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The Saturday Paper hits newsstands: it’s good, but is it enough?

Publisher Morry Schwartz said The Saturday Paper will have the first and last word. But the editors Crikey spoke to say that isn’t the case … at least not yet.

A good story has either the first word or the last word. This newspaper will have both.”

With those words Morry Schwartz, property developer and media proprietor, introduced advertisers to The Saturday Paper, his big gamble on newsprint, which launched its first edition on Saturday. Featuring eight pages of ads for luxury cars, unaffordable watches, suits, the ballet and Tasmania, the first edition printed 80,000 copies on thick white stock. Judging by the shortages reported at many news agencies, exacerbated by delivery issues for subscribers, interest was high, at least in Canberra and Melbourne.

But faced with the 32-page paper, Bruce Guthrie, former Herald Sun editor and current publisher of New Daily, asked his newsagent whether some of the pages had fallen out. “While it’s not entirely a question of size, 32 pages felt distinctly underdone to me,” he told Crikey yesterday after digesting the paper.

It was a feeling echoed by other editors Crikey spoke to about the edition. Michael Gawenda, research fellow Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism and former Age editor, told Crikey the paper was certainly constrained by space in how it covered some things, which showed through especially in sections like business, which ran as a series of short briefs. This was exacerbated by the decision to run many of the opening stories long.

At $3 a copy (slightly less for subscribers), The Saturday Paper is in the same price range as The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald or The Australian (all $3.30). And unfortunately for the upstart, its rivals felt far weightier. As Guthrie put it: “The Age could rightly point out that each of its sections was bigger than that, including Good Weekend, which had vastly superior production values.”

But Misha Ketchell, editor of The Conversation (and formerly of Crikey), says The Saturday Paper isn’t in competition with those papers anyway.

It’s a ‘dessert paper’, which is to say you’ll get most of your news elsewhere,” Ketchell said. What The Saturday Paper hopes to be is worth a second buy. To do that successfully, Gawenda says, it has to cover issues that the buyers of the other papers don’t feel are being covered well or at all. So far, he sees little evidence of that.

The paper led with a detailed backgrounder on Manus Island by political correspondent Sophie Morris and followed with a beautifully written interview with the mother of murdered 11-year-old Luke Batty by chief correspondent Martin McKenzie-Murray. Big-name hire David Marr wrote on George Pell’s move to the Vatican, while Mike Seccombe, formerly of The Global Mail, wrote about the Sydney Biennale controversy and what it means for long-term arts patron Luca Belgiorno-Nettis. In the comment pages, a satirical article about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers by Richard Flanagan. A colour piece on Melbourne’s Children’s Court, a long profile of playwright and stage director Simon Stone, and an interview with Australian of the Year and AFL player Adam Goodes rounds up the back.

Most, if not all, of those pieces were very good. But it’s always tricky to stay relevant with a weekly publication, which will “stand or fall on its ability to put the week into perspective and, in an ideal world, start the next one”, Guthrie says. He questioned whether the choice to lead on Manus Island and the Luke Batty murder was the best: “As good as that piece was, I couldn’t help thinking it was a week late.”

Gawenda agreed, saying many of those issues had already been covered quite well by other media outlets. “I’m not sure what the point of doing those again was,” he said.

Running a weekly paper focused on news and current affairs is in many ways far harder than running a daily. Editors and writers always have an eye on what their rivals are likely to do, and good stories can be spiked halfway through the week if a daily publication gets to them first. Couple that with the fact that The Saturday Paper operates on a bare-bones staff compared to the major metro papers, and the only way for it to make a splash is to set the agenda.

You can’t just have nice, well-written round-ups of news the other papers have already covered,” Gawenda said. “That’s what the old-fashioned news magazines used to do. That barely worked in the past, and it’s even less likely to work now in the digital age.”

Overall, Ketchell says, the paper felt a lot like The Monthly, another Morry Schwartz venture, though published weekly and without enough staff.

There doesn’t appear to be much original photography, or for that matter, new news. The contributors appear to be fairly uniformly of the Left, and at times it’s hard not to feel as though it’s directed at a clubby elite and you, as the reader, are tolerated rather than embraced. There’s not enough humour and playfulness. A newspaper needs to appeal to multitudes, not just ‘lighthouse’ readers, whoever they might be. The whole thing needs to loosen up.”

Guthrie says if The Saturday Paper is to have a long-term future it’s going to have to give readers more. “More pages, more stories, more pictures, more ideas, more energy, more everything,” he said.

Did the editors like anything about the edition? Many of the pieces came in for individual praise, as did the design, described as “clean and attractive” by Gawenda.

The paper is built on two selling points, according to Ketchell: “The first is the idea we need better storytelling to make sense of the disjointed news shoved at us by existing media [a role once played by fat weekend supplements and news magazines like The Bulletin]. The other is not being beholden to ‘vested interests’, which I take as code for not being a Murdoch title.”

On these fronts, the paper delivers — notably on strong writing. “Sophie Morris’s cover story on the death of Reza Barati is a solid job of sketching in the context, though much has been covered elsewhere, and it was gazumped by The Age’s interview with Reza Barati’s uncle. David Marr is typically dashing and engaging about George Pell, though he’s said much of it before,” Ketchell said.

Martin McKenzie-Murray stands out in his interview of Rosie Batty … This story is off the pace and the picture looks like an old one from an earlier press conference. Despite this, McKenzie-Murray tackles a difficult subject with a calm moral intelligence that is the hallmark of a fine journalist and worth the cover price on its own.”

Guthrie, while underwhelmed, applauded the initiative; so did Gawenda, who was keen to point out he didn’t mean to be overly critical of the paper: “It’s a first edition,” he said. “It would be wrong to expect it to be what it might end up being right from the start.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Michael Gawenda as the Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. He left that post at the end of 2012, and remains as a research fellow with the university.

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  • 1
    Superdry
    Posted Monday, 3 March 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Miriam makes a few good points. I didn’t bother reading the first two stories as I had read it all by the time the paper was out. Leading with something on Ukraine (yes, hindsight = 20/20) or another geopolitical story might have gotten a read from me on Saturday morning. Of course, I am not a media guy so I have limited say on this issue.

    The rest of the paper was ok, but I would have appreciated actually receiving it rather than going online (no delivery was made).

    Growing pains I guess.

  • 2
    Superdry
    Posted Monday, 3 March 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    *Myriam (sorry)

  • 3
    Trevor Small
    Posted Monday, 3 March 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    But once again Adelaide misses out. Enquired at two newsagents, who had never even heard of it. Surely you could afford a little wee promo and 50 copies for SA?

  • 4
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 3 March 2014 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Size matters?

  • 5
    wayne robinson
    Posted Monday, 3 March 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Do you mean that the article by Richard Flanagan was satirical? Do you mean that Australia didn’t win at Gallipoli?

    I’ve subscribed for the 12 months - whether it will last that long is a moot point. I wouldn’t bother to walk down to the newsagent to get a copy (but then again, I wouldn’t do that for the local newspaper either), preferring to get the digital edition.

  • 6
    Russell
    Posted Monday, 3 March 2014 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I deliver papers to cafes in Sydney’s hipster belt, and quite a few had The Saturday Paper proudly on display. Though long form journalism is a tough ask for a café read (tho many do, you are not supposed to take their copies away). Even hipsters have shortened attention spans nowdays, and anyway most like to fiddle with their phones or stare coolly into space.

    I paid for one, and read it later. Yes it was inner city “clubby.” 15 years of hand wringing about refugees has produced nothing but hardened hearts and an Australia that now wants to look the other way. Many will glance at that front page and instinctively avoid. Only “the club” will pay $3 to have their beliefs reinforced (yet again).

    And here’s a pet peeve. Why have Christos Tsioklas as a film reviewer? Ok, so he’s a name and can spin a good yarn, but he chose a film which had opened 3 weeks ago (get on the media list for previews, mate!) and proceeded to give the entire plot away. Then finished it off with a blow-by-blow description of the final scene.

    Thanks Christos… Don’t have to see that one, then!

  • 7
    leon knight
    Posted Monday, 3 March 2014 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    I will offer my support with a subscription, even though it was a bit light on for content…..
    Crikey, I miss the National Times…have not regularly read print ever since..!!

  • 8
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Monday, 3 March 2014 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    The Monthly is a reproduction of the Bulletin..is the former making money?..or is it a hollow attempt to achieve social cachet via the media for its proprietor.

    The Saturday Paper will sink without trace…unless of course its losses are covered by the proprietor.

    Such vanity…but he’s paying, so who cares.

  • 9
    AR
    Posted Monday, 3 March 2014 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Not wildly impressed but I shall give it a month or so. Manus was old and indistinguishable from daily reportage.Marr was fun but again, old & a rehash of his Essay.The best was Flanagan though I fear that it may give the government ideas.
    The Nation Review in the early to mid 70s managed to be up to the minute, cutting edge and still had deep think pieces.
    However, a paper that has a cryptic crossword by Mungo MaCallum is worth supporting. I heard this week that the Sainted One is seriously ill and hope that it isn’t true.

  • 10
    Bob the builder
    Posted Tuesday, 4 March 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    What exactly was the point of asking editors and journoes of competing publications what they thought of this new publication? And the SMH ‘weighty’ - it’s a big bundle of dead wood, but there’s rarely much in it worth reading.
    I read Crikey to hear a fresh and original take on things - not the media talking to itself. You can all do that with each other down the pub on a Saturday night and leave the rest of us to think about more interesting things.

  • 11
    Myriam Robin
    Posted Tuesday, 4 March 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Hi Bob. I tried to avoid talking to editors of competing publications - you’ll notice most are either ‘former editors’ or ones who don’t directly compete. We figured they’d know how to put a newspaper together, and so be able to make informed commentary on what works well and what doesn’t. But, naturally, the important judgement will lie with the paper’s readers.

  • 12
    Diana Shogren
    Posted Tuesday, 4 March 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    On Tue 25 February, I subscribed online to the print edition. As it wasn’t delivered on Saturday 1 March, I telephoned yesterday to check that the subscription had been processed (the payment had gone through on 25th).. I was informed that when it had been processed, I would receive a confirmatory email probably sometime next week. In other words I won’t receive next Saturday’s issue either, my first issue will be that of 15 March — 18 days from subscription to first delivery!

  • 13
    Peter Kington
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Interesting critique by Myrian Robin. Many of the observations raised in the article mirrored my own.

    I think, though, it’s a bit disingenuous to compare a weekly ‘features’ style publication, like The Saturday Paper, with the tabloid trash served up by Fairfax and News. It was never my sense that I’d be getting ‘today’s news’ from The Saturday Paper.

    I feel as though the first edition was over-featured and perhaps one or two old school interviews would have balanced the paper out (for example, rather than lazily reprinting Malcolm Turnbull’s speech given at the launch, how about an interview with him where the journalist tests his assertions about the state of the digital news world in the twenty-first century)?

    I also thought it was a bit monthly-lite and I think they’ll need to address that if the paper is to find its niche and while I’m always a great fan of David Marr, anyone who’s read the Guardian or the Monthly or the Quarterly Essay will have read nothing new in his piece on George Pell.

    I also think alternate view points are necessary, so a little less ‘left’ and a little more ‘right’ and/or balance, wouldn’t go astray.

    I’ve taken on a year’s digital subscription and was willing to do so because this company has a good track record and I wanted to support the project and the idea of a diverse media. I hope they listen to their critics and succeed with great aplomb.

  • 14
    grubbidok
    Posted Saturday, 8 March 2014 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    I was thoroughly disappointed with the paper. The content was okay, but it wasn’t a newspaper at all, but a (small) current affairs magazine on cheap paper. The Guardian Weekly does it much better (a local version would be even better!). The Week did it better (how I wish that could come back in newsprint form). The Saturday Paper feels a little undercooked. I’m giving it a two month try out, but the initial two weeks have been underwhelming.

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