The appointment of Ian Law as the new CEO West Australian Newspapers is an appalling sop to the “newspapers exist solely for advertisers and profit” school of thought as this cry for help from a West Australian journalist clearly points out. We’re on this bloke’s case big time and look forward to hearing stories of how he told the advertising department to get stuffed. It really is time to start cranking up an alternative team to run for the board of WA News later this year.

The hiring of a direct massage-the-advertiser, don’t-offend-the-pollies man reinforces a feeling the Board is out of touch with the indirect benefits to the bottom line of quality journalism, independence, credibility and dedication to being readers’ paper.

Should any of his Rural Press-style expectations reach the journalists’ floor, in direct or subtle form, recipients would appear to face choices ranging from:

* Embracing Law’s expectations, and thereby compromising their ethics, profession and honesty to readers, to;

* Rejecting them, and possibly compromising career prospects, depending on how leaders react.

It would be a test of mettle for journalists and editorial heads, but perhaps by taking up the journalistic fight, the floor would be melded into a unit capable of producing a far stronger, respected and financially successful product

Law’s style appears to be that commercial success comes from using the newspaper as a direct medium to serve the advertiser while journalists are commercially naive types whose negative reporting upsets advertisers and therefore the objectives of the paper. It’s easy to see why that type of thinking would sound logical to lots of people, including our board. But most journalists better understand the complex chemistry of newspapers special beasts that thrive not so much on Law-type direct feeding, but more on a beefed-up, “it’s not news unless someone doesn’t want it told” diet.

I think the paper is at a respect watershed and that leaders need to get fiercely under journalists to inspire them to be even more courageous in serving the reader, not over them with subtle restrictions caused by fears of what the boss might think.

Hopefully Law can completely change his spots, treating the State’s only daily differently from Rural Press’ network of rural newspapers.

Perhaps that’s too optimistic. We’ll see.

I hope Mr Law surprises, because I love working for leaders who make the paper better for readers and indirectly, the West’s bottom line, but a read of some of his gems to Rural Press staff would surely raise even a mildly vigilant journalist’s antennae (and hackles).

From Radio National Transcripts: The Media Report Thursday, 14th March 1996 Advertorials.

Extracts from leaked Rural Press documents, written by Ian Law.

July 23rd, 1992: Concern continues to be expressed about our failure to lend editorial support to our major clients. I’ve expressed frustration on numerous occasions about the lack of support for clients at some sites, and I’ve recently had complaints from ICI, CropCare and Elders. A failure to enforce commercial awareness, whether it be in the journalists or sub editors, will not be tolerated.

September 1992: Editorial support for advertisers is a key element of our stud stock business and a real benefit we offer over our competitors. It’s important that stud breeder clients receive 1/ a short plug for their sale; 2/ a sale report, with picture if possible; 3/ coverage at major shows.

May 29, 1995: We’ve once again put the Hereford Society offside. The Land’s otherwise excellent report of the Wodonga White Face Sale was tarnished by another negative headline.

September 4th, 1995:The company has signed a significant advertising contract with the Poll Dorset Association and there is an obligation on us as a result, to run some editorial material relating to the breed over the next few months. It is company policy for editors to support these commercial activities.

November 22nd 1993: The other thing for us to stress is the value of our editorial support. It is for this reason that we should make sure that we do not support products from operators who do not advertise in our papers. I would ask editors, advertising managers, and managers, to keep an eye out for press releases from companies who do not advertise, and make sure they do not get exposure.

July 24th, 1995: The decision by Massey Ferguson not to advertise its new tractor range in our rural newspapers needs comment. Firstly, we should not run editorial on the new range unless they support our papers.

August 8th 1994: Elders , 05 wanted the press release run and did not consider Brian’s general story part of the solution. All a bit unreasonable, but part of our lot in life. Anyway, it underscores the important role of editors in maintaining our business. If we do not assist major advertisers, they cancel their advertising and look for other means to get their message to their clients.

March 14 1994: I believe too many of our rural weeklies are still fixed on agropolitics, and are not paying enough attention to the basics. Our fastest growing newspaper in circulation terms is Elders Weekly. What is Elders Weekly doing that may be relevant to us all? For a start, it gives a low priority to political stories. It devotes the bulk of its editorial resources to basic material, and that is reporting of property auctions, reporting of clearing sales, break-out stories from every fixture. I believe some of our other newspapers are still committing too much time and space to the generation of News. Another feature of Elders Weekly is that it’s far more prepared than many of our papers to service advertisers. It has a service culture, not an attitude.

May 3rd, 1993: We need to be careful that we do not portray doom and gloom in the current rural climate. There was some criticism last week of our reporting, the argument being that we were focusing on negatives.

April 26, 1994: Mike Harvey has recorded some of the headlines from our news pages in our rural weeklies last week. They included “Row”, “Frustrated”, “Delay”, “Wrong Track”, “Angry”, “Elude”, “Drought”, “Drought Solace”, “Thumbs Down”, “Lower”, “Low”, “Lost the Plot”, “Blitz”, “Tax”, “Slam”. As Mike says, the headlines would be very gloomy if agriculture was not in a recovery phase.

September 1993: Like it or not, our property revenues are built on auction advertising, so there is a degree of self-interest in my comments. For some time I have been asking editors to get staff to attend auctions, and report who bought and why. It is important we take special care in the way we report auction results and that we work hard editorially to present the positive aspects. If we lose words like “fail to sell”, then we tend to discourage the use of auctions as a sales tool and promote instead private sales, which means we get no revenue.

October 19, 1992: A reminder. It is company policy that we report all store sales advertised in our papers. Make sure you have a system to monitor what sales need reporting, and that you are giving the service to advertisers.

Yours, West journalist

Peter Fray

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