Newspaper economics – cost now trumps credibility

tim burrowes landscapeThe decision not to reprint today’s out of date AFR Magazine Power List put cost above credibility, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes.   

The Australian Financial Review Magazine’s power issue must be one of its most profitable editions of the year.

It’s packed with glossy ads – a triple gatefold for Audi, then double page spreads for Chanel, Bulgari, Dior and Prada before you even hit the contents page.

It’s also an embarrassment.   

AFR POWER LIST COVERAfter I bought my copy of the AFR at the newsstand today (bought, because although I subscribed to home delivery a week ago, it’s only arrived once), reading it was a bizarre experience.

The cover features Malcolm Turnbull, as you’d expect, given that he’s been Prime Minister for the last 12 days.

Inside, it’s a completely different story.

As I drank my morning coffee, I was surprised to see that ousted PM Tony Abbott tops the power list. His once-powerful chief of staff Peta Credlin is number three. Turnbull is all the way down at number six.

power list afr original

The newspaper’s political editor Laura Tingle is made to look a fool with her quote about Abbott having survived the previous spill: “There is an alternative view it has entrenched his power, that the party will not remove him before the next election.”

Warwick smith afr

The chairman for NSW and ACT of ANZ Bank Warwick Smith looks a bit of a plum too. His verdict on Turnbull: “He had his chance, didn’t he?”

Tingle AFR

Realising it was hopelessly out of date, I stopped reading.

So why would you put something so embarrassing into the hands of readers?

There’s a video on the AFR website of the magazine’s editor Katrina Strickland, describing the moment she was told that a spill was in progress, after the magazine had been sent to the printers.

Katrina Strickland AFR Power list

Strickland holds up the original Power List cover

“One of the senior editors came over to me and said ‘Well you’re fucked aren’t you?’ and explained there was a leadership challenge.

“We contacted the printers and found out that the entire magazine had been printed but not bound…”

So that was that.

Which is of course a lesson in the new economics of publishing.

Even three or four years ago, there would have been no question. Your writers and subs would have worked through the night, remade the political list and you’d have reprinted.

But now things have changed. Printing of the magazine is outsourced to Hannanprint in Sydney.

So there’d have been a significant cost in reprinting. Based on our own flirtation with magazine printing, I reckon their 65,733 print run might have cost them in the region of $30,000 or so, given that it’s on beautiful stock and is a large format.

afr magazine ratecardAnd of course that’s a lot. (Although it’s still less than ratecard for a single DPS ad in the magazine.)

Instead there was a weird fudge that I discovered later.

If I had kept reading, I’d have eventually got to the centre of the magazine, where there was a flimsy four-page insert printed in a smaller format headed “Timing is everything”.


AFR timing

This offered a new list. Malcolm is number one now, with deputy Julie Bishop at three.

Abbott and Credlin are out. Despite 2GB now being part of the Fairfax stable, also out is 2GB’s Alan Jones as he’s suffering a relevance deficit post-Abbott.

new afr power list

So clearly the journos were capable of reconvening their power panel and coming up with a new list.

And because the magazine hadn’t been bound, stapling in this weird little catchup supplement probably didn’t cost too much. Indeed, it was likely to have been a profit centre, with an extra ad for Fairfax Media boss Greg Hywood’s favourite car brand Maserati thrown on the back cover of the insert.

So as a result, readers get this weird compromise – a new cover, a completely out of date list, then a new version buried in the middle.

It can only have been a commercial publishing decision, of the type seen increasingly often.

Early deadlines meant that the AFR itself didn’t have the result of Turnbull’s ascension the night it happened. Sister paper the Sydney Morning Herald rarely covers anything that happens after 6pm these days.

The nature of the print medium is that sometimes newspapers and magazines are superceded by events, but this Power List was different.

The unspoken rule used to be that if you had time to do something about it, you did, even if it was expensive. (I’ve worked on magazines that reprinted after the publisher decided a headline was too saucy; even this month we reprinted a conference brochure after spelling somebody’s name wrong.)

This time, Fairfax decided that the cost of credibility was too high. It’s the most extreme example I’ve seen to date.

Welcome to the new economics of the newspaper industry.

  • Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella

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