In Conversation with Erik Jensen: “We’re a niche product with mass market aspirations”

The Saturday Paper will be the first new print paper in several decades, and editor Erik Jensen hopes to find a profitable niche in an industry that is quickly shedding circulation and staff. Phil Gyford

Businessman and publisher Morry Schwartz’s decision to appoint a 25-year-old, relatively unknown journalist to edit the first serious newspaper launched in Australia in more than four decades might be a “courageous decision” in the Yes Minister sense.

In an era that is witness to a difficult transition from print to digital media, Erik Jensen will edit Schwartz’s biggest gamble to date, The Saturday Paper, from March 1.

Jensen said the job was his until “I screw up”. He was bullish about the newspaper’s prospects despite the recent staff cuts, slashed budgets and advertising slumps experienced by most newspapers.

Things would be different at The Saturday Paper, he asserted. Journalistic quality would catalyse sales; stories would be better and longer; it would be a niche newspaper for a niche readership; sales of 60,000 would break even; and … reporters would get 80 cents a word. One downside was that the two-year search for a good conservative writer with empathy was a very difficult one (see full transcript).

Schwartz and the former chairman of Schwartz’s The Monthly, Robert Manne, would help out a stable that included David Marr, Hamish McDonald, Christos Tsiolkas and others.

Read the full interview transcript here.


The business case

Bill Birnbauer: Is this a serious business proposition or is it an act of philanthropy to an ailing newspaper industry?

Erik Jensen: It’s certainly there to aid an ailing newspaper industry but it’s not philanthropic. The best way to aid an industry that’s struggling is to find a better business case for that industry…it’s a paper based on numbers. It’s rigorously finding a way to make a niche for a certain type of print title.

Bill Birnbauer: When you say based on numbers…

Erik Jensen: We’ve played with various scenarios and numbers to see how this paper will work. The unit cost of this paper is less than the cover price. Unlike most newspapers that are losing money on a sale, we’re actually making money on a sale.

Bill Birnbauer: What is the business model?

Erik Jensen: The very basic business model is that you put together a good paper and people will buy it. I think everyone is trying that model but it’s then about saying “what is a good paper”.

A good paper, in our mind, is something that is edited down to the essential elements. Once you have that kind of synthesis, you don’t have the extraneous and costly journalism that goes into supporting one of the other papers that had once a large disparate audience and now has a small but still disparate audience, so now they have to do a whole number of different things and have large staffs to do many of those different things.

Bill Birnbauer: What is the break-even point? How many copies will you need to sell?

Erik Jensen: If we were selling 60,000 across three cities we’d be doing just fine and I think that’s entirely realistic.

Bill Birnbauer: Based on what? Why is that realistic?

Erik Jensen: Based on the fact that there are many more than 60,000 people who buy two papers at the weekend, and I see us easily being a complementary paper to another newspaper and so that audience already exists.

It’s also based on the audience that already exists for The Monthly, which I think we’ll take a large share of. And the sort of content we’re putting together that might drag in readers who have either left or who have never been served by newspapers.

Where others have struggled

Bill Birnbauer: Why do you think print on this occasion will succeed when domestically numbers have been shredded and in the US print has shifted online and newspapers have closed? Why will print work?

Erik Jensen: Firstly, there is the fact that both Morry and I love print newspapers and we’re keen to do something like this. Secondly, I think print newspapers have suffered significant structural attacks on their business model, but they’ve also responded imperfectly.

I think some of the decision making in news organisations has worsened rather than improved the problems that beset print, and they unfortunately also have larger company issues that we don’t. And there’s also the costs of very big newsrooms.

We’re not a newspaper that could operate a newsroom the size anywhere near The Age’s, for instance, although we are a newspaper that’s absolutely dependent on major news organisations having large newsrooms, because as often as we would break news ourselves, we would be writing better, deeper accounts of stories that have broken elsewhere, when journalists elsewhere haven’t been given the resources to then tell that story in great depth.

Bill Birnbauer: What are the decisions that newspapers have made that have worsened things?

Erik Jensen: The first thing is not to have chased their classified advertising online, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that. But the other issue in how they’ve dealt with the internet becomes an editorial one, and that’s quite often trying to compete in print with what the internet does better at the expense of giving the reporters time to do the journalism that I would regard still as print journalism.

The operation

Bill Birnbauer: And staff numbers?

Erik Jensen: We have a very small team of 10 people who are in the office on staff and a group of about 20 people who are fixed contributors who will write every week or every other week. Beyond that, there is another 30 or so people who have attached themselves to the paper willing to write for us but who aren’t necessarily writing on a predictable cycle.

Bill Birnbauer: What do you pay?

Erik Jensen: 80 cents a word. If we do as well as I hope we’ll do we’ll look at shifting those rates or paying larger expenses.

I really want this paper to make journalism viable for people, particularly people who are finding themselves freelance journalists after having spent long careers in newsrooms.

Bill Birnbauer: Is there anybody else apart from Morry Schwartz who has committed to the project?

Erik Jensen: No, it’s wholly owned by Morry, as The Monthly is and as the Quarterly Essay is.

Bill Birnbauer: And how much has he committed?

Erik Jensen: As I said, the business case is predicated on the paper making money, but Morry is also committed to a fixed figure, not one we publicly discuss. But Morry is committed to keeping this newspaper running with the expectation of allowing it to work.

Bill Birnbauer: When might you expect to be making a profit?

Erik Jensen: I suppose it depends what you regard a profit to be. I think the first issue will be profitable, but it will take some time to pay back the launch capital.

The content

Bill Birnbauer: Will it be a review of stories that have already broken, putting it in a deeper or more substantive way in a week? Or will you be doing some enterprise reporting – some original reporting?

Erik Jensen: The answer is both. We obviously will break stories as often as we can, but every time we break a story it has to be worth at least 1,200 words. It’s one thing to break a 300 word story on page 4 of a newspaper, it’s another thing to break a story that’s worth that – that’s equivalent to a splash with two days worth of follow up for a daily newspaper.

The Saturday Paper will launch March 1st.