The Australian editor takes aim at Fairfax, defends paper’s place at News Corp

Chris Mitchell speaking yesterday at Mumbrella360

Chris Mitchell speaking yesterday at Mumbrella360

The editor-in-chief of News Corp’s national paper The Australian has taken aim at rivals Fairfax accusing them of misleading advertisers over the demographics of their audience online, and said he will only retire when he has a successor.

The iconoclastic newspaper editor yesterday spoke at the Mumbrella360 conference in a wide ranging conversation with his CEO Nicholas Gray and Mumbrella content director Tim Burrowes, which saw them discuss social media, the 50th anniversary of the national broadsheet, Mitchell’s own future and the competitive landscape.

“Picking up on Nicholas’s point on the nature about the nature of our digital offering, I think it is a big issue for some of our competitors,” said Mitchell. “I love talking about our competitors and if you think about who the Sydney Morning Herald selling to traditionally it was the AB readership of the eastern suburbs and the north shore.

“There is so much click bait there now, so many young commentators — Clementine Ford types — who are really going after very youthful readers. I think there is a question there for the business or the business model.

“When you buy an ad from Fairfax are you really getting the AB readership they say they are giving you or are you increasingly getting a readership that is much younger, much lower disposable income than they are telling you?”

Fairfax editorial boss Garry Linnell hit back accusing Mitchell of being “obsessed” and “infatuated” with his rivals.

In the conversation Mitchell also accused the publisher of being too focused on drawing news from social media sites.

“When I became editor of The Australian 23 years ago and Paul (Kelly) was editor-in-chief and we sort of judged ourselves against John Alexander and that very high point of The Sydney Morning Herald when most people thought the Herald had been the best it had ever been,” said Mitchell.

“I think it is a bit sad that the Herald is sort of reverse publishing Twitter now,” he said.

GarryHowever Linnell has hit back, saying: “What a nonsensical litany of claims made by a man with a complete obsession and infatuation with all things Fairfax.

“It perplexes me why News constantly and only talks about print. Fairfax has never walked away from print, we have always emphasised that it is an incredibly important part of our business.

“But unfortunately his remarks just underline his lack of understanding of how audiences consume media these days. Fairfax has a business model that caters for all audiences, across all devices and our numbers and audience reach reflects that like nothing else.

“I thought reruns of The Flintstones were over, but it appears a new season have been commissioned by News Corp.”

Asked whether readers cared about the frequent snipes between The Australian and its rivals Mitchell conceded they may not be all that interested, but argued the competition was good for the media and society.

“The readers probably don’t like it,” said Mitchell. “Readers probably want to have a relationship with their product and feel that either competition with the ABC or Fairfax is interfering with that relationship.

“But I think its healthy for democracy. I think it is a really good thing that journalists are quite competitive, I think it’s good for the body politic that journalists do compete hard.”

Mitchell was also asked if he used social media and whether he had a Twitter account. “Yeah I do (look at Twitter),” said Mitchell. “I don’t (have my own account) and I don’t intend to get one, but I was for instance, if you go back to Sunday with (former News Corp boss) Ken Cowley the person who was talking to Sharri (Markson) about tweeting that story quickly.

“I follow (Twitter) and look carefully at the tweets of my own staff. Sometimes I think people get too political in their tweets, they engage in too much banter with opponents on Twitter and I discourage that.

“I like to see Twitter used to market their stories.”

CEO of The Australian Nicholas Gray was also asked if he had a “healthy hatred” for his competitors and said: “It’s a healthy respect.

“There is no doubt it is a incredibly competitive environment and also the fragmentation of digital is accelerating that but I like Chris think competition for the body politic and for our audience and our marketing for media buyers that there is such competition — it makes us all better”

Gray also responded to recent reports about how The Australian lost $30m last year saying: “We make a very large contribution to the overall business and we are confident that that will continue.”

Editor-in-chief Mitchell was questioned by Burrowes on whether editorial worried about the newspaper’s finances. “I actually think people at The Oz have editorially always been very concerned with the paper’s profitability,” he responded.

“You know it is no secret that the national business model is not easy — there are a not a whole lot of retail advertisers who want to get into a national paper. But if you look at the revenue based verticals inside the paper things like the IT section or the Higher Ed section they are very much the invention of editorial.”

Amid ongoing industry speculation that Mitchell might step down following the 50 Anniversary of The Australian, the newspaper editor responded that he would move on “when I feel ready.”

“I would like to hand the paper and the digital businesses over in a good state,” said Mitchell. “I would like to have clearly defined successors who I felt were ready for it,” said Mitchell.

“There is a tradition in newspapers, I don’t particularly mean in News Corp but generally, of throwing good journalists into a job that they are completely unprepared for because there is not much in journalism that teaches you how to do what Nick Gray (CEO of The Australian) does.

“When I feel that it is ready, I will move on.

“It is a tricky thing. How do I do what I do? It is a very disciplined business. I am probably a mammoth consumer of media — I start with ABC breakfast, then move to 702, I read everything I can before ten past nine when I go for a 45 minute walk. I make my ideas during the walk, I like to come to work with three or four good ideas for things that no one else has and I finish at the end of Lateline Business every night.”

“It’s 6.30am in the morning to a quarter to twelve in the night. So the time when I can move on is appealing,” he quipped.

Nic Christensen


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