Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Belshaw's World - caught between a tweet and a print place

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 12 October 2011. 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 for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

From time to time I argue with Express editor Christian Knight about the need to bring the paper properly into the online world.

Now some Express readers might argue that immortalisation of the paper within the internet would be just too much of a good thing. Those same readers say that there is never anything in the Express anyway! Why, then, bother?

Editor Knight takes a different view.

As editor, he is hardly going to accept an argument that says there is nothing in his newspaper! His worry has been that if he puts the paper fully online, his Armidale readers may stop buying it and just read the online edition. This worry is set against the background of the general troubles facing the main Fairfax papers.

I don’t agree with those who say that there is no content in the paper, although I would accept that some editions do get a little thin. Living in Sydney as I now do, I read the Express quite carefully and find some very interesting content indeed.

A year or so back, one of my metropolitan blogging colleagues actually visited a country town, brought back a copy of the local paper, and then ran a piece parodying the stories.

Talk about come in spinner. I retaliated by taking stories from one edition of the Express and then comparing it with similar stories from Granny Herald. The Express stood up pretty well.

This type of disparaging attitude towards the country press in general is not uncommon.

In September, Express writer Janene Carey wrote on her blog about lunch with a friend who seemed bemused that Janene would want a part-time postdoctoral fellowship so that she could continue working at the Express. The friend asked Janene if she’d 'ever considered journalism as a profession?' - by which she meant a job on a "real" newspaper, a daily in the city covering serious, important stories.

Musing over this conversation, Janene simply recorded three stories that she had worked on that day, each local but with national or state implications.

The days when the Express ran front page foreign policy stories about developments in Tsarist Russia may be long gone. However, this does not mean that locally attuned reporting either lacks complexity or is without value.

I suspect that I probably read the paper from a somewhat different perspective to most readers.

It’s not just that I want to keep in touch with local developments. I also use the Express as a source of stories and ideas in a way that may surprise many.

I think that Armidale people have a tendency to knock the place. You might be surprised at the size of the Armidale footprint, at the way in which the apparently local actually has broader significance. That was Janene’s point.

Linking this now to my argument about the Express’s online presence, the paper actually serves two quite different audiences; one is purely local, the second is the broader and especially expatriate community with interests in Armidale.

If you limit the paper’s on-line presence to a small number of stories, then you are to my mind effectively penalising the broader Armidale community. I think that’s actually a problem for the city.

But can you broaden the online presence without affecting the local readership? I think that you can because the interests are different. You have, in effect, two linked publications.

I don’t think that I am going to win this argument any time soon, if only because of the way that Fairfax inline has been evolving.

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy and use the print edition as a source of stories and ideas for a broader public.


Janene Carey said...

Jim, have you tried the Herald's new iPad app? I'm a huge fan of it now, after some initial reluctance to accept it as a substitute for the printed version. It's free until the end of the year - it will be interesting to see how many people will convert to the subscription model when it starts. Of course I have a vested interest in keeping the company afloat, but I've decided I'd fork out $8/month or whatever it's going to be. I particularly like the idea of being able to get national and locally-specific news (like the Herald and the Express) in one bundle, if that's on offer when they rollout the iPad versions of the country and community papers. Wouldn't that solve your problem of wanting full, timely access to the news of a place where you don't live?

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Janene. No, I haven't tried the new iPad app. I don't have an iPad and am not sure about the free to end of year bit. I checked today and it said seven days free trial.

There are different issues here from my perspective.

One of my points was that the Express had two reader sets, current and expat, and the paper wasn't getting to the second. I think the second has to be done via web.

A broader problem from my viewpoint is that I monitor papers across the broader New England. If they all go behind paywalls then I have a problem. I just won't be able to monitor them.

The fact that the Australian will go behind a paywall later this year will provide a test case from my narrow perspective.

One immediate concern is just what happens to my links to past Oz stories. I am assuming that the paywall will apply to new content, but that's unclear.

A second concern is just what might be available in the free space. They still want some free content for digital advertising purposes, but how much. If, as they suggest, they take some of the opinion pieces behind the paywall I wouldn't weep tears of blood.

It's all very interesting. I have written some pieces on the business aspects, but now I'm also trying to work out and write on how I might respond in terms of the blogs.