In Conversation with Erik Jensen: full transcript

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

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. It’s hoping that the best way to aid an industry that is struggling is to find a better business case for that industry, but it’s a paper based on numbers. It’s a paper that is very 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 various numbers to see how this paper will work. The key number in there is 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.

There’s obviously a tipping point for that where that cost is based and we have to sell a certain number of copies. The expectation is based on a certain number of sales but if we hit that, and I think those numbers are quite modest, then it’s a paper that works fundamentally differently to other newspapers that must use advertising to offset the cost of production instead of using the cover price to do that.

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 and 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.

I’m saying we’ll do one particular thing well, and that thing is long-form journalism. There is a story mix there, we do have lifestyle content, culture content, but what we don’t have is the difficulty of an audience we don’t understand, if that makes sense. We’re looking at a paper that has conceived itself around a particular archetype and everything it does is to serve that archetype. And so we can do less in many respects.

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.

To get to that number, we’re saying we’d sell fewer than other newspapers except the Australian Financial Review, which I think is about 64,000 on the weekend. But if you look at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian, we only have to sell a small proportion of what they’re selling to be doing okay financially.

Bill Birnbauer: So you’re not relying on advertising to the extent of mainstream weekend papers? You’re relying on sales.

Erik Jensen: I wouldn’t say we’re relying on sales, I’m saying the title could work on sales although we’ve had huge take up and positive feedback from advertisers and so obviously that adds to the mix financially. But the advertising market is less predictable than the print buying audience.

Bill Birnbauer: Do you hope to sell by subscription, pick-up sales or both?

Erik Jensen: Certainly we’re offering both and we’ll probably have more pick-up sales than The Monthly would. The Monthly has a large subscriber base. I think there would be an older reader that would subscribe to a newspaper like this, but coming out on a Saturday makes it something some could pick up on the way to breakfast.

Bill Birnbauer: Where is it being printed?

Erik Jensen: It’s being printed in Ballarat for our Victorian copies, the New South Wales and ACT copies are printed in Richmond. And they’re distributed on IPS (Integrated Publication Solutions) trucks, which are Fairfax’s trucks.

Bill Birnbauer: And a website?

Erik Jensen: There is a website and a really lovely app for tablet and mobile. In terms of how we deal with the internet, and I think it’s an important thing to talk about, is that this paper, although it’s foremost a print newspaper, takes as its very first tenet that the internet is there.

That is the idea from which we work backwards. The internet is there and it does a number of things terrifically well, and those things are market results, rolling reports, breaking news, those sorts of things.

Instead of getting into a panic as many newspapers have about competing with that cycle, we have to jam the gears on that cycle and make what we do fundamentally different. If you read us, hopefully you’re getting a definitive account because the time has passed sufficiently to get that definitive account and the story itself may have some kind of borders at that point.

The story will hopefully be enclosed and can be finished up at the time we’re writing and so having decided to do that, when we go to put our content online we’re very focused on edition-based publishing. That’s partly because I think the homepage is dying for sites of all kinds, especially media sites. While some legacy titles will remain a place for people to go just because it’s the New York Times a lot of our traffic will be social traffic.

You look at Quartz, The Atlantic’s digital-only offering, and 50% of the traffic is social and so the datestamp of stories becomes less important and what is shared is the quality of the story itself. If we’re putting a story up first thing Saturday morning and it’s just as important on the following Thursday there’s no point in having to shift it along.

So while we will do some content that is produced particularly and especially for the internet, most of what we do will be saying our content can work though the week and we need to find ways of making it as shareable as possible, to build as social an audience as possible.

Bill Birnbauer: Is there a paywall to that?

Erik Jensen: A metered paywall is on the site, the app is always payed.

Bill Birnbauer: What does that translate to?

Erik Jensen: We’re still playing with precisely how many articles will be free, but everything will be free. There won’t be locked and open content.

Bill Birnbauer: How about 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 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 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: Can you break down the staff? How many staff editors, reporters and photographers?

Erik Jensen: There’s obviously a deputy editor and a production editor, then two more copy editors, then the rest are reporters.

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 publically 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.

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, that 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.

Bill Birnbauer: Newspapers have been notoriously bad in identifying the interests of their readers. I know attending editorial conferences editors will say “that’s a great story” based on no evidence at all, based not on what they’re getting from the readership.

So how do you intend to stay tuned to what readers’ actual needs for information actually are?

Erik Jensen: Part of this goes back to what I was saying earlier about the disparate nature of newspaper audiences. Conventionally, newspapers have had really different readers and that’s why newspapers were so large, because perhaps only 10% of the paper was of interest to any one particular reader, and that really scatters resources.

But it also scatters thinking in an editorial sense. I think we’ll have a much more focused reader, and it allows us to pick at what might interest that reader with some greater accuracy. I think that reader is a specific kind of person that I can more or less conjure up.

I remember being in editorial conferences at Fairfax myself, where there were obviously competing and not always properly resolved interests around what made a story and how that story was best told and what was even possible in the telling of that story – I think having one editor and having Chris Feik from Black Inc and John van Tiggelen from The Monthly and Morry himself probably allows us to also be clearer about what we want in the paper.

I think there’s another thing that the internet has done to print newspapers. It’s made them quite nervous about what is right and what is wrong. There is sometimes a lack of clarity of purpose around these papers, whether they should be going down market or up market.

We’ve just decided to say we’re upmarket. We don’t have the space for trivial stories, we don’t have the space to do petty stories, we don’t have the space to do trash, but we also accept there will be readers who aren’t interested in what we do. We’re a niche product with mass market aspirations.

Bill Birnbauer: I have a picture of the types of stories that will be covered, but perhaps you can explain it?

Erik Jensen: One other thing that print does really well is edit things back. The internet is a huge knowledgeable morass, a newspaper says to you: these are the key pieces of the week, and while we’ll give them to you in greater depth than anyone else will, we’ll give you fewer of them. Part of our job is to interpret the week for people.

The question then is what sorts of stories will we do. The fact is that they will be the big stories of the week, there’s five big domestic stories each week, quite often one will be a business story, each week always one will be a political story – perhaps more than one will be a political story. But then crime stories, that in the broad sweep of things less important to the fabric of the nation, are still important for the mix of the paper.

I really want to see narrative journalism in a way that allows stories the complexity that they deserve, but that also gives readers the joy of reading. Just as often as we break news, we’ll be read for our writing and part of that is having looked, as we put this together, at what other newspapers are doing both here and overseas.

The most marked thing in my mind is narrative has just dropped out of the pages of newspapers and this is one of the most funamental tools in storytelling and it doesn’t seem to be there as often as it should be.

What we’re saying is that not only will that always be there in our news stories, but in our lifestyle content. A fashion story needs a literary narrative just as much as a crime story or a political one does. Even if there’s a dry government report out, it will require work to make it a piece of narrative journalism. You can’t simply write something about the contents of that report.

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. There is as much reworking of stories and looking for other angles to stories that have already broken elsewhere as there is unique reporting in most daily newspapers. 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.

A big and important part of what we do will be taking stories that are done elsewhere that are probably not given the space and time they deserve and treating them in a new light. Whenever you get to tell the entirety of the story and look for holes in the narrative and do all those sorts of things you end up breaking news. You might not have broken the story, but you will break more news inside the story.

Bill Birnbauer: As well as the narrative, would you run a 2,000 word news story?

Erik Jensen: No, I am obviously an enormous fan of the narrative journalism that seemed to flower everywhere in the 60s at Esquire and elsewhere. It’s done less now than it was done then, and I’d like to see it done again, and I really think there was never an indication from readers that they weren’t interested in that stuff, it was just expensive and newspapers closed the door on it.

Having writers tied up for two weeks on a story didn’t seem like the best idea, when in actual fact I think it’s the fundamental purpose of a newspaper and exactly what that writer should be doing.

Bill Birnbauer: To produce those types of story takes a reasonably high level of skill, because you’re using all the fundamentals of journalism but you’re adding another skill which not all journalists possess. Is that kind of talent available on a sustainable basis?

Erik Jensen: Yes. The Monthly has been running for eight years and has never been short of contributions and does the kind of narrative journalism we talked about. About 500 people applied for jobs at the paper and there were a lot of very good ones in there, so I’m entirely confident of that.

In fact I feel a little foolish as editor that I have such a wealth of writers that I really just need to choose which stories to run and whack them in the paper, and with that alone I’d have a pretty good paper. So I’m feeling reasonably privileged on that score.

Bill Birnbauer: There are suggestions that you’re looking at least to a few left-leaning, social justice stories. Are the conservative elements of the readership going to be dismayed, or happy?

Erik Jensen: We’re looking at a very straight up and down newspaper. The one niche that we have is long-form quality journalism, the other niche being neglected by newspapers is straight up and down reporting. I’m really not interested in putting together a left-wing newspaper, nor am I interested in putting together a right-wing one. We have conservative writers for the paper.

Bill Birnbauer: Columnists?

Erik Jensen: Both reporters and columnists. Likewise there are writers who are traditionally progressive. I’m more interested in right and wrong than left and right and I think if I get batted up a feature that’s absolutely leftist I’d probably hit it off to the side.

The other thing about the kind of reporting we’re after is that I think it’s very hard to put together left wing propaganda if you have to tell the entirety of the story, I think it’s very hard to put together any kind of propaganda.

Bill Birnbauer: Isn’t it how other people interpret it rather than something very deliberate?

Erik Jensen: That is very true. People tend to think narrative journalism is left-wing. I don’t understand why that is but they just think if something strays too long all of a sudden a communist must be involved.

The other part of that is that it is hard to find very good conservative writers. I’ve, for two years looking for them, been troubling over why this should be and I think a part of it is that good writing requires empathy and a certain amount of empathy often turns people progressive. That’s why the arts, so requiring of empathy as they are, are often peopled by progressives.

Bill Birnbauer: So you think right-wing conservatives have no empathy?

Erik Jensen: I don’t think that. As you know there are very good right-wing writers. I think Paul Sheehan is a terrific columnist, he’s obviously conservative, but he can write better than most people and most newspapers.

Bill Birnbauer: Morry Schwartz, how much editorial input will he have?

Erik Jensen: Morry is incredibly hands on, but not at all interventionist.

Bill Birnbauer: Hands on but not interventionist?

Erik Jensen: He’s in the office all the time, I can talk to Morry all the time about the ideas I have for the paper, but at the same time he’s allowed me to sit here and put together the newspaper I want to put together and I don’t see that changing once we start putting editions out.

Morry’s also been in publishing for 40 years and is a Catherine Wheel of terrific ideas and a real asset of all editorial conferences, because many of the good ideas that have made his career in publishing have come directly from him and I think that will continue to be the case. He has a real knack of knowing which stories will be interesting, which stories will captivate people quite ahead of time.

He’s also – which I think is rare in most publishers, certainly rare in my experience elsewhere – he’s very good at understanding what is possible and what is not in a story. Some non-journalist publishers think that you can get ASIO files at a drop of a hat and you can’t. There are limits to reporting and Morry is very aware of those, which I think is a great mix. A knack for what is interesting and what could be hidden, but also that understanding that some things that sound great in editorial conference just don’t work.

Bill Birnbauer: How does the relationship work? Does he have veto power? Because it’s an unusual relationship being so close to a publisher. Would he be able to pull stories?

Erik Jensen: We haven’t discussed it simply because we work close enough that I’d be surprised if a story is being pulled. A story Morry would be inclined to pull, if he were to do that, would be one that isn’t up to scratch. And I’d be surprised if I was running it in the first instance.

If there is a column that holds a position that is not Morry’s and not mine – which can often be the case with a column – we’ll run the column if it makes its argument well.

Bill Birnbauer: Robert Manne, is he involved?

Erik Jensen: Robert will, I hope, be a contributor to the paper. I really value Robert’s voice. I think he truly is one of the fearless commentators in this country and one of the clearest thinkers, particulary when it comes to the complex issues of power. He will be an asset on the paper and a voice I would be very happy to see as often as I can.

Bill Birnbauer: Will he attend conferences?

Erik Jensen: I want editorial conference to be very open, so if any of our contributors are in the office I want them to come. Likewise I want the stable of editors from The Monthly to drop through those conferences. Obviously I will be making editorial decisions for the paper, but the more ideas in editorial conference the better the outcomes.

Bill Birnbauer: How long have you got the job for?

Erik Jensen: Until I screw up. Look, there isn’t a contract with an end point on it and I hope to have the job for a very long time, after two years of the great pleasure and privilege that is conceiving a newspaper in the image I wished a newspaper would be in.

After my first five, six, seven years at The Sydney Morning Herald always grumbling about what was in the newspaper, and finally having a chance to say this is what I think should be, I hope I am right after all that grumbling.

The Saturday Paper will launch March 1st.

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