Margaret Simons writes:

Ever heard of The Deep End?
It’s Radio National’s serious minded arts and culture program. But call
up the national broadcaster’s website and you’ll have to make a few
clicks to find it. Meanwhile prominently displayed on the News home
page is The Shallow End, which exists only in the online world. It is the ABC’s way of getting celebrity gossip prominently on its website.

In
the online world quality media outlets suddenly let their hair down.
Some might say that what they let down is their reputations, that
precious “branding” that traditional media companies are trying to
migrate to the online world. Perhaps. Or perhaps the internet just
provides sufficient freedom for an attempt to re-engage with what
people actually want to read. For those raised on broadsheet notions of
quality, this is a challenging thing.

The trend is
particularly noticeable at Fairfax. Serious broadsheet journalism in
the hard copy version but on the website – what would once have been
page three girls are now homepage girls, plus horoscopes, lots of news
on Tom Cruise and his daughter and a section called Time Out that
relays celebrity gossip from the wire services.

How do you sum
up the difference? MikeVan Niekerk, Fairfax’s online managing editor,
rejects the word “tabloid” because of its negative connotations but
says the attempt to play to a different audience is deliberate. Yes, he
says, there are more “gee whiz” stories online. But the serious news is
there too.

The great luxury of online is unlimited space. The
home page can have up to 20 stories “above the fold” compared to two or
three in the print edition. “So long as we are covering the serious
news properly there is no problem in broadening the mix in the
margins,” says Van Niekerk.

And the great reality check of
online journalism is that the people who run the site know exactly what
people are reading. The Fairfax sites list their most viewed stories at
the bottom of the home page.

The serious news of the day is
usually top of the pops, but at number two or three there is the “gee
whiz”. The most viewed stories over the last week have included a story
about beans and farts and a weird sex court case.
Even yesterday – a very strong news day – news about the buried miners
and Private Kovco’s funeral jockeyed for position in the popularity
stakes with stories about a stunt artist

Peter Fray

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