When Michael Schlechta took over the role of online editor at The Age 18 months ago, he had no idea “how much there was to learn in this digital space”. For a long-time “print guy”, the shift has been the most “exciting” and “invigorating” of all the challenges he has faced as a journalist.
“And if I sort of had to move on from The Age, I would have a much better chance at getting a new job now than what I would have had two years ago,” he says of his own personal ‘digital revolution’.
Schlechta had opted to stay, despite being tempted on one or two occasions to take a redundancy, unlike 70 of his colleagues who marched out the door during a massive overhaul of Fairfax Media newsrooms in 2012.
Andrew Holden, who stepped in as Age editor-in-chief around that time, says: “The journalists who decided to stay [in 2012] knew what they were up for. They had preparedness for the challenge; they weren’t finished with business and weren’t scared about learning new skills.
“In fact, that was the part of their motivation, that ‘I am up for that, I am up for learning why it is different’.”
The notion is affirmed by Shane Green, who has spent 37 years in journalism and who only recently joined the exodus of long-time staffers leaving Fairfax newsrooms.
“I am happy that I stayed [past 2012]. There are other things that I could have done . . . But for me it’s one of the best decisions that I made . . . [The] last three years have been some of the most enjoyable of my career, in fact.”
For the past decade, The Age newsroom – like those of newspaper companies worldwide – has been undergoing a metamorphosis, both in structure and mindset, as the paper evolves into a digital-first production on a path, ultimately, to becoming digital-only.
Stories no longer are slowly brought to the boil, subjected to multiple tastings and seasonings by sub-editors and editors, as used to be the case during what many considered a “golden era of journalism”. Now, they are just as often tossed to the audience pretty much straight from the wok. And the approval of readers is measured instantaneously through online clicks, unlike the print-only days when it was difficult to determine exactly what they were sampling.
Now, text is no longer ‘king’. Four billion videos are viewed on YouTube worldwide every day while in Australia an estimated six million YouTube users watch more than 200 million videos a month. The Internet has usurped traditional platforms and is the primary conduit through which information is disseminated and consumed. While on the one hand the business models of legacy media are crumbling, this new wave of digitisation is providing fertile soil for online start-ups such as BuzzFeed and Vice.
Technology has democratised the distribution of information and the platforms used for disseminating that information hold more power than publishers. Facebook’s Instant Articles and developing video capability, and Snapchat’s Discover feature, are among the likely new ways of consuming information in 2016.
This is the digital revolution writ large, with the convergence of media bringing with it myriad new concepts in the form of user-generated content, branded newsrooms, listicles and click-bait, which are just the tip of the iceberg.
And while that revolution has boosted the online circulations of newspapers — both The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have chalked up more than 136,000 Monday-to-Friday digital subscribers — print sales are continuing their decline (down 9.9 per cent for the former M-F and 10.3 per cent for the latter) in the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations data.
For the first time in memory, average Monday-to-Friday print sales of TheAge dipped below 100,000.
Kathryn Bowd, a senior lecturer in media at the University of Adelaide, says that for much of the past 10 years, digital delivery was seen in newsrooms more as an add-on than a core part of the operation.
“But communication and media graduates are now entering the field with [their] thinking very much embedded in cross-platform delivery of information, and are much less likely to differentiate between different delivery methods,” she says.
“But this [digitisation],” she adds, “has also put tremendous pressure on journalists.”
It is barely noon in The Age newsroom but Michael Schlechta already appears weary, having been on the run receiving feedback from his analytics team on the stories pasted online in the early hours of the day.
“Digital is a fundamentally different beast,” he says. “We have feedback by the second; what our audience wants. I could probably tell you, within 20 people, how many are on our site right now.”
It is this constant audience feedback that makes the whole experience of filing for online fascinating for Julia Medew, The Age’s health editor.
“The remarkable thing is people who would previously be quite nervous about engaging with journalists, engage freely with them day and night,” she says.
“I could be sitting at home at 10pm and be having a direct message conversation [on Twitter] with a doctor in a hospital . . . who would usually be quite scared of talking to me . . . Something about the informal nature of it.
“So, I feel like we have really new ways of reaching people and telling stories, which is exciting.”
This digital rebranding of the 161-year media group should have happened much sooner, according to editor-in-chief Holden, who says that when he joined The Age the journalists who had opted to stay on were unanimous in believing that the revamp was long overdue.
“They said: ‘We have all seen what is happening in America. If anything, it was the company that was holding us back from embracing journalism’. Thank God we are finally doing it!”
“Digital is a fundamentally different beast. We have feedback by the second; what our audience wants. I could probably tell you, within 20 people, how many are on our site right now.” — Michael Schlechta, Age online editor
Dr Bowd agrees: “Part of the challenge has been that [newspapers] were very slow to embrace digitisation – major media organisations, in particular, took quite some time to move to digital delivery in any significant way.”
An apt case study at The Age might be The Zone, a weekly column focusing on advocacy and activism that started as a newspaper-based product and ultimately migrated to online.
Its creator, Michael Short, a long-time advocate of the shift to digital, says: “The Zone has evolved into a product that has a presence in the newspaper but mainly online and on other digital platforms because the key element of it is the interaction with the audience.
“What I have found with digital presentation, with using film-making techniques rather than primarily print journalism techniques, is that the audience stays engaged longer with the story and people are inclined to join the debate at the end, which is fantastic.”
Despite such testimony, many print journalists in legacy media perceive digitisation as a wrecking ball and remain cautious about embracing digital story-telling. Hugh Martin, who has worked at The Age and is a lecturer in digital journalism at La Trobe University, says that newsrooms in Australia have been slow to embrace digitisation.
“Even now, there are people in newsrooms who really still think that the print version of the paper is the most important product that the newsroom services and the website is a nuisance in some ways.
“That is a function of generational change happening within newsrooms.”
Freelance journalist and academic Margaret Simons, who heads up Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism and also spent early career years at The Age, agrees that editorial content is being distributed in varied and innovative new ways.
“I don’t think established mainstream media is across that yet. They still think their website is a portal of people getting through to The Age, for example. Whereas, if you look at Internet-only outlets like BuzzFeed, nobody goes to BuzzFeed, it comes to you . . .
“Which then raises the question as to whether [traditional media] will make the transition and will be with us in 50 years or not.”
The origin of species
The idea of news production has changed dramatically since the first sheet was printed in German in the 17th century.
Shane Green, who began his career as a copy boy, says he has lived the change from “hot metal to computers”.
And Simons recalls being at her desk by 10 o’clock in the morning and going through the morning editions of The Age and its competitors. “We would then have a conference with the editor, stories would be planned and we would start our research.”
But in recent times, many of the older hands in newsrooms have struggled to see these core values of journalism – research and verification – apparently being shown the door under the pressure of a 24-hour news cycle.
“Every story that we used to do for print used to be subbed once, checked twice, edited and proof-read twice, all the corrections done . . . Lovely!” says Schlechta. “But [the company] used to earn double the amount of money we earn now.”
In hindsight, this change in funding dynamics was probably inevitable. Short acknowledges that resources are not the same as they used to be in print’s halcyon days.
“But in the past, journalism was being subsidised by advertising, and newspapers had a monopoly on revenue from people buying and selling cars, jobs and homes. That business is now finished. Which means the only thing we have to sell now is journalism.”
For someone who joined the newsroom mid-transition, Medew admits to having found it difficult adjusting to the fact that, these days, there is less time “to sit down and work through things.”
The first hint of digitisation at The Age came more than a decade before 2012, but the seriousness of intent only became evident when major job cuts were announced along with plans to turn the broadsheet into a tabloid and jettison its Tullamarine printing plant that had been opened with fanfare just a few years earlier.
Voluntary redundancies were offered as part of the push to maximize resources while minimizing costs. Editorial numbers across The Age and its Fairfax partner The Sydney Morning Herald were slashed from 450 to around 280 in each newsroom, according to Holden. But as dire as that appeared it helped draw a line in the sand.
“It was a very stark choice and it meant that I could stand up in front of the staff on my first anniversary, in June 2013, and I was able to say to the staff, ‘There are no excuses any more. There are no victims here. You all chose to stay. You all had the opportunity to go. You chose not to’,” he says.
Before 2012, The Age had a separate print team and a smaller digital team.
“They [online team] had to rely on the feed of print stories once they had been published in print and they could put them up online from about midnight to one o’clock in the morning,” says Holden.
With display advertising ensuring the print edition remained the milking cow for the entire Fairfax operation, print got first priority in terms of resources and publishing rights.
“Print drove all the commissioning of the stories and they were all for print purpose, with print feeding the digital platform in a very passive way,” Holden adds.
But in 2012 the two teams were finally merged, with Holden becoming the first editor-in-chief with responsibility for The Age website.
The transition from print-only to ‘digital first’, where stories are published online before they appear in print, also described as ‘reverse publishing’, has not been an easy ride for most newspapers across the world, although newspapers in America and the UK were generally quicker to embrace digitisation.
The Age had to bring about a major change in its game plan to become a digital-first publication. Some things, however, seemed obvious. The coverage of sports, for example.
“Because there was no point in going to the Olympic Games in London and writing only 24 hours later, for print, as we used to do,” says Holden. “The deal was if you are going to [cover] the Olympics you have to file live for digital and that’s the only way you’re going to get a ticket to get on the plane.”
The timing for “rolling-out” stories was becoming increasingly important, too, and online-first became the general rule unless a story’s impact could be maximised by being held back until morning publication in The Age’s i-pad and print editions.
Holden offers the example of Fairfax’s commissioned opinion polls. Of its post-Federal Budget poll, conducted by IPSOS, he says: “We released the first story about that at 8 o’clock on the Sunday night showing the 50-50 [two-party preferred vote], the thought being that we knew that there would be a Newspoll on the front page of The Australian the next day and we wanted to get in ahead of them.
“So, it wasn’t a question of scooping our print readers, it was to get everybody talking about it, that ‘Oh, the Fairfax poll is out’, and all the conversation is about the Fairfax poll.”
But the timing of publication was not the only strategic change occurring. For the first time, readers were beginning to have more leverage on the type of content being published.
Digital’s instant audience feedback, measured by hits and reader comments, though invigorating, has made the job much more challenging.
“It is much more complex the way we distribute the information compared to print,” says Schlechta. “There is a culture within print which is terrific, and it’s the core values which the print publication had embraced – the way we write, the type of stories we select and how we present that info. But we’ve had to rethink how we do all that.
“The challenge for us is how do we cater to that [feedback] when we have been used to this kind of [culture] where we make the decisions, we provide the content. We still make the decisions but then we kind of go, ‘Does the audience like it or not?’ ”
Online stories are almost like a canvas that never leaves the easel. The stories can be modified, edited, retracted and re-published at any time in the cosmic worldwide web.
“Technically, there is no difference to print,” says Holden. “But writing [a digital] story potentially with one voice in it and then as the day unfolds you get a contrary voice and you keep building it. At the end of the day, you pause and wrap it into a classic print-style package. So, instead of writing one story per day, reporters would be writing one story potentially three or four times.”
Health editor Medew says the type of content being produced is constantly evolving. This more user-driven operation has “possibly led to less scrutiny on things that are happening at the rounds at government level, if it is not going to rate well. Boring – but more important – stuff attracts fewer readers now,” she concedes.
In essence, the diminishing attention span of readers is forcing media organisations to package their news with the most appealing wrapping paper. This has led to accessorising with audio and video content. And, increasingly, reporters are in charge of the entire publishing process.
The Age introduced a new content management system, CQ5, that allows publishing direct to the web, unlike its previous newsroom tool (Atex Genera) that was designed around building print pages, from where stories would later be funneled into the digital system.
“[Reporters] are now asked to write their own SEO [search engine optimisation] captions and add an embargo if applicable,” says Holden. “So, a lot more hands-on involvement compared to the past where [they would be] simply writing a story and handing it over to be somebody else’s problem in getting together the photo, the headline and the graphics.”
Despite the new multi-skilling, some commentators question whether much value is being added. Simons, for example, is skeptical about the depth of the work.
“People say they are working on many stories at the same time these days. Some of that is true but some of those stories are really bite-sized stuff churned from media releases, for example.”
In driving its newsroom revamp, The Age introduced a six-week training program called ‘sunrise’, aimed at skilling people for digital – for example, teaching them how to take photographs, shoot videos and use social media. Now, they can also access analytical tools such as “chartbeat”, which tells them how their stories are rating online and offering weekly updates on traffic.
“We want to have a newsroom where the fundamental base level is the same on skills for everyone, regardless of where you are [within the operation],” Holden says.
Michael Short finds the digitisation of The Age’s newsroom one of the most thoughtful and profound processes of change that he has ever participated in or witnessed.
“At the time of a massive decline in resources we have had a very significant increase in audience and we have had a newsroom focused on 24/7 publishing across platforms, including a newspaper.”
Reporting staff now pitch to all platforms, with the editor-in-chief sitting across all of it, working with news editors and the online editor.
“The news conferences are a rolling-ideas fest and a logistical exercise, including a national hookup with bureaus and editor counterparts at the Sydney Morning Herald and Canberra Times . . . making sure that there is a constant refreshed offering of news analysis and data and that’s a profoundly different situation to what we had a few years ago,” adds Short.
“What I have found with digital presentation, with using film-making techniques rather than primarily print journalism techniques, is that the audience stays engaged longer with the story and people are inclined to join the debate at the end, which is fantastic.” — Michael Short, senior journalist
Holden says “mindset change” was one of the key things that The Age pushed for in its digital transformation.
“We have restructured the newsroom. Roles have changed. The conversation is restructured. So, ‘I file for digital and I don’t sit on the story till five o’clock and hand it to print editors and pitch for [the following day’s] page one’.”
Still, a struggle facing many of the senior journalists was amalgamating videos, GIFs and graphics with text, notes Shane Green. “The Zone, for example, has moved from print to the digital space. Michael [Short] will use lots of images and videos to go along with the text that will speak to the image or graph and it is quite smart. But for me, I am not that comfortable. I don’t know if I want to tell my stories that way.
“For me, one of the things that is really important is the value of the written word. And one of the biggest challenges we face in our rush to embrace a digital future has been a sense of abandoning the core value of the written word.”
But for others, including outside observers, the transformation to digital cannot progress fast enough.
Hugh Martin, for instance, says he doesn’t believe The Age is fully a part of the digital conversation yet.
“What I think in the digital world when I look at a website is, can I comment on a story? Can I share it with my friends? And when a website doesn’t allow comments on its stories, doesn’t link them [to source material], that says to me they are not fully digital yet. They are not encouraging or letting their audience be a part of their stories.”
He finds this policy reflecting an “insecurity” that exists in The Age’s newsroom “because it’s the newsroom that makes those decisions and manages those publications. So, if they don’t [hyper]link their stories because they worry that their audience won’t come back, then, what is it actually saying about itself?”
But digitisation is an ongoing process, says Short. “I am sure we don’t get things right all the time . . . and it’s a continuous evolution. I mean, we have certainly lived with ambiguity and uncertainty and existential threat that can wear you down a bit, but that means we have people who are really here because they believe in what they are doing and continue to do it well in this company.”
Gone are the days of accessing news at dedicated time slots in a day. News is second to the air we breathe. Smartphones and tablets and, increasingly, other gadgets are allowing readers to know what is happening instantaneously – hard news, commentary, sports results, celebrity tittle-tattle.
In turn, this has hugely impacted the type of stories being published on digital platforms, with The Age’s steeped broadsheet culture force-driven into a more tabloid mindset.
“People have a broad interest and what that means is we need to publish a much broader range of stories than what we had done earlier,” says Schlechta. “They like a good mix of stories, whether Kim Kardashian had a sex baby or what Kaitlyn Jenner is up to, as well as a lot of business stories and federal politics.”
And editors can cherry-pick the website for the next day’s print edition.
Stories are being packaged differently, too, with the newsroom making the most of a variety of digital tools.
Says Holden: “A good storyteller is always thinking of different ways to best tell the story, and the beauty of digital is that it allows you to do that.”
Green, a former state political editor, agrees that digital publishing is more lively, immediate and interactive. He gives the example of a reflective piece he wrote about former Victorian Premier Joan Kirner, who died in June this year.
“It went up online within an hour [of Kirner’s death] and did very well on Facebook, Twitter and later on in print, too. So, that was a natural thing to do . . . to write for digital, and that sense of engaging the digital audience was great. I was receiving feedback many hours later on social media and it felt great.”
Winning over digital subscribers, whose attention spans can be fleeting, is the name of the game and publications are employing various devices for doing so. Often, online stories are being told primarily through case studies or personal accounts, instead of from a hard news viewpoint.
Green thinks that the traditional ‘inverted pyramid’ of news writing is largely disappearing as a result, though that is not necessarily a bad thing. “I think, as a journalist, there can be much more interesting ways to tell a story.”
Like most newsrooms, The Age’s is turning younger, and continues doing so as long-time reporters – and a few mid-careerists – opt for generous payouts.
“The senior writing ranks are nowhere near where they used to be, no question,” says Schlechta. “[The newsroom] has gone younger because of the redundancies. We have this young, fresh batch of trainees here which has been really good.”
Medew, in her mid-30s, misses the comfort and mentoring that the “thick layer of senior people” brought with them. But she finds that the younger, energetic bunch of reporters have a lot on her, too. “They can show me how to do stuff that I didn’t know really existed. The whole excitement about the job is really uplifting.”
And the departure of so many senior figures has also opened up previous “no go” zones to younger reporters. “Mid-tier writers like me can write for the Good Weekend [magazine] now, which probably was not possible earlier,” says Medew.
With the de-stratifying of the newsroom and widening of platforms, reporters have gained more control over their stories. Every reporter is an ‘online editor’ now, according to Green, which, in turn, is altering the dynamics of the editor-reporter relationship.
“A frustration for me is that I wish that we focused more on digital than what we even do now . . . It is frustrating for the print people, too, because at the time the resources are gradually being pulled away from them they do want to put out a great product.” — Age online editor Michael Schlechta
But Holden says he doesn’t feel he has lost any bit of editorial control over the content in the push to digital, nor have reporters become reckless, despite the devolving of decision-making.
“It will come down to the strength of the culture of the newsroom . . . The journalists should feel that I really have confidence in them and that they can have the courage to say that they don’t know whether the story is true and so they are not going to publish it. They need to have the strength to say, ‘It doesn’t sound right, I am not doing it’.”
In the evolving structure, the editor-in-chief sits across the whole process – both the online and print platforms – as a type of “Field Marshall”, according to Michael Short. His “General” is the news director. And people congregating on the central news desk are responsible for driving content – allocating resources and packaging the news.
Meanwhile, platform editors – online, tablet and print – participate in news conferences, with shared newslists continuously updated by national, regional and subject editors. Platform editors will often make their own calls about the content that goes on their platform.
“There is conferencing between various editors and they all make their own decision on what goes where,” says online boss Schlechta. “Which is an important difference between us and other places.”
As well, editorial roles have been tweaked to suit the digital profile, says Holden. Some of the old rounds – for example, religious affairs writer – have been discarded or absorbed into newly devised ones that reflect changing times, such as data journalist, identity reporter (gender, race, religion) and trends reporter (covering anything from fads and fashion to emerging technology).
With videos a critical audience drawcard, The Age also has a dedicated video production team, with reporters doing stand-ups in the newsroom to enhance news coverage. “We do almost half a million video streams a month,” says Schlechta.
Struggle for existence
While legacy media is struggling to find ways to convert traditional revenue streams into online income in order to sustain big newsrooms that cover a wide breadth of news, fleet-footed digital start-ups such as BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post – often fuelled by venture capital and run on miserly budgets – look to be on a more assured path to sustainability.
But the drying up of revenue streams from advertising was not the only reason for shrinking newsrooms.
The diminishing attention span of readers, coupled with a deluge of free content, has allowed little margin for error for established titles to experiment with branded content and metered pay walls, though mainstream newsrooms are collaborating increasingly with bloggers and citizen journalists as part of new strategies being tested across the industry.
Certainly, a hopeful sign emerging from the US has been a steady recent rise in digital advertising, suggesting that advertisers are at last following consumers to digital platforms. An industry survey conducted by PwC and the Interactive Advertising Bureau suggested 2015 growth of around 20 per cent.
While the strategists work on finding a sustainable business model, the struggle to divvy up resources between print and digital in legacy newsrooms has become a daily battle for someone like Michael Schlechta.
“Clearly, my role is to try and get more resources for the digital product, and print does have a certain hold in this place as it does have in every newspaper,” he says.
“A frustration for me is that I wish that we focused more on digital than what we even do now and that is a debate that is always going on in this newsroom — who gets what stories?
“It is frustrating for the print people, too, because at the time the resources are gradually being pulled away from them they do want to put out a great product.”
But Margaret Simons suspects that legacy media in Australia is not innovative enough to be sustainable. “Innovation is where the money lies and the thinking at the top of some of these newsrooms is still very traditional.”
There is no denying that there are still people in the Age newsroom who are wedded to the print product more strongly than its digital iteration, says Schlechta.
“I can certainly understand why they are. It is a product many of them grew up with, worked on for 20 to 30 years, and loved, and all of a sudden we say, ‘No, let’s push it aside and focus on [digital]’ . . . which many of them find uncomfortable.”
But there has been an inevitability about digital’s ascent for more than a decade and Hugh Martin says that unless Australia’s media gets completely “agnostic” about the platform on which they display their journalism, local titles won’t survive.
“[Reporters] are now asked to write their own SEO [search engine optimisation] captions . . . So, a lot more hands-on involvement compared to the past where [they would be] simply writing a story and handing it over to be somebody else’s problem in getting together the photo, the headline and the graphics.” — Andrew Holden, Age editor-in-chief
Michael Short is convinced that going completely digital would also, ultimately, prove profitable for the industry.
“There are a couple of good things about stopping publishing newspapers; that is, the majority of the cost, like two-thirds, of producing newspapers has got nothing to do with ideas or contents or journalism. It is dead trees and diesel fuel, and both of those cost components are particularly contributing to our carbon footprint . . .
“Whereas, the cost of distribution digitally is virtually zero, so you are making profit out of people buying your journalism and you can then invest in journalism rather than in printing presses and trucks and dead trees.”
But just what a ‘digital-only’ Age might look like doesn’t sit well with many senior journalists who fear that long-form narrative journalism, for one, could be a casualty.
“I think the digital newsroom is still struggling to work out what to do with the feature,” says Green. “Can a 2000-3000 word piece actually compete with the breaking news on the homepage?”
The new local competitor Guardian Australia seems to have figured out how to bring long-form stories to digital audiences, although the local arm of the British media group is very selective in what local news it chooses to cover. Nor does it carry the millstone of a print edition.
But Andrew Holden argues that The Age newsroom is on a par with newsrooms around the world in terms of its transition to digitisation. “You could argue that The Guardian is better off . . . but they don’t have to worry about a newspaper. We still do. We are still dual [platform]. Of course, it would be much easier if we were one thing or the other.”
Hugh Martin says that The Age may have to abandon its mentality of “trying to be something for everyone”.
“It is hard to support and justify a newsroom that is trying to do everything for everyone when, in fact, smaller niche publications can be profitable,” he says.
But Holden says The Age has loyal print readers who retain an expectation that the paper will continue to offer a broad sweep of news, including weighty features that typically find a home in its thick weekend editions.
The temptation in the digital age is for a churn of light-weight material that draws website hits.
“But you have got to balance that, of course, with the old view that media should do social good, and you should go after bad guys,” Holden continues.
“We do a lot of investigative stories, but they are not necessarily the most read stories online. So, do I stop doing them because people really don’t care, or do I still do them because The Age does chase scumbags and invest in people who can ‘out’ them, and the impact is actually longer term . . . in terms of a broader impact than just the number of people who read it in a 24-hour period.
“But with diminishing resources you have to make a judgment.”
Digitisation is also forcing judgments about careers: traditional pathways are less predictable and the constant departure of staff can be demotivating for those who remain.
“The chopping and changing of models of management and hierarchies that existed has made the more senior jobs less desirable now because you feel there is going to be another model introduced next week,” says Medew.
Many see Fairfax’s continuing run of redundancies as simply a means of slashing costs under the veil of modernisation. While on the face of it, the ‘sunrise’ program is aimed at introducing ‘audience-focused’ strategies to Fairfax’s newsrooms, Crikey recently noted that it was also a way of managing a “soft” redundancy program by inviting those not on board with the changes to quietly leave.
Meanwhile, the resultant work intensification weighs heavily on younger journalists who have been given a chance to show their stuff.
Liam Mannix, a recently graduated trainee working as an online reporter, says: “It [journalism] is a constant roller coaster between extreme high speed and extreme slowness. We are being challenged in new ways, and being forced to confront realities that before we could safely ignore.”
These increasing demands and the need for immediacy has affected the quality of content, according to academic Kathryn Bowd. “There is less time to check and verify the accuracy of information or reliability of sources. The idea that ‘You are never wrong for long’ only mitigates this to some extent.”
Short doesn’t agree. “I think the concerns about errors getting through are overstated. I don’t dismiss them but I am not in that camp if there is one that says that The Age is not delivering a quality product. If you look at the size of this newsroom and what it has produced, and compare it to the other products around the world, I am pretty proud of what we produce.”
The pace of change that newsrooms have witnessed over the last 10 years has been frantic and few industry insiders dare predict where it will lead. Newsrooms pump rising volumes of information through the digital conduit, while on the receiving end, consumers drown in information overload.
Nevertheless, Short thinks it is a “wonderful time” to be in journalism and to be a consumer of journalism.
“Digitisation has put a clear focus on the need to do more than tell people the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’. The need has come to the fore to be really creative and to examine the question: ‘Does supply create demand or does demand create supply in the world of information?’ ”
However, Martin says it is hard to find the next generation of journalistic talent when a newspaper is struggling to pay its bills. Time pressures do not allow newcomers to hone their skills over time before they are filing straight to various platforms.
Despite mass redundancies, The Age has had a mini-growth spurt in the digital space over the last three years, and Schlechta thinks the pruning of newsroom staff was a necessity to catch up with the rapidly changing digital world.
“You can’t get around it. We are working harder than we ever have but, again, we can think about the glorious days when we made lots of money and talked over coffees about what was going to be in the paper the next day. But . . . the reality is we are fighting – like most print products in the western world are fighting – for survival.”
Print may well have become a white elephant, but just when it can be euthanized remains a finely balanced issue, and the experience of Seattle’s Post Intelligencer – when it quit print suddenly and went full throttle into digital – provides a salient recent lesson for titles such as The Age.
“The website that was successful suddenly lost a lot of its audience,” says Martin. “It is hard to promote a digital-only publication. The print supplement is a kind of brand reinforcement for the digital edition.”
Medew thinks that print may not continue to be the platform for breaking news. “But people still really love to read from a physical product.”
The view is shared by Margaret Simons, who believes that the students in her journalism classes who do read print are probably “self-consciously old school about it”.
“There may still be a print publication in 20 years’ time, but it will have less impact socially. I suspect The Age print edition, for example, might come out with a weekly or a monthly publication but you would still be reading most of your news online.”
Kathryn Bowd also envisages a future for print. “I think there will still be a place for other print publications – magazines, regional newspapers etc. The non-daily nature of many regional newspapers means there is not such an emphasis on immediacy, and there’s a whole experience that goes with reading magazines (the glossy paper, the advertising, the design etc) that means they’re not just about information.
“For daily newspapers, a likely first step towards the end of print publication is a reduction in the number of days each week that a print edition is produced – Saturday papers are likely to be around longer than Monday papers, for example.”
But of print’s future, Michael Short is adamant. “It won’t exist,” he says. “The real issue is the quality of journalism and its broader role in the community and for democracy. If [The Age] stops publishing [the paper] there will be a good reason for it. But we’ll certainly keep publishing it as long as people want it and it makes a profit.”
Simons says digitisation has made it possible to publish at lower cost. “And that has made it possible for a whole lot of new entrants in Australia and worldwide, from the very tiny to the reasonably substantial. We have Daily Mail, Guardian Australia, BuzzFeed and Huffington Post. This has already changed the array of news available to Australians, for the better.
“It is not the complete answer to concentration of media ownership, but it is a hell lot of improvement.”
But nothing, yet, quite matches the publicly-funded startups in the US such as Propublica, J-Lab and the Pulitzer Centre which are collaborating with academics and citizen journalists.
“It’s quite an anti-intellectual industry, [journalism] in Australia, and on the other side, the academics have been sniffy about collaborating with industry as well . . . so fault lies on both sides,” adds Simons.
Martin, meanwhile, suggests that digital newsrooms need to offer exclusive content to be sustainable.
“We know that specialists – finance-business, sports, real estate, motoring – work successfully as stand-alone publishing vehicles online, which is 80 per cent of [the focus of] The Age.
“What we are not sure about is public service journalism, investigative journalism pieces that have great social impact but may not pay their way. This kind of thing can be supported by subscription.”
Short agrees that it’s time the audience started paying for quality content in similar fashion to readers of The Economist magazine, which carries a hefty cover charge.
“People still want to read curated information, and do pay for what they value,” he insists.
For Short, it’s about finding that “sweet spot”. He says that while the antics of celebrities might drive online “clicks”, that is not going to sustain the value of the business that resides in the credibility of its masthead.
“If you don’t break stories in the public domain, stories that are of significance and are of importance, then your credibility goes. So, it’s a way of finding that sweet spot, and also having those conversations about increasingly diminishing resources. Another way of looking at the notion of the sweet spot is that something be popular and important.”
But for Shane Green, one of several recent departees, it is not the paring of editorial resources that troubles him the most, while conceding that without the recent cost-cutting “we wouldn’t be having this conversation, as there would be no Age.”
What he fears most, however, is a declining regard for the written word. “What is The Age’s point of difference? What does The Age stand for? If I had to re-do the advertising for The Age, for me it would be: ‘The Age – where the words matter’.”