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Canberra Times facing down a tabloid future?

Canberra Times management are knuckling down to develop a strategy to preserve the storied broadsheet in its current form as circulation and profit plummets.

Newsroom insiders say a brainstorming session at a lakeside Canberra hotel last week discussed several options including moving the paper to a tabloid and the closure of the low-selling Sunday Canberra Times to cut costs.

Crikey understands that one possibility is the merger of the Saturday and Sunday papers to form a larger Saturday weekend edition.

Crimes editor Rod Quinn informed the newsroom last week that the paper was still profitable, that he was hiring fresh staff said there were “no plans” to close the already-tabloid Sunday Times. However, the possibility of a merger with its more popular Saturday sister was left open.

Rather than the secret crisis talks that some hacks suspected, Quinn reassured staffers that the low-key summit was merely an opportunity to “grab some space to think”. Senior Fairfax management in Sydney have said to have taken a keen interest in the deliberations and are awaiting plans detailing the turnaround.

A staff survey earlier this year is believed to have delivered a lukewarm verdict on the current management team, led by Quinn and general manager Ken Nichols . Results of a follow-up “Pulse” survey distributed by Sydney-based Fairfax Metro tsar Jack Matthews and due last week are expected to contain further criticisms.

September quarter Bureaux of Circulations data released earlier this month made for grim reading inside the national capital’s newspaper of record, once edited by legends Michelle Grattan and Jack Waterford (Waterford remains “editor-at-large”).

Official figures show that the weekday masthead hived off another 2,000 copies in the last year to a low of 30,420 or 5.3%. The Saturday paper has dipped below the crucial 50,000 mark to 49,965, down 5.8%. And the Sunday has fallen a massive 6.4%, from 33,439 to 31,308.

In general metropolitan, regional and national newspapers eased a comparatively more healthy, but still disappointing, 3.5%.

Six years ago, the Canberra Times was selling on average 6,000 more copies between Monday to Friday (36,091), 16,000 more on Saturdays (66,340) and 5,000 more copies on Sundays (36,273).

CT columnist Crispin Hull, who edited or deputy edited the paper for 14 years until 2005 and now teaches media at the University of Canberra, told Crikey this morning the paper was facing the same kind of profitability problems besetting the industry more broadly.

Like all newspapers The Canberra Times print version has suffered during the transmogrification to  the internet and the search is on to find a successful business model,” he said.

It doesn’t indicate an imminent collapse, but they’ve gone from being highly profitable to nearly profitable. I suppose like all newspapers they’re trying to find a business model that embraces the internet … you just don’t get the same sort of revenue.”

Hull questioned whether a shift to a tabloid would automatically generate revenue because of the loss of “gutter space” in the classifieds section. The full page display ads popular among broadsheet would also be less attractive if they were spread across two pages, he said.

Crikey phoned and emailed Rod Quinn this morning, but we didn’t hear back before deadline.

6
  • 1
    Margo
    Posted Monday, 28 November 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    The erosion of Canberra Times readership probably reflects a series of issues, and not just the rise of the internet — a medium that the Can.Times seems uniquely unable to grasp. Just compare its website to that of other major broadsheets such as The Age and the SMH. The Can. Times has never really understood, or hasn’t cared, how people use newspaper website. But the core of the problem is really what the paper has to offer readers, and there is little doubt that that has seriously diminished. The plethora of young, inexperienced, journos with little understanding of what they are writing about, together with lackluster writing skills, simply makes for a non-compelling read. Other so-called journalists are laughably biased in their coverage of issues such as planning & development, and the weekend ‘magazines’ are padded with articles reprinted from US and UK newspapers, with questionable relevance to Canberra audiences. Meanwhile, Jack Waterford continues to provide informed and intelligent commentaries on everything from local government to Indigenous issues. But it is simply not enough. Rather than having staff pow-wows, I hope the paper will start consulting readers about how the paper can live up to its motto (for years on the front page, but no longer!): ‘To serve the national city and through it the nation.’

  • 2
    Bartholomew Beswick
    Posted Monday, 28 November 2011 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    I believe the attempt to focus on the national means that local issues are not covered very well. I took a month subscription when I landed in Canberra 5 years ago, and found it to be as dismal and out of touch as my previous rag, Brisbane’s The Courier Mail. I soon spoke to the locals and got my excellent local coverage from the website ‘The RiotACT’ and continued getting national coverage from Crikey.

  • 3
    moncur doug
    Posted Monday, 28 November 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    We used to subscribe to the Canberra Times. We now don’t.

    After an attempt to do without a print newspaper in the mornings we finally admitted we were hopeless print addicts. After a flirtation with the Australian we settled on the SMH as the best combination of of left of centre small ‘L’ liberalism, decent world coverage and literate content even if the wall to wall coverage of Mr O’Farrell is not particularly relevant.

    I live in hope that one day the Canberra Times will become the Canberra and NSW edition of the SMH with a couple of pages of ACT news added into the National news coverage

  • 4
    Margo
    Posted Monday, 28 November 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    As a resident of Canberra for 22 years, and as a one-time resident of other capital cities including London, Oslo and Washington DC, I have some sympathy for those comments. There are, however, models of successful capital city newspapers, and the Can. Times needs to learn from them. The Washington Post always did particularly well at being both a local and a national paper, but this requires quality journalists and a belief that you can really do it. Although there seems to be little that one would call ‘investigative journalism’ any more, the Can. Times had a win with its campaign for greater transparency around food hygiene (although this has so far resulted in only promises). Campaigning journalism might not be what everyone wants, but it’s an example of what can be done to make newspapers interesting.

  • 5
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Monday, 28 November 2011 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    I live in the second Murdoch city in a Murdoch state (Queensland). News Ltd is our only local, state-based or national daily newspaper source. There is a very large and new News Ltd printing operation in Townsville, a serious investment on a greenfield site in a newspaper future.
    A few years ago the Townsville Bulletin (News Ltd since the early 1980s) converted from a broadsheet to the colour-filled tabloid format seen around the world - or is that only the Murdoch world? I presume the Bully is making money so one could argue that the tabloid business model works for them. It’s just a business model.
    From the above comments it seems that no one loves the Canberra Times as a broadsheet. Perhaps colour tabloid is the next sustainable formula for the Canberra Times? Darwin’s got the croc wrestling NT News, Canberra can choose its own image.

  • 6
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Monday, 28 November 2011 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Colour tabloid. The daily newspaper you get when you don’t need a daily newspaper.

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