Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Belshaw's World: Armidale’s failure to sell itself

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 22 April 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

I can understand why Armidale people were upset at the city’s failure to make the top town list. I too was upset. It was a sufficiently silly result to throw doubts on the whole judging process.

I may have been upset, but I wasn’t surprised.

Growing up in Armidale, I expected people to know where the city was and indeed most did. Located in what was then widely seen as some of Australia’s most spectacular scenery, this was Australia’s only university city. It was also the centre of a rich wool district when Australia still rode on the sheep’s back, the capital in waiting for those fighting for New England self-government, the educational hub for a wide area.

The New State Movement alone generated more press coverage for Armidale than the city achieves today in total. As one of Sydney’s local parochial dailies, the Sydney Morning Herald’s coverage was hardly sympathetic, but the coverage was there.

Today, very few people actually know where Armidale is. The city has dropped below the radar.

Every pillar that once supported Armidale’s prominent position has declined in importance or even vanished. Just to list a few.

The Great Northern Railway has gone. The Pacific Highway has replaced the New England Highway as the main north-south road. New university centres have arisen. Boarding has declined in importance, assisted by Queensland government subsidies that at one blow stripped Armidale’s schools of their country Queensland boarders.

Too far from Sydney or Brisbane to attract the day or weekend visitors that have helped places such as Orange or the Lower Hunter build tourist traffic, Armidale has become something of a backwater.

The changes in Australia that have made Armidale a backwater will continue.

Last year Australia accepted a record number of migrants. Less well recognised, we also lost a record number of Australians through emigration. In combination, these changes were so big that roughly one current Australian resident in fifty did not live in this country twelve months ago.

This column is not about immigration. I support Australia’s immigration program.

My point is that most of these new residents have absolutely no knowledge of Armidale, nor are they likely to get it at present.

We cannot turn the clock back. We have to find new ways of responding.

I do not think that Armidale does a very good job in selling itself, a failure not assisted by the fiasco of Tourism NSW’s two brand solution.

Part of the problem lies in confusion in messages, between the need to promote Armidale as a place to live while also promoting the city as a tourism destination.

I think that the Thrive campaign, in conjunction with things such as Armidale’s participation in Country Week, has actually done a reasonably good job in presenting the city as a good place to live.

The problem is that the things that make Armidale a good place to live are not the things that attract visitors, nor do they assist the city to differentiate itself, to find a place within the increasingly complex Australian mosaic.

The fact that I can get good coffee in Armidale, attend a play or listen to some music may help me decide to live there. However, it is not going to make me want to visit. I can find all those things elsewhere.

One of the remarkable things of the last five years is the way Melbourne has re-branded itself as a European city.

In using the word European I am not talking ethnicity, but culture and life style.

For a number of complicated reasons many Australians, and especially the young, have fallen in love with Europe. Melbourne has ridden this wave with perfection, creating acute distress for Sydney’s current Lord Mayor.

In my next column I will look at the lessons Armidale might draw from Melbourne.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Around the New England press - week ending 24 April 2009

I have been all over the place in posting terms, with the result that none of my part completed posts have made the light of day. I can only promise to try to do better!

As part of my reading, I have been browsing round the on-line editions of various New England newspapers. I do this all the time to keep in touch. However, I thought that I might start sharing some of this with you on a weekly basis.

In Grafton, Council has been looking at the best way to redevelop the waterfront area. My suggestion: please focus more on the city's history as a major port. You make damn all use of this.

Further south in Kempsey, judging is underway for the Miss Show Girl competition. That takes me back. One of the more pleasant tasks that I once had to perform was judging the same competition at Walcha. I do love country shows. Some have struggled in recent years, but we would all be poorer for their absence.

Port Macquarie has been having problems in getting its new hospital beyond the blue print stage, despite promises. Tamworth, too, appears to be in a similar position. In all, a bit of a mess.

The latest population statistics suggest that Maitland is NSW's fastest growing inland city.

Inland? Look I may be wrong, but if my memory serves me correctly Maitland is, what, 40 minutes from the sea? If Maitland is inland, then Penrith is outback.

There is actually a very serious issue here, the way in which changing official definitions affect the way we see things. They have got to the point that they have become a very serious distortion.

Still at Newcyellow bellied sea snakeastle, the discovery of a live yellow bellied snake washed ashore sent shudders down my spine. This is a seriously venomous snake.

Fortunately, this is a rare thing. Still, if the sea does warm in the way projected, it does worry me just what things might move south.   

In Cessnock, the Member for Cessnock, Kerry Hickey, has welcomed an announcement by NSW Premier Nathan Rees that just over $3.5 million is being invested in Cessnock to upgrade 1149 social housing homes.

This was a somewhat belated response to an earlier announcement by NSW Premier Reece that the Government would spend $48 million on upgrading social housing in the Hunter Valley. 

It's quite complicated from my perspective because Sydney has not, to my knowledge, released details of the total pattern of spend on the various Rudd Government packages at local level. This makes it very hard to assess total New England impacts.  

Moving inland and north, there was concern in Tenterfield  with the level of homelessness, with 64 homeless, twice the national average. I have noticed that release of this data at local level has generated a number of stories in the New England media.

Putting my professional hat on, one of the messages that I have tried to get across is the need in official policy to consider relative as well as absolute measures.

We live in a world of performance measures. This means that with something like homelessness, targets get set like reducing the absolute level of homelessness by x or y. The best way to do this is to focus on big numbers.

A big population area may have a large number of homeless even though relative homelessness is well below the average. Once absolute targets are set, policy makers focus on the big numbers. Places such as Tenterfield with just 64 homeless miss out even though the local need is in fact far greater.

I do not have a solution to this, beyond the constant need to localise when looking at the real impacts of policy.

More from the New England media next week.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Pleistocene New England’s 10,000 year cold snap

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 15 April 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

My last column covered the likely first period of Aboriginal occupation of New England from around 40,000 years ago. This period ended with dramatic climate change affecting every aspect of life.

From perhaps 25,000 years ago Sahul, the name given to the continent that then included Tasmania, the Australia mainland and New Guinea, became very dry, both intensely hot and intensely cold. This climatic regime peaked during what is called the Last Glacial Maximum, 21,000 to 15,000 years ago.

The sea retreated to perhaps 120 metres below current levels. It became colder, 2-4 degrees C below current levels. On land, mean monthly temperatures probably fell by 6-10 degrees C. Extensive inland dune building suggests that the climate became much windier.

New England’s coastal strip grew as the sea retreated. The sclerophyll woodland and deciduous forests would have progressively colonised the new land, with the coastal dunes and associated wetlands following the shifting coast east. While colder and drier, there was sufficient food and water to maintain populations.

The Tablelands were very different. There average temperatures fell by perhaps 8 degrees C. A region of cold steppe and scattered sub-alpine woodland began in New England, sweeping down through the southern Snowy Mountains into Tasmania.

In the southern Snowy Mountains, the fall in temperature was sufficient to allow glaciers to form despite the lower precipitation.

In New England, the higher portions of the Tablelands in the centre and south where average heights are around 1,300 metres must have been very cold, dry and windswept. Along New England’s Snowy Mountains where the highest peak (Round Mountain) is almost 1,600 metres, there were probably blizzards and semi-permanent snow despite the much lower precipitation.

It seems likely that any previous human occupation of the Tablelands would have come to an end, although people may still have visited the lower areas.

To the west, the slopes and plains experienced cold arid conditions probably similar to modern Patagonia. The lower slopes were probably grassland with spring herbs and scattered patches of woodland and forests. Further west, the often dry streams crossed arid plains. Human occupation would have retreated to places with secure water supplies.

These changes took millennia and would not have been noticeable to individual generations. However, the long term effects on the human population were almost certainly severe.

While we can surmise this, the absence of archaeological evidence makes it hard to define the precise effects.

We know that there was Aboriginal occupation of the coastal strip, given that the Wallen Wallen site in South East Queensland shows continuous occupation from 20,000 years ago, a date in the earlier part the Late Glacial Maximum. Other coastal sites that might have given us clues are now deep under water.

It is reasonable to assume that any occupation on at least the majority of the Tablelands ceased. But what happened further west?

With diminished rainfall but also lower temperatures, it seems likely that there were areas on the Western Slopes and Plains that would have continued to provide sufficient water and food to maintain life. Why, then, is there still no archaeological record?

Assuming that the area was populated, the pattern of sites would have reflected then on-ground conditions. Many of the sites would have been camping sites, not easily identifiable beyond lithic scatter. Other sites would have reflected the past location of permanent water.

My feeling is that we need to chart what the landscape was like then to identify possible sites. However, it may be that the landscape has changed so much that we will never know.

As the long cold spell of the Last Glacial Maximum came to an end, New England entered a new period of dramatic geographic and climatic change. But that’s again a matter for another column.

Note on Sources: The material in this and the previous column is largely drawn from John Mulvaney & Johan Kamminga, Prehistory of Australia, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 1999.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Gordon Smith's views of Bellingen

I was reading an official document a day or so ago and I read a description of Bellingen as a declining community lacking services. I wonder if Bellingen people would share that view?

I spoke of Bellingen and the Bellinger valley in Saturday's post,  Distant memories of a now vanished North Coast - Bellingen. In some ways, Bellingen is like a town time forgot, but it is much more than that.

Consider the following picture by the inimitable Gordon smith of the old Hammond & Wheatley Department Store located in Bellingen’s main street. Magnificent, isn't it?20090329-14-12-05-bellingen--inside-old-department-store

I described Bellingen as a town time forgot because it's distance from the coast preserved things lost elsewhere. That is also the reason why Bellingen has become such a centre of alternative life styles, something of a cultural hub.

Long may it continue.  And so may Gordon's photos!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Distant memories of a now vanished North Coast - Bellingen

Gruner The Bellingen River

This painting by Elioth Gruner (1882 - 1939) shows the Bellinger River stretching back towards the escarpment.

Gruner in fact called the river Bellingen, but the river itself is the Bellinger, the main town on the river is called Bellingen.

The Bellinger Valley is one of the most beautiful river valleys in New England, although most travellers on the coastal Pacific Highway never get to see the true beauty.

I do not know how many times I have been through Bellingen over the years, but it is a lot.

The road from Dorrigo down the escarpment was always a fascinating trial, especially when still dirt. Narrow and winding, the way was often blocked by timber jinkers sometimes carrying a huge single log.

These were seriously big trees.

The Alma Doepel was launched into the Bellinger River in 1903. Hard to believe looking at the river at Bellingen now that an ocean going sailing ship could be launched there. Even then, the river had to be dredged for the launch. 300px-Alma_Doepel_Australia

The keel of the Alma Doepel measured 14 inches by 6 inches (35.5 x 150 cm) and is 100 feet (30.5m) long and was cut from half a tree. The ship survives today and can be visited at her moorings at Port Macquarie.

The road from Dorrigo really enters the Bellinger Valley as you cross the bridge at Thora. Suddenly, the Valley begins to open out. The river here is low, wandering over the stones.

Soon after after Thora on the left was a farm house belonging to the family of a university friend. This was perched on high ground, a very necessary location.

The Bellinger River here seems so small and peaceful. However, the Dorrigo mountain is one of the wettest parts of New England. Sometimes the cyclonic systems coming south from Queensland can dump huge amounts of rain in very short time.

One year we were staying at Sawtell on the coast near Coffs Harbour. A cyclone was coming. It was wet and drizzling as we walked along the beach with large but very choppy waves. There was no one else on the beach.

We walked into the water, but only up to our ankles. Even then, the rip threatened to tear our feet from under us.

That night the heavens opened. At Dorrigo, there were 24 inches (610mm) in 24 hours. Walking in the rain on the beach next day, we found that the high sand dunes had been turned into sharply edged cliffs by the waves. The Bellinger rose and rose, spreading out across the coastal plains.

A few days later we had to drive home. The river had dropped, but the country was still sodden. I had just got my driver's license, and was driving for practice. The car slipped and slipped in the wet mud. We were going so slowly that my father finally took over the driving. 20090329-13-30-30-bellingen--the-chess-players

Bellingen itself was a quiet rural service centre, a place where the wooden buildings in the main centre crowded close to the road.

This quietness saved Bellingen. Down on the coast itself, the later development wiped out a lot of the past. Not so in Bellingen.

Unscarred by development, located in a beautiful river valley, Bellingen became a centre for alternative life styles. This is the Bellingen of Pip Wilson.

This photo by the inimitable Gordon Smith is simply called Bellingen: the chess players.It captures one aspect of Bellingen today.       

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Distant memories of a now vanished North Coast - Introduction

Ocean View hotel Urunga

This photo shows the Ocean View Hotel at Urunga. It was built in 1927 and then was a big hotel. I stayed there as a young child.

Lynne and I have been exchanging comments about the Urunga floods. It made me realise how much even Urunga had changed.

I have been writing a lot of serious stuff recently. I thought that it might be fun to write a series of personal memoirs about the old coast before it vanished for ever. I am an inland person, but I remember the old North Coast.

Why is it that the flats we later stayed in in Urunga were called the New England Flats? Why do the flats in a Yamba Street carry the names of Tablelands' stations from the Armidale area? Why do people in Grafton today not remember when Grafton was the great river port? What was it like to be university student when your friends were nearly all the first in their families to attend university? And what was surf music like at Coffs Harbour?

Dorrigo Road This photo shows one of the waterfalls crossing the road down the Dorrigo mountain during the recent floods. Even now, heavy rain can quickly destroy road connections.

When I first travelled this road on my way to that holiday in Urunga with my aunts, there was not a single tarred road between the Tablelands and the coast.

Past the dingo gate on the Grafton/Dorrigo road the country changed. This was a rugged world, one where P A Wright, my grandfather and others fought to create what would become the New England National Park. This was a world in which my my Aunts sheltered from a snowstorm at a little bush nursing centre.

The bush was close, to be enjoyed even by those who lived there on a regular basis. This was a world far removed from modern urban Australia.

This photo from cousin Jamie's collection shows the Drummond family camping at Jock's Water near Ebor in 1931. It's not what you would call a modern Camping at Jock's Water Ebor December 1931camp site.

Past Ebor, the road entered the rolling green hills of the Dorrigo Plateau before plunging down the mountain to the coast.

I am an inland person. I find the modern obsession with the narrow edge of the coast absolutely boring and personally incomprehensible. We may as well pack all of the Australian population off to live in the narrow beach strip between the waterline and adjoining sand dunes. Yet I find the New England coastal zone as a whole intensely fascinating.

I might see if I can bring this alive.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Introducing Pleistocene New England

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 8 April 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

Over the last week or so my train reading has been dominated by Australian prehistory, the long expanse of human occupation of this continent prior to the arrival of the Europeans.

When I first studied under Isabel McBryde very little was known. That was fun in itself, because we were dealing with a clean slate, every thing was new.

This period was also fun for me because our small group got to travel round the countryside in four wheel drive vehicles.

On major digs such as Seelands, Wombah or Graman we usually camped or stayed in old homesteads or shearers huts.

At Wombah on the banks of the Clarence we were excavating an old midden.

Facing the river, the site was just to the right of the camp. This consisted of a trailer in which we did much of the cooking, then further on our tents. At night we built big fires and sat around after dinner smoking, yarning and singing. Ghost stories provided suitably chilling material.

Once a week we would all pack into the vehicles and drive to a caravan park. There the four wheel drives would disgorge big-booted, hat wearing, unshaven in the case of the men and generally quite smelly people. Onlookers sometimes responded with the type of reactions bikies receive today!

The wonders of a hot shower, a shave and clean clothes are hard to describe properly.

The date at which Aboriginal people may have reached the area that would be variously called Northern New South Wales, the North, Northern Districts or just New England is very much open to question.

The earliest date I presently know of in New England itself comes from a dig by Graham Connor at Stuarts Point in the Macleay Valley. This places human occupation at 9,320 +/- 160BP. Further north in coastal South-East Queensland, the Wallen Wallen Creek site shows continuous occupation from about 20,000 years ago.

Despite these dates, my present working hypothesis is that the first Aboriginal colonisers might have arrived as early as 40,000 years ago.

We know from dating at Warren Cave in Tasmania that the Aborigines had reached Tasmania around 35,000 years ago, while dates from Willandra Lakes in South West New South Wales suggest occupation as early as 41-40,000 years ago. Given these dates, a working date of 40,000 years ago for settlement may be early but still seems not unreasonable.

What type of world did they find? It was quite a benign environment at this time.

Sea levels fluctuated greatly during the long Pleistocene period.

Forty thousand years ago, they were perhaps 50 metres below current levels, creating a broader coastal plain. Rainfall was high, temperatures moderate. Rivers running east and west from the Tablelands would have carried substantial volumes of water.

In the east, this would have led to progradation, with significant river estuaries, coastal dunes and marshes. It seems likely that the larger coastal strip was thickly wooded and at least as rich in marine and land resources as today. In the west, the rivers and associated wet lands would also have provided a rich environment.

The position on the Tablelands is unclear because so much of the analysis that I have seen deals with later periods. I suspect that the Tablelands were wooded and at least visited by surrounding groups.

The size and distribution of the early Aboriginal population is obviously unknown since at this stage we have yet to prove that they even existed!

My own feeling is that it was probably much smaller, but mirrored the pattern at the time the Europeans arrived; higher concentrations on the coast and on the western slopes and immediate plains, sparse on the Tablelands.

From around 36,000 years ago, the climate became cooler and drier. The cooler temperatures offset the lower rainfall by reduced evaporation; the streams, lakes and wetlands of inland New England therefore retained their water, providing a continued base for Aboriginal occupation.

The, from perhaps 25,000 years ago, the environment deteriorated quite dramatically. The story of this dramatic change will be the subject of another column.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Pause for reflection

I must say that I am quite fagged out this morning, not really feeling like writing anything. I had intended to follow up The importance of the local press - why it's lost it's way with a further post extending the argument, but after all the writing I have done recently I really don't feel like intense thought.

Still, in all this I did complete and email my next Express column, as well as finishing a major post Sunday and now Monday Essay - personal reflections on Australia's Indigenous peoples on Personal Reflections. When you come to think about it, that's 5,500 or so words over the weekend. Quite a lot.

For a number of reasons I am writing as hard as I can just at present. I write on many topics because that's the way I'm built. I am interested in a lot of things.

One of our cats just came and sat on my lap. Poor Avenger, that name is a real misnomer, has been upset since we moved. Now he is sitting on my foot!

I am quite excited about my writing at the moment because I seem to be making progress. It's still hard because I have so little real time, but I begin to feel that I am getting there, at least in spots.

I write because I have too, but I also try to write with purpose.

Part of it lies in capturing my own slice of the past. This will be lost if no-one records it. Part of it lies in my continued belief in certain causes, in the desire to improve things.

I don't know how many more years I have to write. I am frightened some times that if I die things will be lost. In that event, I know that I am unlikely to care. However, I care now. 

I like to think that by year's end I will have my first rough draft of a history of New England in place. Even if rough, I can ensure that copies are in place elsewhere for later use.     

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The importance of the local press - why it's lost it's way

During the week, newmatilda carried an advance story on a radio program that aired this morning on ABC discussing the perceived decline in quality journalism. This discussion is part of a broader discussion on the decline of the newspaper press, especially in the US.

I think that the newspaper press is very important, especially to local communities. I also think that the media in general, the press in particular, has lost its way. I am using this post to tease out some of the issues.

I want to start with a series of apparently disconnected points.

Consider the ninemsn web site. Shallow, isn't it? It's been losing market share for some time because it lacks content. 

Last February, one of Australia's most famous magazines, the Bulletin, closed because it was losing money. A story at the time said:

A spokeswoman for PBL Media confirmed that the The Bulletin's website will not continue either. An insider said the website cannot stand alone as a profitable enterprise.

How dumb can you get. In one blow, they closed not just a main source of content, but also an on-line expression that had real traction. The key issue to my mind was to find the best way of integrating at least the web site into an overall media model.

This brings me to the concept of network economics, a field of economics especially applicable to major systems such as telecommunications networks.

In simple terms, the value of a network comes from the total system. The more people on the system, the greater the value of the network. Such systems tend to be marked by high fixed costs, but rapidly declining variable costs. At the margin, the on-going cost of servicing a new customer may in fact be zero.

Now think about the job sites such as Seek. The cost of servicing a new job applicant is very low, close to zero. The cash cost to the job searcher is zero. This obviously attracts people to the site.

But the site also has to attract jobs. So it needs employers or their agents to place jobs on the site. To this end, prices are set low. Print newspapers are the losers. Yet the web sites also still depend upon newspapers to provide job ads. Without them, their costs of servicing job providers would be higher. So there is still an uneasy symbiotic relationship.   

The story does not end here.

Some newspapers, I have Rural Press in mind, have responded in quite a clever way. If you place a job ad in, say, the Northern Daily Leader in Tamworth, it also appears in other regional media such as The Armidale Express and on the on-line site My Career. This increases job coverage in the Express, but  also gives My Career an edge over Seek whose coverage of non-metro jobs is quite poor.

Extending my argument, I access a lot of newspaper web sites. I also read print copies. The two serve quite different needs.

If you look at the Sydney Morning Herald web site, it has far more content than ninemsn. This holds true for other TV news sites, including the Al Jazeera English language site. I use the Al Jazeera site quite a bit, but it generally takes me less than ten minutes to scan the whole site.

Yet even with the on-line edition of the Herald with its greater content, it rarely takes me more than ten to fifteen minutes to exhaust new content. By contrast, the print edition of the same paper has far greater content.

There are practical reasons for this. As a rough rule of thumb, one that I break all the time, content on web page has to be limited to around 60% of the equivalent printed page. It is simply harder to read a screen than a printed page.

So printed papers offer significant advantages. However, this has not stopped their circulation decline in many places. Noticeably, the decline has been less in Australia.

This brings me to another issue, the nature of the distribution system.

Despite the continuing attacks over time by Professor Fells and others on the newsagency system as anti-competitive, it has made newspapers readily available in a way not seen in some other places. Even here, as with PBL and the Bulletin, the newspapers are sometimes their own worst enemy.

In Protect newsagents, Michael Gorey traces the decline of the newsagency system. He is right. Some "newsagencies" now have neither newspapers nor, for that matter, books. If the proprietors fail to protect their distribution systems, then they place the survival of their papers under greater threat.

There were several other stories on Michael's blog that bear upon the issues that I am talking about.

Syndicated content talks, as the title suggests, about the rise of syndicated content. Michael's focus is on the Adelaide Advertiser, but it is a broader issue.

I see this all the time in web searches, identical stories across mastheads. You will also see it if you go to, say, the Sydney Morning Herald site and then go to the bottom and look at the stories on other Fairfax papers.

If you think of a print newspaper as a stand-alone business, this makes sense at one level through cost reduction. However, it creates a problem at a second level.

With the exception of the Financial Review and the Australian, all our newspapers are in fact local papers. Here the Sydney Morning Herald or Age are in fact no different than the Moree Champion or Blayney Chronicle. They are bigger and carry a bigger range of news, but the local element is still critical.

The key risk with syndication is that it creates a sameness, while reducing content, local in particular. I will talk a little more about the localisation issue in a moment, but first I want to introduce another post of Michael's.

In Idle speculation on Fairfax, Michael discusses the current problems faced by the Fairfax empire and wonders what they might sell next. Let's tease this out a little.

The newspaper flagships of the empire are the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne's The Age.

If you look at the web sites, you will see that they are almost identical in design. Outside localisation, the only differences between them is the absence of any reference to Fairfax and Fairfax Digital on the Melbourne site.

Oddly, the SMH site carries no reference at all to the Sun-Herald, the Fairfax Sydney Sunday paper. But then, Fairfax is struggling with this paper's role just at present.

You can see on both sites the promotion of and links to the on-line services - Drive, Domain etc - that the empire has been developing as an alternative to the now declining streams of income especially from classified. Again oddly, there is very little cross-promotion for these that I am aware of in the print editions of the paper.

Now click on Fairfax Digital on the SMH site. This carries you through to a listing of various sites and topics. I made the mistake of clicking on the Financial Review. This is pay for view only. Worse, once there, I could not get back to the main site.

In all, I do not think that Fairfax has properly addressed how all these various bits - print and on-line - might fit together. There is no really coherent strategy that I can see. Worse, some elements such as pay for view are actually counter-productive in the way that they are presently structured.

Now if you look again at the SMH web site, you will see that there is no reference at all to regional NSW, notwithstanding the fact that the merger with Rural Press gave Fairfax close to a monopoly position in the print press across large slabs of NSW including much of New England. Again, no cross-linking.

Rural Press still has its own web site, although this has lost focus to some degree. It is not immediately apparent how you find the 160 paper and magazines across Australia. However, if you click on yourguide, tou will find the paper list. Note the sudden re-appearance of the name Fairfax Digital. I wonder what the branding strategy is?

Now here I want to change directions and dig down a bit. The key thing to remember about the local papers in regional NSW is that they occupy a far more important local position than does the SMH itself.

The Newcastle Herald is the major newspaper in the largest urban area in NSW outside Sydney. The first thing to note about the site, and this is true of all Rural Press sites, is that it's quite passive. It is there as a service, but no more.

Unlike the SMH site, and that's not perfect by any means, there is no real reason to visit the site other to check on the latest stories selected for on-line publication. That's good, but it's not enough. The web site is not being addressed as an entity in its own right.

This has become a very long post, and I have barely scratched the surface. Just to summarise to this point.

The two key issues are platform and network economics.

Platform includes both the print version and on-line editions. Network economics refers to the way in which economics are affected by total network economics, not just the returns from an individual activity.

The strength of the print media lies in content creation. Network economics suggest that this cost should be spread across the whole network, rather than treated individually. To do this, individual activities/platforms need to be identified, have their own strategies and then be cross-linked and promoted. Here present business models are failing.

All this may sound an odd post for this blog. It's not because New England depends upon its media.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Random thoughts for a Thursday

I am now up to date with all past Belshaw World columns, so from this point I can post them on a Wednesday with a week's lag. This also gives me a chance now to catch up on other things such as my New England blog round-ups, as well as my reading of local newspapers. It's quite hard keeping in touch with developments across such a big area.

This reading is quite useful at a broader level because I test some of my broader thinking against the purely local. In On-ground effects of the Australian Government's stimulation packages - March 2009, for example, was informed by my local reading.

In DEPRESSING JIM BELSHAW, Lynne talks about the continuing experiences of partner Peter in dealing with Centrelink and the job network system. I actually caught the now deleted post because Neil picked it up in his Google reader series before Lynne deleted it.

Now the issue of dressing up for an interview is one thing. We all have to fit in to some degree - call it protective colour - with employer perceptions. However, the real core of Lynne's complaint was the apparent implication that if Peter did not comply with the wishes of his trainer he might lose the Newstart benefit.

This actually links to something I have written about quite extensively, the difficulty of designing systems (and especially Government systems) to take difference into account. We all know that a one size fits all approach does not work, yet we constantly replicate it because the difficulties involved in doing otherwise seem just to great.

There is a link here to the problems that I complained about in Belshaw’s World: Seven deadly sins of performance measurement. Peter is presently sitting within a measurement and compliance world surrounded by various performance measures and associated compliance rules and techniques all governed by budget constraints. There is little room in such a world for difference.

In Train Reading - Elizabeth Wiedemanns' "World of its own: Inverell's early years", I reported that my train reading had shifted to this local history. This is a very good book, although my copy, annoyingly, has some blank pages.

The New England of 2009 has become very fragmented. Elizabeth's book draws out both Inverell's unique features - this is the Inverell of the title - and the different pattern of geographic linkages that existed in the past.

Her description of the way local self-interest destroyed attempts to get east-west rail linkages provides a graphic illustration of the problem I complained about in Belshaw’s World: Overcoming the curse of local self-interest.

Well, time for work.    

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Seven deadly sins of performance measurement

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 1 April 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

Our current obsession with performance measurement has become quite pernicious.

The global financial crisis provided a graphic illustration of what can happen when organisations and people base performance and pay on short term financial metrics. However, the problem is far broader and deeper than this, because it has come to affect – infect – nearly every aspect of life.

Don’t get me wrong. I actually support performance measurement. It’s just that we do it very badly.

Human beings are not machines. We are complex creatures motivated by a range of different things, trying in day to day life to manage our confusions, to balance all the different pressures upon us.

Performance measurement systems must take this into account if they are to have positive longer term results. They also need to recognise that not everything can be measured.

Thinking about this in terms of my own experience as a manager and adviser, I decide it might be interesting to list seven of the deadliest sins of performance measurement as I see them.

One: make people work harder, longer hours, to achieve target.

This sin involves setting targets that can only be achieved through longer hours. People have only so much time. You can sometimes get an immediate improvement by making people work harder, but real longer term results depend upon working smarter.

Mr Rudd should, perhaps, note this one!

Two: set measures that depend upon things outside personal control to achieve target.

A remarkable number of systems, especially in professional services, focus on personal performance as the central measure. This assumes that the work is there, that people have control over work flows. If neither is true, then your measurement system becomes an automatic de-motivator.

At a broader level, the setting of unachievable performance targets has played a key role in the de-motivation and near collapse of the NSW health and child welfare systems.

Three: set measures that encourage your staff to over-charge the customer, reduce quality or simply lie. .

Focus just on earnings or volume without taking quality and service into account and you build in an incentive to over-charge customers.

Alternatively, and we see this sometimes in call centres, you force lower standards.

In perhaps the worst cases, you create an incentive for staff or management to simply lie, to falsify numbers.

Four: create a one size fits all system.

Peoples’ needs and capabilities vary.

A staff member that can only work limited time may, in fact, be very valuable. A staff member that can only do certain things may be very valuable. It all depends on how much you pay relative to the contribution.

If you create a universal measurement system that fails to take relative net contribution into account, then you will build in disincentives. You are also likely to end up making false judgements about staff.

Five: focus your performance management system just on those things that can be measured precisely.

Many key contributions cannot be easily measured.

Because you get what you measure, however imperfectly, you can be sure that the things not measured will be ignored.

Six: create a disconnect between organisational values and performance measurement.

Too many organisations set up measurement systems that conflict in some way with the organisation’s stated values. This leads to cynicism and loss of morale.

Seven: destroy fun.

There is a strong connection between motivation and morale and enjoyment of work.

Make the formal performance measurement system the central feature of firm life and watch the joy flow away.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

NSW Population Data - an update

Back in March in Statistics at twenty paces on North Coast Voices, Clarencegirl had a go at Ballina MP Don Page for misrepresenting the latest population statistics for NSW. Don said:

The ABS figures showed that in excess of 22,000 people had fled NSW in the year to 30 September 2008 while Queensland increased their population by around the same figure," Mr Page, the Member for Ballina, said.

"The NSW Labor Government is doing nothing to stem the tide of people leaving the highest taxing and highest regulated State in Australia, which also has one of the highest unemployment rates.

CG took an opposite view, suggesting that Don was misrepresenting the statistics, that NSW was in fact doing much better than Don allowed.

Don is obviously making a political point. However, the general point about NSW's relatively poor performance is one I have made before, so I thought that I would look at the latest numbers.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the preliminary estimated resident population (ERP) of Australia at 30 September 2008 was 21,542,000 persons. This was an increase of 389,000 persons (1.8%) since 30 September 2007 and 111,000 persons since 30 June 2008.Population growth Sept 08

This was, I think, the largest increase on record. The graph from ABS shows total Australian population growth in recent years, along with the relative contribution to population growth of migration and natural increase.

If you look at the graph you can see clearly the importance of net overseas migration in driving the rate of population increase.

So how did NSW perform compared to the other states? The following table sets out the states and territories ranked by the rate of increase in the population.

It shows that NSW in the slow population growth states, although the percentage increase in the population was in fact better than the immediate past. In absolute terms, both Queensland and Victoria recorded higher increases. One side effect of this is that Queensland will gain a Federal seat at the expense of NSW.

  Population end September Quarter '000 Change over previous year '000 Change over previous year %
Western Australia

2 188.5




4 320.1



Northern Territory





5 340.3




21 542.5



Australian Capital Territory





7 017.1



South Australia

1 607.7








Now where did the new residents of NSW come from in the twelve months ending 30 September? In summary:

  • NSW gained 46,231 from natural increase
  • NSW gained 68,388 from net overseas migration
  • NSW lost 22,359 through internal migration
  • So most of the NSW gain came from net overseas migration.

This NSW pattern of gains from new overseas migration, losses through internal migration is a long standing one that has been maintained through Labor and Coalition Governments.

I first looked at the issue in the early 1990s, using 1991 census data. At that stage, the numbers were such that there was a chance that NSW might actually lose population should net overseas migration decline, internal migration increase. This is less likely now.

In my next post I will look at some distributional issues.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Boys, bikes and the bush

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 25 March 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

Cousin Jamie has been progressively putting Aunt Kay’s photos up on the web. He is very organised: photos are tagged by decade from the 1890s, by location, by person and by topic. Talk about a nostalgia trip!

Kay, Belshaws and Halpins This photo shows us at the Armidale baths. From left to right, myself, Michael Halpin, Kath Vickers (then Drummond), Richard Halpin and brother David.

We spent a lot of time at this pool. One year we had a season’s ticket. This allowed us in free. During holidays we sometimes started swimming soon after the pool opened at 6am.

Mr Monkton managed the pool. His son John was a champion swimmer, winning silver at the Melbourne Olympics in the 100 metres backstroke. I suspect, I do not know, that the pool’s opening hours were influenced by John’s. Certainly it was open for a very long time during the day.

I only saw John train once. He started with free-style, and then switched to backstroke. I had never seen anything like it. The speed, the huge wake, stuck in my mind.

The Halpin twins were our special friends for much of my early childhood. Mr Halpin worked at Richardson’s, our big local department store. He and Vee were close friends with our parents and especially Mum.

Looking back, Richardson’s was a remarkably good store, offering a range of good and services that would seem strange in today’s Armidale.

For many years after leaving Armidale I actually bought most of my clothes in Armidale instead of Canberra or Sydney. Not just at Richardson’s, but also Hanna’s and Savages.

The Halpin twins initially lived just down the road. This made it easy to do things together.

There was no TV. TV came to regional Australia quite late, and even then my father would not have it because it might interfere with our studies. This meant that when I did finally have access to TV I became totally addicted, an addiction that lasted for a number of years!

In the absence of TV, we spent most of our time out doors. Initially we walked or ran every where, sometimes dozens of kilometres a day between our favourite patches. Then, with bikes, our horizons expanded.

I was in year five when my parents bought me a bike, a second hand model.

Early one morning I got the bike to learn to ride. Just to the side of the house there was a steep slope down to the street. I got on the bike and pushed off.

Those who have read Banjo Patterson’s Mulga Bill's Bicycle can guess the result. Gathering speed, I crashed into the front fence.

That would have been bad enough. Worse was to follow.

This was the tail end of the days when early morning ice trucks delivered block ice for home coolers. The truck arrived just as I hit the fence. A boy in my class was there helping his father unload the ice. I was mortified.

Still, I did finally teach myself to ride. The bikes gave us much greater freedom; we roamed a big arc of country from the Pine Forest in the north through to the Dangarsleigh lanes in the south.

It is hard today to imagine the sort of freedom we had. I don’t know that the world is in fact a riskier place. Certainly our attitudes to acceptable risk have changed, as have attitudes to acceptable behaviour.

Among my daughters’ friends there are some who have never been in the bush alone except on organised and in fact compulsory school excursions, who have never lit a fire, never cooked a meal on an open fire, never been on a farm.

The knowledge that we acquired has gone, replaced by new knowledge linked to a crowded and busy urban environment. Street smart has replaced bush smart.

I have to remind myself of this from time to time because it affects the way people think and talk. It helps explain, among other things, the growing gap between city folk and their regional cousins. But that’s a subject for another column!