Monday, September 20, 2010

Think The Australian sucks? Attack the Sydney Morning Herald

John Quiggin waxed lyrical last week about the failings of The Australian. The paper, he said, was dishonest, blatantly partisan and responds poorly to criticism. I don't disagree with Quiggin's claims so far as they relate to the incidents he is talking about. I'm probably a little more sympathetic to The Oz in general. A big part of that is that, absent the Financial Review, which sits behind an online paywall, The Oz is the last serious-minded newspaper in Australia.

Now I know that's a big call. And I'll make one large caveat: I'm talking here only about the online editions of the major papers. I know that the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age are a bit better in print than they are online. But if you're like me and read practically all of your news online, The Oz really is as good as it gets. Maybe people of Quiggin's persuasion would say that The Oz is so partisan (etc) that they're not serious minded. I'd argue that The Oz still comes out ahead for trying to report on actual news even if their decisions on what is actual news, and how to report on it is informed by their partisan preferences. 

To illustrate my point, here are screenshots from the and websites, taken this morning:

[Apologies - I'm struggling to make the screenshots work. I'll have them back up shortly.]

I think the difference here is pretty clear. The SMH is running 'front page' stories about Robbie Williams laughing at a naked Kylie Minogue. About a 16 year old 'Horrorcore' rapper who killed his girlfriend and her family in the US. About an off duty cop who saved a family from a house fire. About Paris Hilton avoiding jail. And about 'Touring Amsterdam's Red Light District'. The Oz runs stories about Rob Oakeshott (aside: what a wanker), power prices, foreign aid and the US recession.

So sure, The Oz has its problems. But its critics should save some of their vitriol for the once-great Fairfax papers, who've chased the lowest common denominator and ended up just above the gutter. I'd say that these days is much closer to than The Oz. The Herald should be pressured to pick up its act and give The Oz a run for its money.

Finally, I think this argument also applies by analogy to critics of the ABC on the right, who accuse it of left-wing bias. If they don't like what the ABC is dishing up, they should pressure commercial networks to pick themselves up and try to report on actual, serious news. Watching Channel 9 advertise its Monday night bulletin with a story about children swallowing things (as it did on Sunday night) should be enough to drive serious consumers of news to the drink.

The broader, and more depressing point to be observed here is that providing quality news isn't very profitable if you put it on the internet or broadcast it for free. I think that's an argument for giivng newspapers charity status or subsiding them, or something. But that's a topic for another day.


  1. I agree with your point about the tabloid nature of the SMH/AGE websites, but feel you're are missing Quiggin's point; a point which I believe is part of a general critique against The Oz currently doing the rounds. (See: Keane's piece in Crikey, Media Watch's stunning take down of the Green agenda and the tit for tat currently being playing out in the Media Diary between Overington and Tingle).

    The campaign of criticism is levelled at The Oz's presentation of a world view - to simplify I'll simply call it 'conservative' - that has blatantly shifted to a partisan agenda.

    The one-minded and stacked campaign (successful mind you) against Climate Change, insulation batts and The Greens has, as Senator Palpatine would say, completed their turn to the dark side of partisanship. The editorial (see Media Watch) that explicitly declared war on the greens, totally ripped up the credibility and viability of its "serious" political reporting.
    How can they run anything on politics, when they have an anti-green agenda? The Oz's editorial department was conservative... now it's partisan.

    I should also note that you seem pretty angry about the paywalled FinReview and the trashbag SMH/AGE online versions, but the bad news is Murdoch intends to paywall the "serious" reporting in The Oz before year's end.

    So Steve, the question is: Will you fork out the $3 for a hard copy of The Fin, with its army of Fairfax hard heads OR submit to the paywall and the "serious" political reporting of the online Oz?

  2. @MDS - I don't think I've missed Quiggin's point, I just wasn't addressing it directly because I wanted to make a different point, which was that his energies are to some extent misdirected.

    Will I pay for the Oz behind a paywall? Almost certainly not. Will I buy the Fin Review? Also no. Luckily the ABC website is pretty good, and ABC News 24 has been pretty good too since it started, so that should get me by.

  3. and practically every other state-based newspaper that it links to are a joke. you only have to look at the most viewed articles on each of them to realise the retarded demographic they cater to.

    the oz (and abc) are far better than quiggin gives credit, especially considering their competition.

    but let's face it, australia is not a nation that celebrates the intellectual.

  4. Nice post steve,

    I reckon the trend is equally true of the print edition of the SMH. their recent trajectory continues to be a combination of Keneally bashing, which is understandable, but alongside it is crappy parochial articles about sydney, relatively dire foreign coverage and increasingly race baiting. their anti-selective schools campaign and burqa front page are two such examples. it is incredibly frustrating.

  5. Dear Rowan,

    That 'retarded demographic' still vote. You should never dismiss them simply because you don't happen to associate with their values.

    MDS and Steve, I can't find myself to care too much about whether a particular news organisation runs a partisan line. The notion of free political communication applies as much to news organisations as it does to the individual.

  6. Yeah Steve, a larger debate - one not confined to Quiggen's snark - is needed in this country about the quality and price of its daily news media. How can the Weekend Australian and Saturday Herald be such great papers, literally overflowing with quality, and the dailies be such thin tripe? Why do we let Fairfax produce the trash, that is the Sun Herald on Sundays?

    It's an exciting time in the media and it's disappointing that private companies like News Ltd and Fairfax won't/can't branch out and try something new. Digital possibilites i.e. podcasts, e-versions and embedded video are being experimented (with success!) at the ABC and in the US... maybe that's our problem, the ABC has core funding and can risk your 15cents per day on brilliant products like iview.

    Ack, Australian media. Ack.

  7. Steve I don't follow the logic of your final paragraph, We already have two subsidised online news services called the ABC and SBS. I don't see why we need any more, provided the ABC and SBS have suitable charters and governance. It's the latter issues that need review and action.