The Australian appeared to win the initial battle against The AFR as the two mega legal sections went head to head for the first time last Friday – but can they sustain the performance?

As a result of The AFR’s well-regarded legal affairs editor Chris Merritt defecting to The Australian and pinching the idea of doing a partnership survey, the financial daily had to do their survey earlier than normal or risk being gazumped.

The AFR has traditionally run partnership announcement ads on the first Friday of the new financial year to go with its annual partnership survey. Therefore, a comparison of the ad count will be more instructive in a few weeks time, rather than just assessing The Australian’s big gala launch edition.

Similarly, you need to know what sort of advertising discounts The Australian is offering. Rupert’s sales teams have been trawling the legal precincts for a couple of months.

The Australian has also quietly shelved its original plan to run a legal section on Friday and then on Saturday. As a result, it had a lot of copy from that edition and ads sold for Saturday that needed to be placed.

Finally, it’s interesting to note the profile that The Australian is giving Merritt. Can anyone recall such a large profile given to one journalist in terms of pre-launch promotion. The paper was claiming he is the “most influential legal journalist” and that it has “the best legal affairs section” – even before it ran one edition. It’s a huge ask to live up to that kind of hype, and not surprisingly there’s a degree of incredulity among hacks on The Australian about such big talk.

The strategy appears to be to cannibalise The AFR’s readership by trying to give the impression that Merritt is Australia’s “Mr Legal Affairs.” The proof of the pudding will depend on its quality.

Peter Fray

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