Mumbrella isn’t the cause of your problem, Mr Hartigan

My name is Timothy James Burrowes. Occupation: journalist.

I am, I must admit, in equal parts surprised and flattered that earlier today, the boss of News Ltd selected Mumbrella as one of two examples of Australian websites that are leeching off journalism in Australia (I paraphrase only slightly).  

Along with Crikey, his contention was that only about 10% of our content was original reporting, the rest consists of links to newswires and mastheads. Funnily enough, it took me a while to get round to reading his comments. At the time he was making them, I was out of the office, covering another media event – there was supposed to be a journalist from his paper the Daily Telegraph there too, but they didn’t show up.

Hartigan’s speech is worth a read – you can see the whole thing here.

But before I join the debate, let me give some backstory. I’m proud to say that next Friday July 10, it will be 20 years to the day since I joined The Aldershot News as an 18-year-old cub reporter. It was very nearly the best thing that ever happened to me. So do not see me as a member of the newspaper-hating digerati. I love newspapers and am grateful for the very happy career they’ve given me

manual-typewriterI’m just old enough to have written my first stories folio by folio, paragraph by paragraph on a manual typewriter. I was the first reporter on my paper to buy myself a (brick-sized) mobile phone. I remember the excitement when our office got our first fax machine. Nothing, nothing beats phoning in a story on deadline, then going back to the office and taking the first edition off the press, with your story on the front page.

Although I’ve never worked for him and only met him the once, if it wasn’t for Harto’s boss Rupert Murdoch bravely taking on the print unions in the UK to allow modernisation, I might not have had a newspaper industry to fall in love with. So the vast majority of Harto’s speech I agree with. Newspapers make a massive contribution, and have a future. I wish News Ltd well.

But for the second time in a week, I’m seeing evidence that a senior News Ltd general is missing the point about online media.

On Monday we wrote about how Campbell Reid – News Ltd’s group editorial director – was “very uncomfortable” with company journalists using Twitter. Yet for journalists, it is the best marketing tool there is to pull audiences to their stories and develop relationships with readers. The threat does not come from your journalists using Twitter – the threat comes when they do not, and the conversation takes place without them. But I digress.

Back to Harto’s comments.

“Then there are the news commentary sites, like The Huffington Post, Newser and the Daily Beast and in Australia sites like Crikey and Mumbrella.”

To have the boss of News Ltd put Mumbrella in the same paragraph as The Huffington Post is one of the biggest professional compliments I’ve ever been paid.

But it also misses the point. What Mumbrella does is just dowdy old B2B publishing, using newer tools. It just so happens that the B2B world we cover is the media and marketing industry. I suspect if I was doing exactly the same thing for the mining or medical industry (and as it happens, my sister title Thumbrella is already covering the travel & hospitality market), he wouldn’t even know I exist. Our readers are for the most part from within the industry, not the public.

“Most of the content on these sites is commentary and opinion on media coverage produced by the major outlets.”

We have three streams – news, opinion and our diary column, Dr Mumbo. It’s a similar mix to my days in print, where titles report, analyse and comment. But we don’t aim to provide “commentary and opinion on media coverage produced by the major outlets”. We aim to provide commentary and opinion on the major outlets. Just like our sister title Thumbrella provides commentary and opinion on the main travel companies.

“These sites are covered in links to wire stories or mainstream mastheads. Typically, less than 10% of their content is original reporting.”

Really? Mumbrella has published seven stories in our news stream in the last 24 hours. Three came from the honourable journalistic practice of going to an event and covering it. Another one was exclusive to us, thanks to the journalistic device of having contacts, and we were first to report two other pieces.

Yes I provide links to other items we think our readers might be interested in. A good journalist’s job is to understand what might interest their readers and offer it to them. Jeff Jarvis puts it best – cover what you do best and link to the rest. That’s not necessarily aggregating so much as it is gatekeeping. The judgement is not what to include, but what to leave out – just like newspapers and magazines.

Almost anyone can start one of these sites, with very little capital, no training or qualifications.”

True – particularly the first bit. Sorry about that. All those expensive printing presses were once a barrier to entry for competitors – now they’re a handicap. Are you looking for sympathy?

But the sites that succeed tend to be written by those who do have the training or qualifications, whether formal or otherwise. If you can’t write or have nothing to say, then nobody will read you.

“Then there are the bloggers. In return for their free content, we pretty much get what we’ve paid for – something of such limited intellectual value as to be barely discernible from massive ignorance.”

That’s a bit of a sweeping statement. I’d suggest you may be reading the wrong blogs, Mr Hartigan. Have you tried The Punch, made by your colleagues? It’s not got much of an audience yet, but it’s still not bad.

Later in the speech, Harto made a further passing reference to Mumbrella, which suggests that he – or whoever wrote it for him – is one of our most dedicated readers as he spotted something buried in our comment threads.

“Blogs and a large number of comment sites specialise in political extremism and personal vilification. Radical sweeping statements unsubstantiated with evidence are common.

“One Australian blogger who shoots first and checks facts later is proud to boast that his site is ‘Not wrong for long’.”

I’ve used that phrase a couple of times, in our comments section when a reader has flagged up a mistake. On one occasion it was a typo, where I’d misspelled the word newspaper, appropriately enough. On the other, I’d mentioned the wrong channel in a ratings round-up. I’m not sure that counts as “radical sweeping statements unsubstantiated with evidence.”

And it almost seems churlish to mention the Pauline Hanson photos at this point.

Anyway, I’m the same person I was when I was a print journalist, so I probably get just the same amount right and wrong. Journalists don’t have a brain transplant when they move from print to online, their news judgements remain the same.

(As an aside, the phrase “never wrong for long” was first associated with Mr Hartigan’s fellow News Corp outlet Sky News UK.)

But the wider point is this, the fact that Mr Hartigan focuses on the likes of Mumbrella and Crikey suggests that he’s looking in the wrong direction. Our existence does not cost News Ltd sites a single reader or advertiser. How would it?

This debate really should not be about print versus online, or mainstream versus indie. Those are facts of life.

Print is still a great medium. For instance, a piece this long is much more comfortably read in a nicely laid out magazine.

I hope and believe that newspapers survive these strange days. But the comments from Campbell Reid and Harto suggest that News Ltd is currently looking the wrong way. Fortunately, there are many within News Ltd who are engaged with social media and excited about the opportunities it offers. I sincerely hope they get heard in the boardroom.


Tim Burrowes


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