Fairfax’s editor-in-chief of metropolitan newspapers, Mark Scott, gave an interesting speech on The Sydney Morning Herald for the Sydney Institute. The following are a few snippets of what he said.

About 100 Sydney Morning Herald readers and shareholders turned up Clayton Utz to hear Mark Scott, Fairfax’s editor-in-chief of metropolitan newspapers, on Monday night.

While neither the microphone nor the air-conditioning were working, the crowd managed to stay awake and engaged and there were plenty of questions from the floor.

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Many questions were prefaced with the comment, “I am a reader of the Herald and a shareholder,” and largely encouraged Scott to increase shareholder value whilst holding firmly onto editorial independence and integrity.

Other questions on the SMH ranged from the standard “Is it too left-learning?”, “Is the etters page captive of too few voices?” to, “Why didn’t the Herald endorse a candidate at the election?” and “Should there be a counter-voice to Ramsey on Saturday?”

When it came to the more tricky questions on the Board and CEO succession, Gerard Henderson neatly intervened and protected Scott from answering by drawing the 30 minutes of questions to a close.

However, one of the most substantive responses made by Scott was that there was no future for the SMH to be The Guardian of Sydney. He said, the market was too small for the paper to hold that position and that the only future for the SMH was to try and hold a non-partisan middle ground, against the media barons who regard their papers as an arm of their broader corporate interests.

Indeed, during his speech, Scott referred to the readership as follows:

It can be a challenge for journalists. Australia Scan research suggests that the percentage of the population that consumes media primarily from broadsheet newspapers and the ABC is only 8% – but the target audience of The Sydney Morning Herald is much higher than this – probably closer to 30 or 40% of Sydney’s population. We need to make sure we are not the 8% writing for the 8%.

It is of interest that quality newspapers around the world have suffered steeper circulation declines since last year’s war. The drop-off has been steepest in weekend papers, where many readers only purchase a paper once or twice a week rather than have a daily habit. The war generated extraordinary on-line traffic – and coupled with the dramatic roll-out in broadband coverage – may well have helped the on-line sites become a stronger habit in the lives of our readers. Which is a good thing.

Meanwhile on the topic of converting to a compact form, Scott said:

I don’t subscribe to the view that readers in this market equate broadsheet with quality and tabloid with trash. The Murdoch tabloids in Australia are hardly red-top screamers and of course, there is no more respectable tabloid paper than Fairfax’s Financial Review.

I suspect that many of our readers are comfortable with the broadsheet and would not welcome us tampering with it. And they would be suspicious that a compact Herald would be headed down-market. But other readers, particularly younger ones and those who catch public transport would probably welcome the portability and convenience of the Herald they love in a compact form.

The papers that are most likely to convert in the short term are those struggling for circulation, trying to find a viable audience – and those with less advertising to convert and therefore less revenue risk. In an Australian context, that means the most likely candidate is…The Australian.

But maybe one day, the Herald. We will watch our former reporter, Robert Thomson, now the editor of The Times in London, as his brave, bold, tabloid experience unfolds. We know everyone at News Limited in Australia is watching closely also.

On Fred Hilmer’s departure:

Our CEO leaves next year and despite his track record in strengthening the company, he is still subject to the criticism that he is not of the media – that he did not spend his entire career working in newspapers, magazines or television. But I can tell you from my unique vantage point, Fred Hilmer has upheld the highest possible standards of editorial integrity and been a champion of independent journalism. He has never flinched, never buckled, never taken a backward step in defending the rights of our editors and journalists to find the news and report it in a fair and balanced way.

On popular journalism:

And whilst some readers may turn up their noses when they see Australian Idol on the front page of the Herald – twice – in one week – at the paper, we simply have to understand that Australian Idol proved to be an important part of the lives of very many of our readers. Of the 3.3 million who watched the final episode, very many were the affluent and influential core of Herald readership. It is important that we cover stories like Australian Idol – but we need to cover them in a way that appeals to our readers – hopefully with wit, insight and wonderful pictures.

Read a transcript of Scott’s speech on the Fairfax website here: http://www.fxj.com.au/

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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