Reader one: Regarding the article on Michael Gill and the AFR.com debacle in yesterday’s Crikey, you might be interested to know that librarians/research people in corporations, law and accounting firms, investment banks, associations, educational institutions and government depts have had four similar meetings with Mr Gill (two in Melbourne about six weeks apart and the same in Sydney in March and May) with the same messages being conveyed.

The greatest issue is the total lack of understanding of how businesses, students and govt departments use news and, in an even sadder indictment, a complete lack of interest in finding this out in the development stages of the new product.

Whispers that the AFR would be pulled from the major media databases began circulating about 9-12 months before it happened, yet Fairfax Business Media didn’t consult with anyone in that time. We were presented with a fait accompli delivered with enough fanfare to hide the fact that it’s a seriously flawed product.

As an example of the frustration involved with using the product, today it took me three attempts to print a full text article for my boss because none of the buttons which said Print actually made the full text print. Can you imagine what else they’ve gotten wrong if simple printing isn’t intuitive?

Comments in our first librarian/researcher meeting included “you’re forcing us to breach copyright” and “what makes you think your paper is so special?”. The latter point, which seemed almost rude at the time, has proven true in my organisation. Producing the usual morning media clips for our audience of 50 people using the new AFR.com product would have tripled our spend on media databases — that’s just to do what we’ve always done, with no improvements to the service to justify the additional expense.

You could even argue that delivery using AFR.com is a retrograde step because users have to click to view the full text rather than have it presented to them in an email. I can see the issues in this for the various media outlets, but this is the reality of how people use news information, like it or lump it. We’re a non-profit organisation so can’t wear a media bill jumping from $35,000pa to about $140,000pa. And people in our organisation need information to do their jobs, so the list of recipients can only be cut so far.

Our solution is not to provide any AFR content from AFR.com but to provide an abstract of a relevant AFR article from another media database. Interestingly, not a single person, not even our Board of Directors, has complained. So the question of “what makes you think your paper is so special?” is actually spot on.

My main concern now is that other news providers will think that setting up their own product is a good idea and we’ll see more major sources pulled from news aggregators like Factiva, AAP and Media Monitors (I’m not aware of any rumours along these lines yet, thank God). From a researcher’s perspective, having to search in two places for the same information is an inefficient use of time, so it would make me weep to think that more publishers could potentially consider this in the future. The FT and WSJ have put embargoes on the publishing of their content in Factiva, so it could be a slippery slope ….

Reader two: I used to work at the AFR and know the following: Afr.com has cost Fairfax in excess of $10m to set up. Michael Gill has had to go back to the board to ask for more money — and was told “fix it or else”. As recently as March this year the website had only 800 paid subscribers. Michael Gill was repeatedly advised by online industry experts that his strategy was not the right way to go, but refused to believe them. The talk on the AFR at the moment is that this debacle will be Gill’s nadir and that he ought to be sacked because of it. 

Reader three: Just following on your story on AFR.com, I was asked as a subscriber to answer a questionnaire about it a few weeks ago. As a humble user, my comments were exactly the same as those reported in Crikey. And if you have information to share, you usually want it to reach a wide audience — so it will be picked up by Media Monitors, Factiva and Google Alerts. So why give to the Fin — even if you can find someone to talk to! Media diversity in the business sphere is the loser here.

Reader four: You guys are so right! I work for a major real estate firm and Gill and his underlings tried to intimidated us to buy this ridiculous package. In the end we signed up to propertyreview.com.au subscription package and now it is also on our intranet. I think AFR.com has missed the boat. Or should I say it has long since sailed away.

Reader five: I am a corporate Information Manager who has been battling to come to grips with accessing the afr.com website and providing press to my internal clients. Good to see the “big end of town” telling Michael Gill exactly what furious Information Professionals have been telling him since the removal of AFR and BRW content from Factiva was first mooted. Maybe he will listen now that “important” people are telling him what a fiasco this is.

The Information Online Group (ALIA), in association with Libraries In Financial Enterprises Group (LIFE) and the Business Information Group hosted two Fairfax Forums with Michael Gill and Rick Bremble. The first of these was on 20 March, where they faced a room full of angry Information Professionals from all fields — education, banking and finance, law etc. Michael Gill told that story about his bank sending him an AFR article to support a prospectus and he dragged this story out again at the next follow-up forum on 1 May. “Who cares?” was the attitude of most people at the forums and it is funny to see that he is still telling that irrelevant story. His attitude at both Forums was arrogant and condescending and he has certainly not endeared himself to the Information world.

I think it is this lack of consultation and arrogant “We’re the AFR and we can do what we like” attitude that is most infuriating, although that is closely followed by the ridiculous decision to launch the beta version (yes, the BETA version) on the day AFR and BRW content was removed from all other providers, which just happened to be April Fool’s Day. Sadly, it was not a joke. Fairfax did not seem to understand that a beta version is a testing version of a program or database, and that it should have been launched before they went live with the new afr.com website. There was no access to the beta version before all content was removed, and it was more or less “like it or lump it”.

The website has improved since it was launched, but it’s still not right. It has been a nightmare — amongst problems too numerous to list, here’s just a few. In the first weeks the afr.com website if left open would crash Internet Explorer (and this is still happening periodically), Tracks did not work, neither did the correct articles show up once a search had been run and then the terms you’d searched for would not be highlighted in the article so it was impossible to see where the keywords were.

The Blackberry access issue continues to be a major problem and none of my people are happy that they can’t read any AFR press I send them if they are out of the office, interstate or overseas. They are already irritated that each time they request an AFR article from me, I interrogate them to see if they are going to forward it on, and to how many people so that I can set the “Email Limit” so that we won’t be charged $3.30 each time someone views the article if the email recipient forwards it on.

We are scheduled for another Fairfax Forum in the next few weeks, but I doubt many Information Professionals will actually turn up as it is quite obvious that Fairfax is not really going to listen to us. The first Forum was packed but the second one had approximately half the number. At that Forum, the Fairfax IT director (?) who was demonstrating the site was visibly annoyed by the questions from the audience and quite rude at times. Not sure if I will bother attending as there doesn’t seem to be any point.