Fairfax launched its new compact size in a week where Victorian politics dominated the national agenda, making it a very good time to consider just how Melbourne’s former broadsheet, The Age, fared with its now similarly sized competitor, the Herald Sun.
The re-launch of The Age as a compact was never about being the biggest selling newspaper in Melbourne. There’s no way The Age can compete with the genuinely tabloid Herald Sun.
The Herald Sun is a modern giant among Australian newspapers: its audited Monday to Saturday circulation hovers around the 450,000 mark. That adds up to more than a million readers every weekday.
The Age sells roughly one-third: Monday to Friday (157,000) and about half (227,000) on Saturday. Readership is about half too: 566,000 Monday—Friday and 720,000 on Saturdays, according to Audit Bureau figures.
So the driver of this week’s move was re-attaching Age readers who’ve let their subscription lapse, or who hated the unwieldy broadsheet.
Value for money journalism? Not for Ted it’s not
Fairfax management insist the papers will hold to broadsheet values and resist “tabloid” comparisons. The change of size is not a shift downmarket, says editorial director Garry Linnell.
However, to make the change work in its favour, Fairfax needs a boost from the switchover and this means competing with Murdoch papers in both Sydney and Melbourne.
Luckily, or perhaps with a hint of “intelligent design” behind it, the re-launch of The Age coincided with a big Herald Sun splash: “SECRET TAPES BOMBSHELL”.
Monday was a big news day in Melbourne and the Herald Sun scoop certainly out-shone a rather lacklustre front-page on The Age.
Ted Baillieu’s office was caught in the soft light of late-night office politics. The Premier’s office was implicated in a scandal. This was tabloid gold for the Herald Sun and a great scoop. On Tuesday, Baillieu tried to ride out the storm; but his inept handling of the tapes affair was to be a disaster.
The Age was playing catch-up and had a reasonable scoop of its own on Tuesday, broadly implicating some of the key players in the week’s unfolding Liberal Party dramas. Potential future leader, Matthew Guy, was implicated in a cash-for-comment style fund-raising scheme.
Despite good work by Baker and McKenzie, Tuesday belonged to the Herald Sun; just for the front page headline alone: “PREMIER’S MEN PROBED”.
The Hun also showed why it is the nation’s top-selling tabloid. It is perhaps (along with its Sydney stablemate, The Telegraph) the closest we have to the infamous British red-tops. The “PROBED” headline says it all.
This week, The Age has certainly done a good job with the 20 or so news pages at the front of the book. In this it is competing with the Herald Sun very well. With more international news and a daily Arts news section, The Age will give some readers what they are looking for.
The new format also seems to be working with newspaper buyers too. There’s been quiet praise for the compact, particularly among commuters.
Bikie wars conquer hump day blues
Wednesday’s comparison is interesting because the Herald Sun chose to go with a sure-fire winner’: a crime and gang violence yarn. “Laura Norder” got a big run with Vicpol’s announcement that it was launching a crackdown on bikie gangs and their criminal connections.
The Hun’s not-so-subtle combination of fear and “Ahh”-factor stories left state politics off the front page.
In contrast, The Age stayed on the Baillieu story with the telling headline “Baillieu ‘one stuff-up’ from leadership fight”.
But the headline gives away one flaw with The Age’s new-look front page. It’s too long and the font is too small.
To continue selling well to buyers who’ve come back or are picking it up out of curiosity, The Age needs to brighten its front page and give more prominence to a good strong headline.
One-term Ted the real victim this week
It was the dramatic events of Wednesday evening that brought the Herald Sun and The Age closer than they had been in a long time. Premier Baillieu is the biggest loser out of this week’s newspaper battles.
Both newsrooms had about six hours to put together coverage for Thursday morning. I’d say both did a reasonable job. Liberal sources were not going on the record and the party room has so far maintained solidarity. This meant that there was little new material to go on.
Neither paper gained much advantage from Wednesday night. On Thursday The Age had seven pages of news coverage of Baillieu; the Hun had nine, if you count Andrew Bolt’s column.
The ‘bikie war’ was now deep into the newsbook in both papers.
Ted Baillieu’s resignation leveled the playing field in Melbourne this week; though the Herald Sun can rightly claim the Premier’s scalp.
Friday’s papers were evenly matched again with their follow-ups. Rogue MP Geoff Shaw was front page news. It was his defection from the Liberal party room that triggered Baillieu’s resignation. Now it seems he wants some sweetners before he agrees to support the new Premier Dennis Napthine.
All in all, The Age can be pleased with its performance this week. It may not have won many battles of the front page, but it seems that the compact may be popular. The question is: Can Fairfax Media sustain its numbers in coming weeks and months?
Lose the battle, win the war?
Win or lose the headline wars this week, The Age cannot be complacent. The real strategy behind the move to compact formats for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald is three-fold and it’s all about money.
The broadsheet format simply became too expensive. Paper costs, printing costs, delivery all added up to a giant hole in the Fairfax bottom line.
The newsrooms were expensive to run too. The recent round of redundancies will eventually help cut long-term costs, but the short-term hit to both finances (payouts can be costly) and to productivity and morale in the newsroom will take their toll.
The company is also rebranding itself; it’s not just about newspapers with digital bells and whistles. Fairfax Media sees itself as a multiplatform digital information and entertainment provider.
Fairfax wants its news operation be a whole-of-market value proposition for advertisers and to do that it has to appeal to eyeballs in hardcopy and across as many screens as possible.
An exclusive sport story can then appear in both Sydney and Melbourne papers with minimum fuss and effort.
The rebranding of Fairfax Media is also about the future company paywall. It has already signaled this is coming in the not too distant future.
The paywall is the real game
The re-launch of The Age and SMH as compacts is part of a digital strategy. The papers will never compete with their Murdoch cousins in terms of street sales and on-the-paper eyeballs.
Instead, the purpose has to be to turn the casual and returning readers of the hard-copy into subscribers. That way, for the time being at least, there is a guaranteed rate of eyeballs across all Fairfax Media news properties. This will boost advertising revenues (it is hoped) and stave off the inevitable reduction in Monday-to-Friday newspaper coverage.
Another potential hurdle in Fairfax’s way is the imminent launch of The Guardian in Australia. The digital-only local edition is being backed by Graeme Wood, who also launched The Global Mail just over a year ago. The Guardian is a good brand and Woods says he aims to make money out of his investment. I’m sure some of it will come from Fairfax advertisers. That too, could be an interesting story.