On Saturday morning, SMH economics editor Ross Gittins took his blade to most of the nation’s economic commentators, skewering them with his usual common sense over their botched reading of the last week’s national accounts. Today he targets the newspaper industry in general and the Canberra press gallery and editors in particular as examples of failing competitors. Ah Gittins, you’ve done it again.

The column is actually about sociology defying economics – competitors care more about impressing other competitors than winning by concentrating on customers – but it’s his press gallery example that will have some hacks mumbling about economics teachers-cum-columnists:

The parliamentary press gallery in Canberra, for instance – the pinnacle of serious journalism in this country – is notoriously inward-looking… They care deeply what their competitors on other papers think of their performance – with an occasional thought about what the pollies and their staffers think – but rarely give a thought to what the readers back home want or need.

When one of their rivals gets a good story, they’re most reluctant to abase themselves and follow it up next day for the edification of their own readers. The readers won’t know their story’s merely a follow-up, but all their mates in the gallery will…

In theory, the editor should be the one person on a paper most obsessed by the need to stay reader-focused. In practice, editors face an enormous temptation to divert their energies to things calculated to impress rival editors and convince their troops what a great editor they are.

Gittins argues that editors and journalists set much higher store on “exclusives” that their readers do.

Readers often don’t know a story’s exclusive unless you tell them. And breakfast radio can tell them the story before they pick up your paper.

What’s more, I doubt if many readers set exclusives high on the list of qualities they’re looking for in a paper. There are many other, less spectacular things they may be looking for, such as authoritative detail about government decisions once they progress from speculation to announced fact, service information, good writing, clear explanation, adequate backgrounding and the best commentary rather than the most commentary.

Hmmm, that last bit almost sounds like Ross talking his own book. If it was television, you’d wonder if there were contract negotiations afoot.

Peter Fray

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