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Mar 3, 2014

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.

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“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.

Myriam Robin — Media Reporter

Myriam Robin

Media Reporter

Myriam has been Crikey’s media reporter since 2014. Before that, she was a business journalist with sister site SmartCompany, covering economics and corporate strategy.

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