Transcript

A Talk with Eric Beecher

Eric Beecher

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Transcript

Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host Matt Smith and our guest today is Eric Beecher. He's commonly introduced as the publisher of Crikey and this podcast isn't about to break that proud tradition. Beecher purchased Crikey in 2005 and it is under his guidance that it has developed into a popular, well-read, online newsletter. He begins by telling us if he thinks quality journalism is still viable.

Eric Beecher:

Well, in a sense I think it has to be. I think society or societies around the world are going to have to find ways to create alternative funding sources for commercially based quality journalism, because the current funding base, primarily through quality newspapers, is falling apart quite rapidly. I'm in an unusual position. I know, because I talk to lots of people privately, obviously, that a lot of people who can't really talk about these things to the extent I do publicly, because they're in positions which inhibit that, feel the same way. I'm in an unusual position because I'm still part of the media, but I'm part of the independent media – I've spent a lot of my career working in mainstream media and I've edited newspapers and so on, so I can see that perspective. I understand it from the inside. I'm not an academic. But I'm liberated in the sense that I can say what I like, and I have a view, a strong view, that I'm not just pushing my own business interests. My business interests lie in online media. We have a portfolio of websites that cover a range of niches in business and politics, property and various areas like that. And I'm passionate about online media, but when I talk about these things, it's not to push my own business interests and I try and make that clear and people can either believe that or not.

Matt Smith:

When you decided to start this as a business interest, you came from the Sydney Morning Herald at one point where you were an editor.

Eric Beecher:

I had a kind of a career in between that where some partners and I started a company called Text Media and that was an independent print media company.

Matt Smith:

Which later got sold to Fairfax.

Eric Beecher:

That's right, yeah, and we published local newspapers and books and magazines and a whole range of print media. And then we sold that to Fairfax and it was at that point, about seven years ago, that Di Gribble, who was my former business partner who died recently, and I, we bought Crikey and we decided to really focus on what we saw as the growing media centrepiece.

Matt Smith:

What made you decide that then? That it wasn't a good idea to keep investing in print?

Eric Beecher:

It wasn't so much investing. I mean, we'd done reasonably well out of selling our business – it was a public company and Fairfax paid a reasonable price for it, and it wasn't just us, it was other shareholders as well. And it gave us the opportunity to do things that we really liked. Crikey is commercial but it's also something that you invest in, in a kind of intellectual way as well as a commercial way. Since then we've built a commercial base around that, and Crikey itself has become more profitable. It's the dual interests of, yes, it has to be viable and be a business, otherwise it doesn't exist, and we're really doing things that we believe in.

Matt Smith:

I find that it's very admirable that Crikey has been able to get the same sort of respect and notice that it has despite the fact that it doesn't have what some would call the prestige of print. Do you think that sort of thing is going to be more possible, to get as far as Crikey has, and even further without a paper masthead?

Eric Beecher:

I'm still an avid consumer of a lot of print media, particularly magazines. So each week I read the New Yorker, Time, Spectator, The Economist and Newsweek. Every week. And then I read monthly publications and others as well, so I'm a great advocate of what you describe as the prestige of print, but it implies that other media, particularly online media, don't have prestige or gravitas or a strong position, and I don't think that's the case any more. I think that the audience looks as content based on the inherent value of the content, not necessarily on the medium on which it's presented.

Matt Smith:

Do you find that Crikey gets a lot of notice? I know there's a lot of politicians and movers and shakers who take note of what turns up in Crikey in their inbox.

Eric Beecher:

It is one of the very, very few genuinely independent journalistic enterprises in this country that is, you know, moderately well resourced. We spend quite a few million dollars a year on editorial staff and contributors and that kind of thing. So it's nothing like a big daily newspaper but it doesn't try to do the scope of a big daily newspaper. And I think that if people do notice it, or it's read, and I'm not really a judge of that – I can see the figures and I can see our subscription figures are rising quite substantially. Our website traffic figures are really good and growing all the time, all that sort of thing, so that's obviously one measure. But I think it's because of our independence and increasingly in a world where that kind of thing is less available in the corporatised media, because they have so many business challenges of their own to look after.

Matt Smith:

Yesterday when you spoke of the future of quality journalism, you stood up at La Trobe with a graph that was a bit of a depressing but realistic graph that we've got to notice and deal with and accept, and Paul Ramadge got up, and he gave a very romanticised view of what quality journalism is. If you were in Paul Ramadge's position, would you be approaching things differently than he is?

Eric Beecher:

Look, if I was in Paul Ramadge's position, I would have that graph on my wall in front of my desk, to look at every day. It's a graph of advertising revenue in US daily newspapers, adjusted for inflation, and so it showed that in 1950 there was 20 billion dollars spent in advertising in US newspapers, and by the late 1990s, that had reached well over 60 billion, and between the late 90s and 2010, it had dropped back to 20 billion. So it had fallen 40 billion in a decade. And to me, that is the story of the challenge of quality journalism. Now, that's America, I don't think Australia is going to be any different. It might take longer. It might manifest itself in different ways. The same kind of thing's happening in the UK. It'll happen here in my view. So if I was in his shoes, I would have that graph and I would update it every year, and I would have it on my wall, and I would look at it all the time.

Matt Smith:

But even though there's less money to go around, is there sufficient money to do the job?

Eric Beecher:

Ah, no. If the graph stopped and it stood still at 20 billion, maybe there'd be, in theory there'd be enough to do what we do now. But, number one, the momentum behind that graph is unstoppable. Number two, the owners of most big daily newspapers, let's say in Australia, are in fact public companies, and so they're publicly owned businesses, their first responsibility is to their shareholders, to their bottom line, to make profits, to pay dividends, have strong balance sheets – that's their responsibility. And so therefore the journalism, by definition, comes second. It's very nice to say they feel like they have a public trust, and they always emphasise that and they make a point of doing it because it sounds really nice, but the truth is, their primary responsibility, their fiduciary responsibility of their Boards and owners, is to their shareholders, to make profits.

Matt Smith:

If you were going to take things a different step, if you were going to actively start a publication that didn't address quality journalism, you know, it was all about what Angelina Jolie was wearing at the Oscars, how Molly Meldrum's going with his recovery, those sort of stories, do you think that that would be a viable project, to do something like that, because the way the mainstream media works, sometimes I see it that they're giving people the news that they want, because that's what's selling. I'm not saying, go that way with Crikey and have First Dog on the Moon, do cartoons along the line of that, but if you started a new publication, do you think that that would be viable? And would you even consider it?

Eric Beecher:

Superficially, it sounds attractive, because you would, in theory at least, attract quite a large audience and in theory advertisers gravitate to large audiences, but in fact, online, that is changing a lot. Advertisers are much more interested in niche audiences and pure audiences, because that's what online can offer them. Television and, to a lesser extent, radio offers them mass audiences, and most products, even mass products, have niches within the mass, so the advertising rates you can charge for mass audiences, particularly online, and this is also happening in all other media, is dropping dramatically, because the value of the niche audience and the availability of the niche audience, has now been created by the internet.

Matt Smith:

What about you as a journalist then, and as a publisher? Would you chase that dollar?

Eric Beecher:

Well, it's not what interests me. As I said, my interest is actually doing things that are intellectually satisfying. I'm interested in journalism. But at the same time, I'm a huge believer that they have to be profitable or viable, because I've spent too much time in other times in my career, pursuing these kind of dreams, only to see them fall over, because they're not viable. And if the funding isn't there, nothing is there.

Matt Smith:

How much do you see Crikey as a beacon in that way? How pure do you want to keep it? Because it very much functions sometimes as a watchdog for the rest of the media, and approaches stories that I find other mainstream media wouldn't approach.

Eric Beecher:

Well, I think that's part of its role, absolutely, that it stands outside the establishment, the political establishment, the business establishment, the media establishment. But it also has to… and I think does… operate to the precepts of editorial integrity, so it has to research and write and check stories properly, and it has to do that on fairly slim resources. It has to combine all of those things, and you know, it's a constant challenge, but Australia is a great country to do that, because although we don't have the protection of the constitution, the First Amendment protection that the US has, there is an embedded culture here that the truth about things, and I include in that the sort of thing Crikey does, which I would describe often as the sub-text, rather than just investigative reporting, and here's a fact that been kept hidden – I think there's a very strong culture of that in Australia. We have a slight larrikin culture. We have a culture of openness, we have a very vigorous democracy – I think everyone subscribes to that and so for Crikey, that really slots in with our mission.

Matt Smith:

That was Eric Beecher and he was a guest at La Trobe University to speak at an Ideas and Society event on the future of quality journalism, which is also available on the La Trobe University website and our iTunes U page. If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast or any other, then send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au.

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