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A Talk with Paul Ramadge

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast with myself, Matt Smith, and today we’ll be hearing from Paul Ramadge, a journalist who is the Editor-in-Chief of The Age, a newspaper based in the state of Victoria, in Australia.  He’s with us today to talk about the direction of his newspaper and about quality journalism in general.

Paul Ramadge:

We’re in an extraordinary position in Australia per se because geographic isolation actually means that we look outside our shores with great interest, at China, and Indonesia, and all those places, and then, for The Age, we look internally into the nation, the Labor government, its positioning, the critical issues – but for The Age itself, its heart, its soul, is Melbourne, Victoria, so what we do is, given those things, we try to do journalism that’s different, but actually tells it as it is, and helps people understand what is a very complex world, like, how is the Victorian government grappling with the future of transport in a city that’s going to be the biggest in the country?  How is it grappling overall with a fall in revenues in this tougher economic climate?  How is it dealing with the flooding in northern Victoria at the moment?  And how long will it take to replace infrastructure – roads and bridges that are clearly damaged, some of which have been damaged since the previous Victorian floods.  Why haven’t all of the Royal Commission recommendations in regard to the bushfires been implemented?  And what are the barriers?  And on it goes.  It gives you a sense of the sort of questions we ask.  Now what is the power of the AFL these days, with this huge national competition?  How is the money allocated?  These questions, this manner of journalism is at the heart of what we do, is we debate ideas, among senior editors, among reporters, among video cameramen and others.  It’s an ideas-based environment and on the back of that, we sharpen that, and we do our journalism for the public benefit, which is why, to give you examples, we did a two-year investigation that led to the Securency stories by Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker.  We investigated the World Cup bid by Australia and why there were middle men getting cuts of money, why the Federal government was putting so much money into it.  We investigate.  We report with originality and we do this because we’ve got the resources.  A newsroom of about three hundred people, really from sport to business, to news and sections, targeting and thinking about the complexities of life and how we can report in the public interest.  That’s our kind of mantra.

Matt Smith:

You’re taking that step to do that sort of thing and saying, these are the important issues for a Victorian, for somebody in Melbourne, for somebody in Australia.  But it is the news that the public wants?  I found it very telling that the day after the re-spill where Julia Gillard was re-confirmed as the Prime Minister again, the Herald-Sun led on the front page with a story about Molly Meldrum being back home, a big photo of Molly Meldrum.  I was quite surprised there wasn’t more stories about Angelina Jolie showing a bit too much leg at the Oscars, which was on the same day.  How can you take the high road for something like that when it’s not the news that people want?

Paul Ramadge:

Well, I wouldn’t assume that Jolie or those other stories that the Herald-Sun may have given prominence to are what people want.  One very important thing to understand is, there are gradations within the media market.  There is a market, and it’s a well recognised market, and it’s an influential market, for a top-end quality newspaper like The Age.  We’ve never professed to be mass market.  We’ve never professed to want a circulation of half a million.  We’re happy to pitch to what we consider to be an educated, professional, influential set of readers, and in doing that, we are able to actually bring the content up to them.  If we were to go mass media, if we were, the expression is, go down-market, you know, maybe we’d do what the Herald-Sun is doing.  But that is not our intention.  We’re very happy with the niche in the market we have.  This has been our space since our birth, so we know what we do, and anyway, in this world we’re now in, this digital world of fast things and internet and smart phones and iPad and what have you, we feel we have an amazing valuable point of difference.  Not many of those other things have the time, the resources, the focus and the history and the perspective to do the digs that we do, the deep dives, the ask the big questions, to spend time on things.  We’re quite happy with that sort of approach.  The question really, to come back to what you’re saying is, if a lot of people want the kind of populist content, and if we’re giving what could be perceived as serious things, will we survive over time?  Will we be there a shift in the audience?  And one aspect of that I think is, we need to listen more to what people are doing, we need to give people on digital platforms a voice in our journalism, but we are doing increasingly more and more of that, you know, people leaving their comments on online sites, people blogging and we re-publish some of their views.  You know, we’re doing more and more of it, but what I would say is, I think we need to do more of that.  Get closer to the audience.  Certainly be open to reviewing what quality means.

Matt Smith:

That stance that you’re taking in quality journalism for The Age is one that you took quite strongly with the Newcastle Herald if I remember correctly.  Do you think that sort of thing applies to a smaller newspaper as well like that.  Can a smaller newspaper survive on just quality journalism?  Or does it need the tabloid revenue?

Paul Ramadge:

That’s a really good question.  When I was editor of the Newcastle Herald it was a broadsheet.  Australia’s sixth biggest city, kind of heavily imbued with Labor politics and industrial relations and a busy port and all of those things, and in part, when I was editing there, there was a mixture of the kind of serious nitty-gritty, hard yards journalism, but we had more opportunity to be, I think, closer to our community.  So I remember introducing a junior sports section, you know, and we were able to do things that I guess are very community oriented.  And that’s an indication of The Age, Melbourne, going to be Australia’s biggest city, very sophisticated, intellectual, massive numbers of, for example, tertiary students and medical faculties, and everything that … the law, precinct and festivals.  It’s a very sophisticated city and The Age reflects that.  The Newcastle Herald reflects its market, and papers that don’t truly reflect their market and aren’t close enough to their audiences do die.  They exist to serve those people.  You can be serious in a regional newspaper but you’re usually captive to also needing to deliver content in kind of small beer ways to a community.  I was also editor of a paper in Western New South Wales, and I remember I arrived there and I asked around and I learned about this city and I said, one of the first things we’re going to do is publish all the listings from the local courts.  And they said, what?  And I said, isn’t that what local people are interested in?  What’s happening in their town.  The secret of it is, I think, get as close to your audience as you possibly can, understand them, understand what motivates them, and exceed their expectations.  Surprise them.  Surprise is a good word with paper and media.  If you’re predictable, you can quickly be vanilla, boring, not necessary.  For The Age, and I would argue, for all media, one of the nice things you can achieve is, be surprising, be a thing that turns people on, and they go, geez, I really got a lot out of that.  I didn’t think they’d do that.

Matt Smith:

How long do you think it’s going to be until The Age seriously tries to implement some sort of online subscription model?

Paul Ramadge:

We’ve been talking about it internally for some time, and modelling different price scenarios, also doing a lot of analysis of price sensitivity in the market.  And that’s part of understanding your audience.  You will note of course that News Limited is what we would say is a first mover in this market.  The Australian’s gone to a paywall on its online site.  For The Age, there’s two important considerations.  One is, we are a newspaper company that fundamentally was built on the back of display advertising and at times, classified advertising, and as such, our revenues are like 85% advertising, 15% subscription, because we’re not mass market.  So, we always have a strong focus on working closely with advertisers, and helping them also deliver their products to our marketplace of products, and we’re doing that at the moment.  But, yes, you’re quite right.  We will look and we are looking at subscriptions in the digital space, and I think 2012 will be a year where you will see some movements and at times, maybe some experiments, and a mixture of different things across smart phones and iPad.

Matt Smith:

What do you think is going to be the next step forward for The Age?  Do you think that The Age is going to survive and thrive still as a newspaper once it takes a step towards an iPad or an online digital subscription?

Paul Ramadge:

I tell you what – our performance on the iPad to date has far exceeded our expectations.  We were very confident because we’d done, I think, some very good well-best comparative analysis as we built it, and we built it internally.  Print might be quite high now.  iPad is kind of low.  Online is high.  Smart phone is, we’re told, going to go right off the Geiger counter.  What we’re going to see is a change in the balance.  So I think, from where I sit at the moment, my sense of it is, print will probably come down a bit, because, hey, generations of  screen people are not going to be print savvy etc, so that’s probably going to come down.  Not to, in my view, an ICU hospital level, it’s more like a steadying, a kind of new level.  We’re going to see, based on current trends, rapid growth in portable internet access to information, which will include The Age on all of these devices, and as such, you will see us do what we call optimising print, while growing and enhancing our digital offerings.  I think in Fairfax, we’ve got a fair bit of confidence about this.  Why it’s complicated is, these are tough economic times.  Australia is at the moment isn’t you know, like just tough for media, it’s tough for a range of companies that are not in the resource sector, and they’re suffering a mixture of cyclical and structural change.  Look at retail.  How many people are walking through front doors versus buying online?  This is the state we’re in.  We’re working hard to understand that state, respond to that state quickly, and I have a high level of confidence that we’ll come through quite well, and I’m particularly pleased with our digital growth.

Matt Smith:

One final question now.  If you did ever lose the print paper, one thing that you won’t be able to do is have a cupboard full of the significant paper headlines.  What is your favourite paper headline that you’ve got somewhere in the cupboard?

Paul Ramadge:

Just before answering that, I don’t think we would ever lose the print.  If we get to a point where we think, you know, and issues around viability and optimisation, that suddenly we don’t think print’s right, we will make a strategic decision to do that, and kind of swing resources to digital, if that scenario … just so you know.  It would be a leadership position by us.  We don’t like to think we’re going to sit back and let the market dictate to us.

Now headlines.  Oo, ee.  There’s been so many.  I used to laugh years ago about a World War II headline about – Germans Push Bottles Up English.  That one’s long since gone.  I think there’ve been many funny ones.  I remember a headline about birds that were pulled from an ocean seething with oil because of a spill and they were pulling out these birds, and the picture was somebody just trying to strip off the oil from this bird with a comb or something.  A clever sub-editor had written a headline along the lines – The Oily Bird Gets The First Perm.   And so there are lots of funny ones over the time.  But thanks for the time today and I’ve enjoyed our discussion.

Matt Smith:

Paul Ramadge there.  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 site. 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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