The AFR’s new multi-million dollar online push is in serious trouble, with the big end of town blowing up over the hopeless software platform and Fairfax’s draconian policy of cracking down on re-use of articles.
One major financial institution is apparently seriously considering banning subscriptions from its staff because of the inability to use it properly.

Fairfax Business Media boss Michael Gill copped both barrels yesterday in a meeting with about 10 corporate communications executives from a number international and top 100 firms, as well as a smattering of senior spin doctors from leading issues management houses. He was left in no doubt that the entire process has been a major blunder from the start.

Gill and his minions were taken to task, not just for creating the new and all-but-unusable website, but for not bothering to consult with major customers on what the best way to use it was. They seemed to work on a Field of Dreams strategy – build it and they will come – without any thinking going into what people actually wanted from the service.

The system used to work so that spin doctors could either use aggregators like Media Monitors or Factiva, or pay to access the stories online themselves, to put together a media summary for their bosses every morning. It allowed the CEOs and senior execs to get a quick summary of the issues facing their company, without having to trawl through seven papers themselves. It wasn’t exactly a great money spinner for Fairfax, but it did create a symbiotic relationship where the execs would be happy to talk to AFR if they saw they were getting a good run.

But earlier this year AFR launched its new website, abruptly cutting off all access to archive stories from the Fairfax Digital platform and putting them all on its own website, and ending its long-running relationships with Media Monitors. They also constructed the site so that the stories couldn’t be cut and pasted into an email and forwarded on. This means that CEOs and senior execs are now getting media summaries without anything from AFR – unless they get a separate email with a link to AFR’s website at an outrageous $3 per click. The AFR’s bells-and-whistles website doesn’t allow clicks through from Blackberries, which is how most of the CEO types access their 6am emails. The system, which uses Flash rather than HTML, is so bad that some subscribers can’t even type in the search terms without trying three or four times. Flash is dreadfully slow for some users and Gill was told by one spin doctor that it was easier to go to the local shop, buy the paper and retype the article, than it was to pay about $20 and access it online. Gill tried to defend the website, telling the group that it was all part of “The AFR’s strategy” to restrict content because one bank used an AFR article to support a prospectus. He said there was “no one who’s ever had to grapple with this before”. One spinner helpfully pointed out that yes, it has been done before, by Napster and iTunes – and the AFR was behaving like Metallica, which sued its fans and lost significant market share. One of Gill’s minions admitted that the process had been flawed, and that the meeting was part of the way AFR was trying to salvage something.

Another comms person for a major global firm piped up with “Michael, I don’t think you realise the immense reputational damage this is doing the AFR on a global scale”, saying their senior execs were no longer bothering to read The AFR online because it was just too hard.

One senior comms person for a major company said their execs now considered The Australian “the newspaper of record for financial markets” because they simply couldn’t get anything from the Fin.

Gill said the AFR was working on a Blackberry solution, as well as a way to allow the links to the AFR stories to be included in emails with other stories – like those from the newspaper of record.

The question remains as to whether the AFR can do it in time to avoid the looming backlash – or to repair the damage done to its reputation. What he seems to have forgotten is it’s the spinners who decide which paper they’re going to let their execs talk to during a transaction. And if AFR doesn’t pick up its online act, then they might as well give the story to The Australian, because at least they’ll be able to access it the next day.