Chapter 4: Research Findings
Participant Observation: The Straits Times Interactive and The Age Online
With the CIT climate outlined for both Singapore and Australia, this chapter takes a closer look at case studies: The Age Online (Melbourne) and The Straits Times Interactive (Singapore). Both are pioneering online news products published by John Fairfax Holdings Pty Ltd and The Singapore Press Holdings respectively. Findings of separate two-week research stints with The Age Online (27 August - 10 September 1999) and The Straits Times Interactive (19 - 31 July 1999) newsrooms are presented here.
The chapter begins with a background of the publishers, highlighting their core business products, new media interests, and general financial standing. It then explores the birth and growth of their online newspapers, and key factors in their production - the production process, physical setting and human resources, the professional practices of online journalists, consumer expectations and management policy. Presented within this document are research observations of the integrated newsrooms, and excerpts of interviews with key journalism practitioners within their news organisations. The section concludes with a content analysis for the period 19 - 31 July 1999 and a comparison of the print and online news products of both organisations.
4.1 Case Study: The Age Online (Melbourne) John Fairfax Holdings Pty Ltd
John Fairfax Holdings Pty Ltd, publishers of The Age for 145 years, describe their broadsheet as having "an undisputed reputation as Melbourne's quality newspaper, with comprehensive Victorian, national and world coverage, investigative series, informed social comment and quality writing", (1997 Annual Report p.10). Fairfax publishes a number of newspapers and magazines with four major mastheads; The Age (Melbourne broadsheet) with a Sunday edition called The Sunday Age (broadsheet), The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney broadsheet), The Australian Financial Review and the weekend
edition, The Sun Herald. Business Review Weekly, Australian Geographic, Personal Investor and Shares are amongst its stable of magazines. Besides these, it publishes The Fairfax Community Newspapers (FCN) and a number of supplementary publications such as Good Weekend, e)Mag and Metro. The vast number of Fairfax titles establishes it as the major media player in Australia after News Ltd and PBL.
In the first six months of 1999, The Age enjoyed a sales increase of 2.3 per cent over the previous year, however Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Steve Harris in the 1999 annual report said, "The newspaper sales market in Victoria remains relatively flat, and aggressive price-cutting by News Limited's, The Australian has clearly had some impact." The Age's weekday readership dropped to 667,000 but its Saturday readership increased by 1.1 per cent to 1.1 million. The Age's readership has continued to grow in key market segments such as AB's (University graduates or undergraduates; earning around $40,000 or more per annum; and are classed as professionals, managers and large or small business owners), high-income earners, women and young people.
In 1999, Fairfax recorded a 61 per cent net profit increase of A$180.27 million compared with 1998, the highest since it re-listed in 1992. This was primarily due to an overall growth in advertising revenue, tight cost controls, and the sale of its direct investments in telecommunications carriers Vodafone and AAPT. Compared to the 1998, Fairfax Online's losses increased from A$4 million to A$20 million in a cash flow of A$300 million. (Morrison, 9 September 1999, p.9; Fairfax Online 1999). This indicates that expenditure on the online editions of Fairfax Pty Ltd outstripped the revenue generated by banner advertising and access income.
Fairfax CEO Fred Hilmer in an interview with Business Sunday's Michael Pascoe (12 September 1999) defending Fairfax's Internet losses said:
É it's an important bet [the Internet] for us, it gives us a chance to get into a new medium that I believe, over time will go [grow] and what we're trying to do in the Internet is build a number of different platforms that hang off our content and that make sense, and that gives us a shot at making some money as this medium matures.
Hilmer highlighted that Fairfax's weekend magazines took 10 years to become profitable. He said: "É we have a long experience in understanding to build audience[s], on new platforms and then to build the credibility of advertisers so they pay you for it, takes time, but I believe we have a very strong cash flow and I believe it's prudent that we keep doing that." Hilmer described three revenue models for the Internet and said there are ways to generate revenue and "what we've got to do is try". Traditional advertising is one model and Hilmer explored the idea of transaction-based advertising suggesting a move away from the conventional "fixed basis" model popularly used by publishers. Instead he suggests sharing the advertiser's risk and charging a transaction fee based on the number of products or services sold as a result of web advertising. Developing a web directory of mechant (electronic commerce) websites based on Fairfax's Big Colour Pages and sold.com.au, an auction site are the other two revenue models (ibid).
Over the past two years, Fairfax has employed a two-pronged strategy in its business. "Our approach of continuously enhancing and updating our core print products and aggressively building our online businesses, coupled with a rigorous focus on costs, produced tangible results during the 1999 fiscal year," said Chairman Brian Powers (Fairfax Online 1999).
Quality journalism continues to be Fairfax's core strategy in attracting readers and advertisers and generating revenue. "This is Fairfax's distinguishing strength Ð for our readers and the advertisers our readership attracts Ð and it ensures Fairfax's leadership in journalism in Australia." This quality journalism has resulted in 50 awards for excellence, 12 prestigious Walkleys, and nine awards in eight marketing categories at the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers' Association (PANPA) conference in Wellington, New Zealand for The Age Online (Editor & Publisher Interactive 1999). Fairfax has initiated a new trainee programme, involving 40 recruits per year, and strengthened its editorial training to enhance its editorial content (Fairfax Annual Report: Chairman's statement, 1999). The Age has established a code of conduct to guide its journalists in matters relating to professional practice, personal behaviour, conflict of interest, plagiarism and the MEAA code of ethics for journalists (http://ww.theage.com.au/daily/981008/news/code.htm).
In March 1998, The Age was revamped as a more youth-oriented and contemporary newspaper, and re-launched under the 'Seize the Day' campaign designed by advertising agency Samuelson Talbot. "We felt The Age needed updating. There needed to be more emphasis on sport and business. We wanted a style that was contemporary and modern, one that was easier for readers to know their way around," said Editor Michael Gawenda (Fairfax Annual Report 1998, p.16). This contemporary style has been translated to its online edition.
To integrate printing of its various publications, in 1998 Fairfax invested in a new fully operational printing plant at Chullora. The plant runs 24 hours a day and with the introduction of an expanded colour capacity, eliminated the need to print sections in separate presses, resulting in greater cost-effectiveness and improved quality. A new A$220 million print centre at Tullamarine is expected to further enhance The Age's quality and vibrancy (Harris 1999).
F2 (Fairfax Interactive Network)
As part of its online strategy, Fairfax developed F2, Fairfax Interactive Network (formerly known as Fairfax Interactive Businesses). F2 has four main businesses - Fairfax Online, Citysearch Australia, Sold.com.au and Big Colour Pages. According to F2's Chief Executive Officer Nigel Dews (Fairfax Annual Report 1999), the strategy lies in strategic positioning of their businesses:
as local online partners for consumers in their use of the Internet to be informed, communicate, transact and perform everyday functions. This strategy combined with Fairfax's pre-eminent masthead brands for editorial and classified content, loyal reader base and extensive promotional capabilities, strongly positions F2 to exploit potential online advertising and e-commerce opportunities.
Fairfax Online's key websites; smh.com.au, theage.com.au and afr.com.au are among the most popular sites in Australia (Healey 1999, p.62). F2 increased its database of registered users during the past year to 250,000 and average weekly site visits have grown to 1.3 million. Besides websites based on its print publications, F2 has developed a number of 'supersites', which enhance traditional classified listings with features and functions. These 'supersites' are fully interactive online marketplaces, where visitors have access to a wide range of information, comment and analysis. MyCareer (job listings), Drive (automobile site), Itjobs (IT industry site), Trading Room (corporate finance) and Money Manager (personal finance) are amongst its websites (Dews 1999).
F2 operates sold.com.au, a virtual marketplace that allows buyers and sellers to trade directly via an online auction. F2 has radically changed the conventional trading model as it bypasses traditional intermediaries and lowers consumer costs. Fairfax acquired Big Colour Pages and has re-positioned it as the premier integrated national business Internet address and telephone directory. Big Colour has potential to corner the business market with its comprehensive and extensive online business listings. Targeted at the lifestyle market, F2 launched CitySearch Australia, providing readers with a comprehensive leisure and lifestyle city guide to Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. F2 is focused on growth, integrating sites into a portal network and offering enhanced e-commerce business websites. Dew sums up advertisers' acceptance of this new promotion tool when he said, "Advertisers are no longer asking if they should advertise on the Internet, but how much they should spend" (ibid).
Besides its core publishing business, Fairfax has strategically invested in related publishing and multi-media services since 1995. It formed two new divisions, Fairfax Digital Media and Fairfax Productions to manage its new investments. Fairfax acquired Australian Geographic, Australian Information Media (a Pay-TV service), established Big Hand Asia Pacific (an interactive software joint venture), AUSINET (an online information service), and bought a 50 per cent stake in Artist Services, a leading television production company to complement AAV, Fairfax's audio-visual production arm. Its then CEO, Stephen Mullohand justified the company's diversification:
Newspapers will remain the single most important source of in-depth information into the next century. But media consumption habits are changing. Over time, CD-ROM, audio text, Pay-TV, telephony, online and interactive services will carry an increasing share of information to consumers. Our participation in this evolution will enable Fairfax to broaden its market franchise and increase frequency of contact with customers.
(Fairfax Annual Report - Chief Executive's Report 1995, p.9)
The birth and growth of The Age Online
The Age Online (http://www.theage.com.au) was officially launched in April 1995. The establishment of The Age onto the Internet was in fact initiated by the then Library Manager, Sybille Norais with assistance from Frank Prayn (who is the current Library Manager). In conversation with Prayn on 7 September 1999, he recalled its development:
It was in 1994 that Sybille was looking at online services to see what was available out there. In those days, we had to connect to Compuserve and AOL as they were the only service providers. In early 1995, she was looking at getting a site up and running and managed to get some server space from Vicnet. I did the initial coding, with some graphics from Graham Edwards, a graphic designer and we did a demo for Stuart Simson [the then CEO]. We became the first paper online, though it didn't have much content or graphics and was terribly slow. The Internet has grown tremendously since and at that time I had no idea it would be this big, I visioned it to be more a tool for libraries and offices.
Upon the successful implementation of a preliminary online paper, it was moved from the VicNet server to be hosted on in-house on a server set up by a computer science student and Mary Riekert. Riekert, a journalist who had prior experience with the WWW is currently with Fairfax Online and was the former Age Online Production Editor. She was hired in March 1995 as a casual joining full-time to set up a 'fuller' version of the online newspaper.
While I was teaching myself HTML and setting up, there was a huge dispute between journalists and the publisher regarding copyright. Journalists were outraged that their copy was reproduced electronically for CD-ROM's and the Web. The law then stated that the initial copyright for publication went to the publisher and thereafter it belonged to the journalist. While that was being sorted out, we set up a news wire type service as a precede[into] to our print edition.
(Riekert pers comm, 7 September 1999)
Leslie Walsh, one of the first two Age Online journalists, recalls the Internet launch was a response to market forces. She currently manages The Age Online's live updates section featuring breaking news picked up from wire services. This section runs for about 16 hours daily and the uploading task is shared between Melbourne's Age Online (from 5am to noon) and the Sydney Morning Herald Online (http://www.smh.com.au) team in Sydney (from noon to 6-7pm).
The paper started as a condensed version of The Age. No one in the newsroom was interested in putting it online or working on it. There was this fear of technology which still exists amongst some older journalists. When I was hired, I didn't know much about HTML and today I don't read the papers anymore because it is old news. I just scan the papers to see what sort of headlines they have come up with and if it is any different or better than what I write. I used to cherish reading the printed version from back to back though.
(Walsh pers comm, 27 August 1999)
Walsh further explained that working on the online paper, gave her access to up-to-minute access to news and current affairs and by the time she read the printed paper, news would be fairly out of date. She mainly scans through papers such as The Sun Herald to compare headlines and monitor how a similar news story was treated and to source for subbing and headline ideas
While the copyright issue was being resolved, a professional company, D.I.G was hired to design the initial site. Internally, Mary with help from programmers, worked out a direct feed from the desktop publishing system onto the server. At that stage, Mary was promoted to manager of the site, with two staff working on the main site and another on the classifieds. She recalled,
We launched our classifieds online in September 1995 and had our IT website ready. However, we needed to manually type in the display advertisements. It was around then that the copyright issue was resolved. Management agreed to give journalists a yearly payment for the right to re-use copy electronically. It was tough for me initially having to oversee production, introduce new software and conduct training sessions for the newbies but it got better"
(Riekert pers comm, 7 September 1999)
Since then, Alan Morison, former Age Online editor, has overseen a comprehensive redesign and the addition of regular audio coverage from reporters. It has 200,000 site visits and one million-plus page views per week. The site has established a strong presence in online sport by providing updated coverage of AFL football, the Australian cricket World Cup campaign, and grand slam tennis with live text reports, and instant e-mail feedback (Harris 1999).
The Age Online Production Process
The Age Online utilises a number of software to aid in producing the web site, which can be classified into three areas; editorial content, multimedia and photo manipulation/HTML editing software. The editorial content software aid journalists in locating news stories and photographs from the print edition and other sources and to efficiently generate HTML pages while the photo manipulation, HTML editing and multimedia software are used for editing audio, video and photographs.
Photo Manipulation/HTML Editing Software
The online production process begins daily between 4pm and 6pm while the print edition is printed in sections and the complete paper is normally ready by about 8pm daily. As the sections are confirmed and printed through the evening, a team of three to four journalists code The Age's major sections. The team works largely from A4-sized proofs supplied by the different desks while waiting for the broadsheet to be printed. This team is comprised mainly of casual staff, some with extensive journalism experience. An experienced staff member who is familiar with coding program normally heads the team and ensures a series of steps are completed before the stories go online. This includes transferring the completed batch of stories from a holding basket to the live server.
News, Business and Sport are typically the major categories of stories that are transferred online. Special sections include controversial issues for example, the Republic Referendum debate. Depending on time available and the number of important stories in the printed edition, the journalist decides which stories to run. While scanning the print edition, the journalist determines the order stories appear online based on standard news values. The journalist then, secures a 'soft copy' of the news story from the NewsLink Text and Cybergraphic databases, and at this stage, keys the story order into the programme. The programme automatically generates an index page based on this order with a template for the individual pages. Through the NewsLink Pix and Fotoflow databases, photographs are located and cropped with Photoshop where necessary. For the main index page, images are kept to a standard 175-pixel width and 225-pixel width for portrait and landscape images respectively. With the basic section structure in place, the journalist writes intros for individual stories and occasionally, re-writes captions and headlines if required. As in the print version, headlines are written to fit into the online page templates.
Between 11pm and midnight, most of the pages are laid and ready to be debugged. They are transferred to a holding basket for staff to skim through each other's sections looking out for basic spelling errors, misplaced stories, broken images and links. By about 1am, the fully functional site is transferred live for public viewing. At the time of the study, a new program called FutureTense, which transfers material electronically to HTML, was being trialed. FutureTense (http://www.futuretense.com) requires minimal human resource involvement thus freeing up journalists to focus on developing content. In a follow-up e-mail (11 Nov 1999), webmaster Darren Burden explains;
It [FutureTense] makes the production of the site less technical from the editorial point-of-view (they don't need to make links) they only need basic HTML like bold and italics. Before they had to open up the indexes and build them by hand É not any more. All they need to do is make sure the abstracts, headlines, bylines and order of stories are correct.
The implication of this is not yet known. It possibly frees the journalist to concentrate on developing quality content but could result in job losses. On the other hand, the rigidity of a 'template approach' and minimal free play during the designing and page production may prove frustrating to journalists.
Physical Setting & Human Resources
The Age Online team operates from a general work space amidst the other sections of the newspaper. It has a pool of journalists who handle varying tasks from coding web pages, maintaining the live updates and live sports chat sections (during weekend rugby games), and a technical team. The Age Online team consists of 20 staff, ten of whom are full-timers and a constantly changing pool of ten casual staff. The online newsroom is essentially divided into three sections; the production team, sports live team and technical team. A hierarchy is tabled here: Production Team News Editor (Day) News Editor (Night) Breaking News Editor Online Editor Online Reporter (Casual) Night production staff (from a pool of 6 casual staff) Online Technology Specialist Sports Live Team Editor Sportstoday Night Sports Editor Melbourne Sports Editor Night Production Staff (from an overall pool of 6 casual staff) Sports Reporter Live Production Staff (from a pool of 10 casual staff) Technical Team Webmaster Online Technology Specialist A breakdown of The Age Online team structure
The production team is largely responsible for transferring content and ensuring a fully functional site goes live on the WWW daily. A night news editor and night sports editor guides the production team from an overall pool of six casual staff. On weekends, a 'sports live' team manages the site's live football and cricket sections. The live section includes score updates, a real-time chat facility where readers can e-mail match comments and view match commentary. This team is most active on weekends when the matches are held. This section extends to racing, tennis and golf stories. Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) students assist as interns with the production of this section. At the moment, there are two designated reporters who produce exclusive sports and news stories for the online paper. The duo is supplemented by additional reporters during important events for example the 1999 Victorian elections. On occasion, cadets assist with reporting when they spend some time with the online team as part of their initiation process. In a follow-up e-mail (12 November 1999), Online News Editor, John McDonald explained that the editorial team strives to have reporters on the ground however due to a lack of resources it is not always possible. Reporters are assigned to cover stories wherever possible based on the editor's discretion.
In general, Age Online journalists are younger and equipped with IT skills. A sign of the importance Fairfax has placed on its sites is employing Darren Burden as Fairfax's pioneer webmaster. Burden has a business, journalism and IT background and is looking into developing a transparent production system for the various sites. Part of The Age journalist's training options include attending lectures and seminars on Computer-assisted Reporting, media law, editing, defamation and research skills. This is in addition to shorthand, basic journalism courses, and a stint with various sections of the newspaper which all cadets go through as part of their orientation.