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May 29, 2014

Making news today

On the day CityMag was scheduled to enter Keith Murdoch House and interview The Advertiser’s editors, journalists and staff about the business of making 365 newspapers a year, the company phoned and cancelled.

  • Words: Joshua Fanning
  • Pictures: Sean Fennessy and Ben McPherson

The cancellation of our interviews was not terribly surprising. But it was surprising that The Advertiser ever considered giving our story a green light.

Online and State Archives searches unearth few stories about Adelaide’s only  daily newspaper: and most of those articles are either historical in nature or autobiographical.  But, despite the paper’s reclusive nature, the story of The Advertiser needs to be told.

No business is more connected to, or responsible for, South Australia’s current position than The Advertiser newspaper. As the paper faces new challenges brought on by the digital era and a trend toward divestment in journalism, our state is also challenged by the possibility that our best-resourced daily news provider could become compromised, or disappear altogether.

As Liberal and Labor governments come and go, as banks rise and disastrously collapse, as mining companies promise expansion then shrink instead – one company has made it their business to tell the story. Just one print publication holds a mirror up to this state each day. But it wasn’t always this way.

Historically, there were many newspapers in South Australia. The first SA paper was actually printed in London. There was a boom in the late 1830s with six newspaper start-ups across the state. Only a few years later the depression in 1841 brought a slump and the print business suffered further when a gold rush stripped the state of much of its male workforce. In those days making a newspaper was incredibly labour intensive and required a great many hands.

One of The Advertiser’s regular sellers packs up for the day

One of The Advertiser’s regular sellers packs up for the day

In 2014, things are not very different for The Advertiser. Making a daily paper is still incredibly labour intensive. From the 10am news conference where The Advertiser’s Chief of Staff discusses the day’s editorial directives with reporters, to 10pm when the earliest editions of the paper are loaded onto planes and delivered across our state – the clock is constantly ticking.

Journalists and photographers are either on phones or on call – chasing leads, attempting to get comment and images for their stories. Once an article is written it gets filed and checked by the newspaper’s sub-editors, run past the editor’s desk and sent to layout. Layout matches images with words and slots in advertising across the right amount of column centimetres. The editor determines the cover and either uses or discards the sub-editor’s headlines and straplines and signs off on each page before it goes to print. This process happens every day of the year – alongside a vast amount of extra output in the form of web content and work for liftouts, supplements and other “products” – as they’re called.

In 1858 The South Australian Advertiser was only just settling into this daily routine, joining The Register, Observer and evening newspaper The Telegraph. This period quite likely represents the peak of Adelaide’s capital city print industry, which was buoyed by the completion of the Overland Telegraph Line linking Adelaide direct with London via a submarine cable between Darwin and Java. The development not only revolutionised reporting, but gave Adelaide an Australian monopoly on news from overseas as it arrived here first!

The early diversity among mastheads proved unsustainable. In 1928 editor-in-chief of The Melbourne Herald, Keith Murdoch, arranged for the takeover of The Register in South Australia, converting the broadsheet to a picture tabloid. Soon after, Sir Langdon Bonython’s Advertiser also accepted a takeover bid by The Herald and The Register was closed in 1931 as a consequence. This left just The Advertiser and the evening paper, The News to tell our story. The Herald bought The News too and thus, Adelaide’s relationship with the Murdochs became exclusive.

The Advertiser largely maintained its monopoly on covering SA’s capital city news in paid-for print until Paul Hamra – founder of Adelaide publishing company Solstice Media – launched The Independent Weekly. From its beginnings as a broadsheet in 2004 to its resizing a year later; from first issue sales of 30,000 to a regular 6,000, The Independent Weekly had to contend and do battle with a formidable opponent in The Advertiser.

Paul Hamra of publishing house Solstice Media

Paul Hamra of publishing house Solstice Media

Paul says he decided to launch the paper after traveling widely as a board member for the Australian Film Commission. “It was very interesting because you’d just come back to Adelaide every time and think, ‘oh my god…’,” he says. “You’d witness these cities and their amazingly diverse media, lots of things happening, lots of street press and new magazines and great things happening and you’d come back and you’d only see The Advertiser here,” he says.

Paul says the gap he saw in the market was being sized up by other media brands too. “What was being realised around Australia was that Adelaide was an opportunity. All of a sudden The Advertiser wasn’t properly representing its market. So what you saw happen was really interesting: The Spaniard, Javier Moll, came in and bought The Adelaide Review. Nova [91.9 FM] started up. We started up. Everyone saw the opportunity and all of a sudden the media landscape changed.”The change and this sudden influx, says Paul, spurred The Advertiser into action.

“What was being realised was that Adelaide was an opportunity… and all of a sudden the media landscape changed. It was a shake-up for The Advertiser.”             – Paul Hamra

“It was a shake-up for The Advertiser,” says Paul. “Michael Miller then came in to be the managing director [of The Advertiser] and they implemented a whole lot of changes and brought in new products. They set up their enterprise division, they launched and they built new premises on Waymouth Street. They did all of these sorts of things which made them a modern media company,” he says.

Paul believes that the diversity – the new media brands – were the catalyst for The Advertiser’s reinvention of itself. The paper’s quick and calculated response (and no doubt some aggressive advertising rates) ultimately undermined the promise of The Independent Weekly, which printed its last newspaper in November 2010.

In March this year Morry Schwartz, publisher of The Quarterly Essay and The Monthly put The Saturday Paper out on newsstands in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. Each weekend it promises a concentration of in-depth reporting on the week’s most important news.

Upon contacting the paper’s CEO Rebecca Costello, CityMag was among the first to learn The Saturday Paper is coming to Adelaide. “We were going to wait until we had a local reporter set up but the demand is there for us to go now,” says Rebecca.

The Saturday Paper’s CEO Rebecca Costello

The Saturday Paper’s CEO Rebecca Costello

The new kid on the block

The newspaper will be printed in Richmond, New South Wales and air freighted to Brisbane and Adelaide. The Saturday Paper’s strange commitment to putting ink on paper in the 21st Century is at odds with Paul Hamra’s experience of doing the same thing.

Paul launched The Independent Weekly as a broadsheet because that’s what his research told him people wanted. “We changed The Independent Weekly to a tabloid within a year. The two things we learnt were that newspapers were a weekend medium and people didn’t buy broadsheets,” says Paul.

Reflecting on the difference between what consumers say they want and what they really want, Paul is quite adamant that his purely digital news business is on the money. “You’re competing against people’s time and their habits,” says Paul. “You’re not actually competing against other media. You’re competing against people’s time.”

It’s an interesting point. Most people don’t think twice about paying $3.50 every morning for a delicious coffee from their favourite vendor. In contrast, paying $1.20 for a newspaper just doesn’t seem as universally attractive. CityMag has its own theories about why this is but essentially it’s what Paul says: time.

When questioned about the business case for launching a weekly print newspaper, Rebecca of The Saturday Paper is determined it’s a logical step for a publisher who started in books.

“With each title, a lot of thought goes into what frequency means for editorial content,” says Rebecca. “A book is different to a publication like Quarterly Essay, and the content in Quarterly Essay is different to The Monthly. The Saturday Paper is different again – it is focused on hard news, on reworking the possibilities of a newspaper. The unifying attribute across all our titles, however, is quality. We’ve built a business on refusing to underestimate the intelligence of our readers.”

In previous interviews, Rebecca’s boss Mr. Schwartz has repeatedly stated that his other titles, The Quarterly Essay and The Monthly, are profitable. Although selling individual copies and subscriptions is critical for any newspaper, it’s fair to say – and, with a name like The Advertiser, even assume – that advertising is the real engine room of the newspaper business model. Rebecca confirms that, with the exception of the Easter break, advertising  revenue at The Saturday Paper grows week by week. What’s more, because of the unique approach taken with their advertising, it can continue to grow without impeding the reader’s experience.

The Advertiser’s headquarters

The Advertiser’s headquarters – Keith Murdoch House

A somewhat smaller building houses The Monthly and The Saturday Paper

Just holding it, you know this newspaper is different. The paper itself feels lovely to touch. The stock is a warm, milky white and thick enough to eliminate any show-through of ink from the next page. The design of the entire publication is considered and well tempered to guide a reader through, while still surprising and enlightening them. And the ads: oh, the advertisements are lovely things – unobtrusive, beautifully photographed and relevant to the sections of the newspaper.

“We do have some beautiful creative running in the paper,” agrees Rebecca. “I think the combination of the design and the paper stock offers luxury advertisers a beautiful environment to showcase their creative,” she says.

Indeed, the issue of giving advertisers value for money is at the heart of the newspaper proposition. While The Advertiser boasts huge traffic to their digital platform (perhaps a smidge less since raising the pay wall) they understand that a digital alternative just doesn’t match the revenue model of a printed publication.

A newspaper’s first 10 pages have a high value to advertisers as readers flick through chronologically. The ad you sell on page 10 commands the same price as the ad on page five. A website, by contrast, loses its value once readers navigate away from the homepage and start to “chose their own adventure,” becoming dispersed and diluted.


The weekly deadline is a constant

Inside the offices of The Monthly and The Saturday Paper

Inside the offices of The Monthly and The Saturday Paper

Similar to The Saturday Paper, Monocle is a print media brand headquartered out of London that is bucking the trend in media and proving there’s not only life, but profit in paper yet.

Monocle’s editor, Andrew Tuck is a former newspaperman. He worked for the Independent Newspaper Group in the UK, editing both the Saturday Magazine and the Sunday Magazine and was the executive features editor at the Sunday Paper when he joined Monocle.

Monocle editor Andrew Tuck

Monocle editor Andrew Tuck

“I’d worked in newspapers for eight or nine years as a full-time employee and prior to that I’d freelanced for British newspapers,” he says. “I had a lot of experience with a lot of different newspapers.”

Monocle launched their monthly magazine in 2007. Since the Global Financial Crisis hit, the company has added two large-format, seasonal newspapers to their offer as well as a 24-7 digital radio station. Andrew throws into sharp relief all that this fledgling media company has achieved throughout an era of financial chaos and media malaise.

“Already the newspapers I had experience with had been through several waves of redundancies, as had most other newspapers,” he says.

While other print brands roll back their operations and commitment in print, Monocle goes the other way – investing in the best papers they can and continuing to be inventive around the craft of printing. This gives Monocle a unique market position.

“Advertising revenue in the magazine leaps by great amounts every single year,” says Andrew. “We’re up, let’s just say, ‘a vast amount’ on last year, and last year we were up on the year before that,” he says. Andrew puts this growth down to the simple fact that the brands he speaks to and who place advertising with Monocle need more than numbers, more than visitors and more than impressions to build a marketing strategy around. For him, advertising is about reaching an audience.

“If an ad is on the back cover of a magazine and you’re reading it on the tube, on a plane, you leave it on the coffee table – it has the power of 10,” he says. “If you’re looking at it on a screen on the tube, you probably flick past it in five seconds and nobody else looks at it. Also,” he continues, “what advertising does is it says something about you and connects you to other people. A solo experience with a screen just doesn’t work and that’s why advertisers are still keen on all the old fashioned mediums: posters, hoardings, they’re interested in magazines
and I don’t see any decline in appetite
for that at all.”

Even Paul Hamra, who gave away the print game four years ago, appreciates that The Independent Weekly launched his digital business.

“The economics don’t equal the influence,” he says, reflecting on what he now considers the crazy idea of “crushing trees” to deliver information.

“I think [readers] probably give more value to it… because [newspapers] are hand-crafted, because so much time goes into them, so many hours goes into the journalism and laying it out, then sending it off to a printer and then cutting down trees, and paper mills and process and into trucks to deliver that to people for one dollar gives newspapers influence,” he says. He says that the only way Indaily and, newly launched digital title, The New Daily, can have influence is to invest in journalism.

“Invest in good journalists, good commentators because they are the glue between the reader and the brand,” he says. “The journalism is fundamental in the process because the journalism is what you hold onto. Everything else falls away.”

“Invest in good journalists, good commentators because they are the glue between the reader and the brand.”                      – Paul Hamra

The bustle of the city surrounds The Advertiser's HQ

The bustle of the city surrounds The Advertiser’s HQ

It’s a sentiment that echoes across CityMag’s conversation with the three media brands. Andrew Tuck at Monocle has grave concerns for the business model newspapers seem to be following as they continue to delete journalists from their titles.

“If you’ve got 60 fewer staff reporting from sixty fewer places, well then your newspaper isn’t as good as it was two years ago,” he says. Andrew then poses the question: “Are you not selling as many newspapers because people don’t want to buy newspapers or is it because your newspaper is no longer as good as it was?”

“This is the problem, they do not have a successful business model that allows them to do the thing that they’re there to do: to generate income to make journalism,” he summarises.


 The editor of CityMag, Farrin Foster, cut her teeth on the pages of Solstice Media’s Independent Weekly.

The equation seems simple when executed by these three comparatively small and nimble media organisations. However, its potential translation to a publicly listed multi-national media corporation like The Advertiser’s publisher News Corp Australia may be more complicated.

Regardless of the complications and their refusal to be interviewed for this story, CityMag hopes The Advertiser can navigate the new media era – because a great city runs on great journalism. And the best environment for great journalism is a diverse environment, underpinned by (at least one) strong daily paper.


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