Opinion

Has Fairfax lost its voice in a race to the middle?

As Fairfax Media's digital subscription numbers continue to fall, Mumbrella's Miranda Ward examines why audiences aren't willing to pay for the privilege.

Fairfax-media-logo-234x162Fairfax Media boss Greg Hywood has said it is “inevitable” its daily print newspapers The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age will close in the future, committing fully to a digital future.

Yet with The Age posting a year-on-year decline of 3.4% and The Sydney Morning Herald only just managing 0.9% growth in the latest audit figures, a digital future is not what I’d call a safe bet.

For Fairfax management, the question they need to consider is: why have they hit a seeming glass ceiling, and why aren’t more people willing to pay to access the online news?

While Fairfax Media boasts large digital subscription numbers, growth has stagnated over the past year with some consumers going as far as to close their accounts, while News Corp’s The Australian and Herald Sun are reporting positive digital subscription growth. Indeed, The Herald Sun saw its digi subs grow by 29.6%.

For me, as a reader, who has let my digital subscription to Fairfax Media lapse, it came down to content.

Sydney Morning HeraldFairfax mastheads – and as a Sydney-sider I typically read the Sydney Morning Herald – seem to have lost their voice. They’ve started to blend into the rest of the noise on the internet and I’m not quite sure what the masthead even stands for anymore.

Sure, it’s slogan is ‘Independent. Always.’, but how does that translate into the masthead’s editorial voice and tone?

At the other end of the spectrum are the News Corp titles, which have a clear agenda, political bias and plenty of strident commentary to get people engaged.

Love it or hate it, you know what to expect from The Australian in terms of tone and content, but with The Sydney Morning Herald’s digital content, at least – and according to Hywood that’s the future – I don’t. What I do get is mostly generic celebrity gossip or ‘You won’t believe it’ headlines, more of the same stuff I can get on News.com.au and other free news sites.

As one Mumbrella commenter said: “Recipes, celebrities, real estate, cute animals….”

Basically Fairfax’s mastheads have split personalities, the quality and thoughtful newspaper experience isn’t translated online, and as a result the websites lack cohesion.

It’s not the fault of the journalists, it’s a lack of clear vision from management and a desire to chase clicks and drive some incremental revenue.

But right now it’s not enough now for me to see money charged on a weekly basis to my credit card.

Plus, if there is something that really catches my eye and I want to read, and if surprisingly I’ve reached my monthly free cap of 30 articles, there’s very easy ways around the paywall. A quick Google search often lets you access the article, or if that’s not working, incognito mode provides another easy cheat around the paywall.

But if I want to do the same for an article behind the pay wall on News Corp’s Daily Telegraph or Courier Mail – it’s not so simple. I did, in fact, sign up to The Daily Telegraph briefly just to read something of interest.

It means while News Corp has a lower amount of subscriber numbers – the publishing company reports only the digi subs for the Herald Sun and The Australian currently – it means they’re growing that figure at a higher rate.

If digital is the future for Fairfax it needs to sort out how its going to convince the average punter to pay because clearly its current strategy isn’t working, and we all know now online ads aren’t going to provide enough revenues to pay the hefty overheads of news-gathering organisations.

Fairfax is known for its investigative journalism, and senior reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald, Kate McClymont, told the Australian Press Council conference last week that it is a “cost-effective necessity” for the future of the media.

“It is that unique content that more and more readers will want to pay for. It’s also essential for good governance in a democracy for the major newspapers of the day to hold those in power to account,” she said.

In terms of cost, Fairfax is competitive – it’s cheapest digital subscription starts at $3.50 a week and gives users unlimited digital access across desktop and mobile. In terms of revenue, it’s positive for the company as with a total of 259,972 digital subscriptions across the SMH and The Age, if they are only signed up at the base rate of $3.50 that puts it at $909,902 a week. Not exactly replacing print subs but also not accruing the same overheads.

Fairfax subscription costs

News Corp asks users to pay $8 a week for full digital access to The Australian – meaning with a total of 77,371 subs, the newspaper could be pulling in $618,968 a week.  Of course this isn’t taking into consideration new users signed up on the $8 for the first eight weeks deal, or bundled packages.

The Australian digital subscription costs

But for Fairfax Media, with newspaper circulation figures also going down and Greg Hywood open about his commitment to a leaner, digital future, is this enough audience-generated revenue for a viable future?

As Mumbrella’s Nic Christensen predicted 12 months ago the digital revenue isn’t coming in fast enough and we are seeing sweeping cuts in newsrooms, especially at Fairfax Media.

The fact is no one wants to see Fairfax disappear -it’s an iconic Australian publishing brand that publishes the newspapers Australians grew up with.

So what are the options? While no journalist wants to find themselves churning out click-friendly celebrity-driven stories, it seems this could be one option for the struggling publisher. But I’d argue that such a decision would drive it even further from the brand the public expects, and wants.

If they did that they’d need to lose the pay wall and embrace the tabloid – News Corp’s News.com.au is consistently number one across the Nielsen audience figures, but again will digital ad revenues cut it for them?

The other option, and the one as both a reader and a journalist I prefer, is it’s time for Fairfax to leverage its premium journalism more, use its investigative partnerships with Four Corners and concentrate on the quality Hywood is so keen to talk about.

What worries me slightly are Hywood’s comments last week about 80% of traffic coming from 20% of stories, knowledge which would allow Fairfax to focus its online efforts more. Let’s face it, it’s unlikely the boring-but-important political and social stories are driving the big clicks to the site.

But I’d argue what will save Fairfax is that deeper understanding of the issues, stepping back from the day-to-day fray and utilising the undoubted expertise it has in the organisation – before it walks out the door – to better effect. Do less, better, and let the others chase the clicks. Then people would pay more for a premium product – one that delivered real value. But that won’t happen if cuts keep on apace.

Come on Fairfax, it’s time to work out who you are again and sell it to us.

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