Australian media’s Super Saturday: will readers be the winner?

Morry Schwartz is hoping quality journalism will help The Saturday Paper succeed. Charis Palmer

At a time when the print media in Australia is under intense economic pressure the weekend proved to be a super Saturday of change with the revamping, rebadging and launching of major mastheads.

Fairfax Media’s The Age and Sydney Morning Herald relaunched their much anticipated weekend editions in a compact format, bringing them into line with their weekday equivalents, which converted to tabloid–sized papers this time last year. It also completes the final chapter of Fairfax’s 2013 restructure that resulted in 1900 job losses and the creation of metered paywalls to charge for digital content. These measures followed Fairfax’s unprecedented A$2.7 billion writedown mainly for its mastheads in 2012.

But while the SMH and The Age weekend print pages shrunk on Saturday, the title of News Corporation Australia’s Daily Telegraph grew longer, rebadged as the Saturday Daily Telegraph.

News Corp NSW executive general manager Brett Clegg told Adnews it was the largest investment for the paper in a decade and, other than a name change, included new real estate, car and business sections.

Then there was the launch another masthead bearing Saturday in its title - The Saturday Paper. Although competing in different markets - the new arrival more upmarket than the rebadged paper - the quest for new advertisers is incessant for print mastheads in a time of declining revenues.

Saturday morning papers are increasingly compact. Charis Palmer

The inaugural run off the printing presses of this new weekly paper, launched by Black Inc publisher Morry Schwartz, is fascinating because many newspaper publishers in western economies are considering doing the opposite and winding up print in favour of digital-only editions.

Schwartz, who also publishes Quarterly Essay and The Monthly, has launched his new printed masthead for $3 a week in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. It is also available online and as an app.

Schwartz told rival The Age on Friday that advertising sales were “heartening” and he expected The Saturday Paper to be profitable within a few years, with an aim to “sell between 60,000 and 80,000 copies a week”.

Schwartz has a passion for long-form journalism and has assembled a line-up of experienced award-winning journalists under the youthful editorship of Erik Jensen, including former Fairfax business editor Kirsty Simpson and Fairfax veteran David Marr, (who also signed on with Australia’s online edition of The Guardian Australia last year). Schwartz has assembled other names in niche areas outside traditional journalism such as novelist Christos Tsiolkas (author of The Slap and Barracuda) to critique film, and chef Andrew McConnell, (owner of Cutler & Co) as food editor, among other standouts.

Schwartz has indicated The Saturday Paper will carry serious journalism, providing a space for long-form writing on subjects that speak to Australia’s intellectual and political life without the distractions of the lighter side of newspapers that proliferated in the 1990s such as celebrity gossip and lifestyle pull-outs.

This is hardly a ground-breaking approach: when The Australian was launched in 1964 its mission statement promised to bring readers: “impartial information and independent thinking that are essential to the further advance of our country”.

The Australian also springs to mind due to a stoush with the ABC’s Media Watch over the paper’s profitability, leading editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell to confirm to media website mUmbrella that the paper had not been profitable since 2008.

So why, if the Australian is losing money and Fairfax is shedding hundreds of jobs, cutting costs and closing printing plants, would Schwartz launch a print newspaper in this difficult hardcopy market? The answer might have something to do with a counter view about newspapers’ future offered by US academic Professor Philip Meyer who maintains that hardcopy newspapers could survive if they jettison frivolous content and target quality journalism to a smaller discerning audience and provide it less frequently.

The newspapers that survive will probably do so with some kind of hybrid content: analysis, interpretation and investigative reporting in a print product that appears less than daily, combined with constant updating and reader interaction on the Web.

Schwartz has already said that his paper will do only the things a newspaper is really good for. In the opinion of Meyer, that role is to gain public trust through quality journalism. According to Meyer, trusted print newspapers provide a counter narrative to spin, advertising and other manipulated communications that overload us daily.

Certainly, Super Saturday is a symptom of the changing field of journalism. Since newspapers began hundreds of years ago journalism has changed in response to struggles at one of three levels: competition between journalists within an institution; media producers competing within the same market, and competition between different types of media producers in different markets such as online, television, radio and print.

In Australia, in the past year, this competition has shown itself in the form of the online arrival of The Guardian Australia — which recently announced a Melbourne expansion - and the imminent entry of Britain’s Daily Mail tabloid, in partnership with Ninemsn. Both are employing local journalists and provide an alternative to the duopoly of Fairfax Media and News Corp. Other smaller start-ups include The New Daily, which hired a dozen journalists last year using innovative funding from industry superannuation funds.

A different media struggle, but one also touching on the issue of trust and the media became the subject of an ALP email campaign last week. Tens of thousands of Australians were requested to sign an online petition to stop government funding cuts to the national broadcaster. The ALP urged its email subscribers to standup for the ABC and “protect an institution which helps to protect the core of our democracy”.

But, while Super Saturday is worth noting because it speaks to shifting power dynamics within the Australian media, other organs of power seem not to change. The backpage blurb on the 2003 book, Dark Victory, by David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, remains remarkably up-to-date despite three prime ministers serving office since its publication:

They put lives at risk. They twisted the law. They drew the military into the heart of an election campaign. They muzzled the press. They misused intelligence services, defied the United Nations, antagonised Indonesia and bribed poverty stricken Pacific States. They closed Australia to refugees ….

Meyer understood that “readers need and want to be equipped with truth-based defenses”. Let’s hope Super Saturday gives us, the readers, this.