As journalists and business types continue to scratch their collective heads at Fairfax’s isolationist AFR.com strategy, it is worth reflecting back on the glory days.

Three years ago, afr.com was a pacesetter, attracting 25,000 people to the website each day, with 22,000 subscribers who proved a lot more loyal and “sticky” than the newspaper-only subscribers.

There were innovations such as audio interviews, video interviews, a daily video market report, quality updates by a strong team of reporters and even a slot on Ten news. They even did AGMs “as they happened”, which proved popular with readers — subscribers and freeloaders alike. The website was an immensely valuable marketing tool for the brand and the site had enormous potential for online ad revenue.

Sadly, editor Glenn Burge managed to convince himself that if afr.com was closed, then, perhaps, the internet would go away. Editor Giles Parkinson was made redundant and the team broken up. Burge told anyone who would listen that 20,000 extra papers a day would be sold by closing the website and withdrawing from Factiva. That hasn’t happened, yet Burge remains editor.

The market has simply looked elsewhere and now key journalists such as Chancticleer columnist John Durie are defecting to The Australian largely due to its more enlightened internet strategy. Fairfax Business Publications chief Michael Gill had a vision for an online “portal”. People were struggling to understand what that meant then, and are clearly still struggling with it now.

Meanwhile, afr.com today is dysfunctional and dumb. The people that run it simply don’t understand what they are doing. In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, The AFR took out large ads in New Zealand’s weekend newspapers, urging them to go to afr.com for the latest updates. Now they are doing silly things like trying to charge for Reuters stories, which anyone who has ever googled anything will know can be found free on the net.

Meanwhile, another journalist turned spindoctor sent through the following yesterday:

Thank God Crikey has published the definitive story on the ludicrous AFR stand-off on media clippings. My company is just like the one you quoted — I don’t bother giving stories to The AFR , because my execs can’t read them.
You might also have mentioned that the key part of reading clips is not just to see what’s in the story — it’s to see how the story is placed — which is exactly what you can’t do online.

Please don’t let up — I don’t know anyone in corporate circles who isn’t entirely p-ssed off with Michael Gill and his bone-headed approach.

How long will the Fairfax board wait before finally intervening?

Peter Fray

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