy an ad on page 8 safe and comfortable in the knowledge that if 300,000 people read the paper each day, almost all of them will have turned to page 8 and seen your ad. They might not have read your ad, or responded to it, but you could count on lots of eyeballs flicking past it.

That made a newspaper valuable. When it was one of a very limited number of sources of information, eyeballs were drawn to it because it was the only shop in town.

Consider a country town like Yass. It's a nice enough town, but you can't get a cup of coffee anywhere in town that doesn't taste like sheep's piss. Believe me, I have tried every flea-bitten cafe in that town, and prior to the arrival of what I will describe in a moment, I decided that the best option was simply to not stop there.

Then McDonalds opened a McCafe. Their coffee is good. Not great. Not magnificent. But good. Definitely better than the sheep's piss on offer from the competition.

It took a year or two for the cafes in town to wake up to the fact that every driver on the Hume was stopping at McDonalds for coffee, and at that point, they panicked and bought expensive coffee makers and upgraded their beans from utterly awful cheap crap to something reasonable. But the people using those fancy Italian coffee machines never developed a feel for the machines, and they certainly never developed a taste for coffee. A good barrista should enjoy the smell of excellent beans, and love the aroma produced by the simple act of forcing hot water under pressure through ground and roasted beans. You either get it, or you don't.

The yokels in town with their fancy coffee machines never got it. They thought that just buying a machine and better beans would put them on a level pegging with McDonalds.

Boy, did they fail.

It's not that McDonalds is so startling good that they can never catch up. McDonalds is not that good - it's just that they get it to a much higher degree than the yokels. McDonalds doesn't get it to the extent of say the Gertrude & Alice bookshop cum cafe in Bondi (even Paco would be happy there), but they have worked out how to teach a spotty 15 year old kid how to make something hot and drinkable - which is a major achievement.

I am drifting away from my main point as usual.

The SMH and its ilk have spent 100 years feeding us sheep's piss, and because we'd never been to Paris and tasted real coffee in a sidewalk cafe and driven a sports car in the rain, we didn't know any different. We didn't know we were drinking sheep's piss - we thought all coffee tasted that way.

Then Al Gore invented the internet, and then he invented blogging, and the world was never the same after that.

McDonalds had come to town.

The problems the SMH has is facing are legion.

To start with, they are still thinking in column inches. The main game is still the paper-based newspaper, and it is laid out with column inches in mind. Columnists are told to fill so many inches on a daily basis, because that is what the paper requires. It does not matter whether they have a topic that requires more column inches or less - they have to fit that topic into a set area. Some topics are fearfully watered down and padded to fill the space, and others are condensed to the point of pointless stupidity in order to fit. The result is mishmash of quality. There are days when columnists have nothing to write about, but they still have to write to fill the space. They should be told to stay in bed on those days, and to only write when they have something meaningful to say.

Philip Adams is a case in point. He ran out of things to say 20 years ago. He's been regurgitating crap ever since. His writing would be bearable if he was told to only submit something when the spark of genius ignited in his brain, which might be once every few months, and to write as much or as little as he wanted to, depending on what he had to say.

There might come a day when the paper bites the bullet and decides that the web version will be the primary one, and the paper one will be simply a slapped-together compendium of the best of the web. When that happens, the paper will look like a mess, and it will be a bastard to lay out - but the content will be better. Consider for a moment the opinion page - why is it that the opinions of 2 or 3 or 4 people have to fit exactly into one page? Why do we have to pad or chop their thoughts in order to meet the constraints of that page? The web frees us from that, but newspapers have not yet grasped that fact.

Their second problem is that most of their content is second hand crap. Huge slabs are lifted from wire services. Great sections of the paper are simply regurgitated press releases - just for fun, read a police story, then go to the police website and read the original press release. The paper generally fails to contribute any "value add" when turning the press release into a story. Sometimes, they actually manage to subtract value by making a balls up of the story.

As far as the SMH website is concerned, I have learned to figure out which stories are simply cut and paste wire service stories - and I avoid clicking on them. I ignore all the gossip and travel, because it's generally worthless and stupid. I avoid the sports pages, because I would rather watch sport than read about it (and really good sports writers are very, very, very rare - and none of them work for the SMH). After doing that sifting, there is almost nothing left for me to read - maybe 2 or 3 stories a day. There is all that padding, all that guff, in their website, and in reality, it is a barren, desolate landscape of no-news. Once upon a time, they could get away with that, because a thirsty man will drink almost anything. But we are no longer thirsty. The internet has banished thirst.

Anyone want to bet how long before Fairfax shares hit 10 cents?


Margo's Maid said...

Over the holidays I recall seeing a banner for the SMH that read something like:

Summer reading: Alan Ramsey, Adele Horin, Peter Fitzsimons...

The list went on and on and, as Mark Latham would have said, it was a conga line of suckholes.

Having said that, I wish no ill on them and hope they continue to have gainful employment.

But having said that: December 18, 2010.

kae said...


At least with delivery the electronic copy of the paper can't get lost in the long grass in the front yard... like this weekend's w/e Australian.

But it's terrible trying to find interesting articles on the electronic copy.

Joe said...

I've found that the McCafe Latte pairs nicely with the Sausage McMuffin