Crikey Counterpoint: two verdicts on The Punch
Day one of News Ltd's bold new online venture The Punch, and the verdicts are in from Guy Rundle and Mumbrella.
Guy Rundle writes: Well day one of The Punch, News Ltd's bold new online venture, and they've already had some sort of win -- otherwise why would they label it "Nigeria's most widely read newspaper"? Ah, whoops, that's where you go to when you type "the punch" into Google. The Punch itself is a different proposition, one of the coolest and most streamlined online publications of 1998, with large clumpy articles that fill most of the page, a few 'must read' hyperlink lists down the side, and a bunch of articles by people who owe editor David Penberthy a favour. Boldly announced as a site owned by the billionaire Rupert Murdoch, that "won't pay anyone" the Punch is so obviously conceived and designed by a bunch of people born, raised and pretty much burnt-out in the final age of newspapers, that it's a wonder they didn't try and put the screen on a old hot lead press to get the words into it. The model is obviously a mix of Slate, the Huffington Post and a couple of other things closer to home -- very close -- but they haven't yet begun to understand that what makes these sites work is a crazy and instantly visible plethora of pieces, not a scroll down through Mike Rann, Catherine Lumby and Fiona Hudson, which is -- with all due respect to those estimable personages -- just about the most obvious cyber rent-a-crowd you could come up with. For the last couple of months Penberthy has been sharking around Sydney and points West, trying to wheedle free contributions out of all and sundry with a mixture of flattery, appeals to national duty and the promises of payments in the future. The proposition is ridiculous. The Guardian takes unpaid contributors for its ''Comment is Free'' section, but everyone knows that the paper loses millions a year, and always has, its survival guaranteed by the income from the Scott Trust, established by its most famous editor. And even Comment is Free pays half a dozen contributors a day (the rule being if your contribution is moved from the margin to the centre column, you get about a hundred quid). If News Ltd is currently a not-for-profit organisation that is less from the public spiritedness of its proprietors than their ineptitude in dealing with the online revolution, and the collapse of the culture wars which sustained their embattled attitude. The New York Post has lost 20% of its readership in the past year or so -- it takes a serious anti-talent to achieve that. Now, in Murdoch's plunging around between total free access and locking up content we have a pre-twitter collective blog, run by a 40 year old reinvented 'youf' who has spent his life in printed tabloids. Presumably this is a prelude to locking up the online content of the News Ltd titles. Whether the snowdrifts of give-aways at hotels, airports and corporate lobbies will continue remains to be seen. In the meantime, Mr Punch should probably look at how aggregator sites now work, and get his outfit up to ohhhhh 2002 best practice. And stop insulting everyone's intelligence with the privilege of supplying free content to Anti-News Unlimited. Actually the Nigerian Punch (www.punchng.com) is kinda cool... Tim Burrowes from Mumbrella writes: So what to make of The Punch? If you've missed it, this is News Ltd's new uber blog which has been many months in the making. It went live on Sunday night, ahead of an official Monday launch. So bear in mind that these initial thoughts come before any Monday agenda-setting bombshells. First and most important. It’s good enough. And that’s not meant as damning with faint praise. By that I mean that right from the beginning it feels like it’s going to find an audience. As you might expect from a new site, it’s got its teething problems. On my netbook’s version of Windows XP, a low graphics, text only version loads up of each page first, and the full fat version only appears if I refresh the page. Conversely, my Apple’s ancient version of Safari goes right to the high graphics version, although no ads appear. Of my home devices, my iPod touch seems to be the only one that shows it as the designer intended. But those are early glitches. Believe me, Mumbrella’s first few weeks had far more quirks. (Update: on my office PC running IE 7 there’s a whole new problem which I share with colleagues, with comment threads overwriting articles, making both unreadable.) The design itself is VERY stripped down. Effectively it’s a simple blog format. It would appear that it’s going to be a straightforward approach of newest item at the top. That’s an immediate point of difference to the recently revamped Crikey site, which is the most similar proposition in this market to The Punch. In fact, put the two sites side by side, and the new visitor would probably spend more time on a first visit with Crikey, which is divided into its five broad topics - politics, media, business, environment and “life”. The content - mainly consisting of external links - is certainly more findeable at Crikey on one or two clicks. However, it’s been noticeable since the revamp that at times Crikey struggles to keep the sections fresh. It’s possible to come back a couple of days later and find much the same content. Meanwhile, The Punch has got almost the opposite issue -- there’s more content in there than first appears. Some of it admittedly appears to have been repurposed from the sister News Ltd print titles (reference to things like "on these pages" is a bit of a giveaway). But it still takes a bit of discovering. And, at least initially, the writers list is shorter than expected -- five staffers (with admirably self-deprecating bios) and 14 contributors. But for me if there is an issue with the layout, it will be the random nature of what the reader comes back to. Based on the mixture available at launch it’s going to be quite an unpredictable experience. Day one saw politics, group sex and coffee shop etiquette as the top three items. There’s also an endearing fascination with the snapper’s trade - I’ve already come across one what it’s like to photograph a bikie funeral and one on what it’s like to get involved in an arrest you’re trying to photograph. Well, Penbo did say he’d be celebrating journalism. In his guest post for Mumbrella, editor David Penberthy says that they may examine a premium subscription model down the track. That is, I suspect, something every News Corp editor is expected to say at the moment following Murdoch’s recent pronouncements on the issue. Based on this early look, I suspect there’s not a realistic prospect of that for The Punch anytime soon. So how will it go? The design means that (as it should be) it will be the content that brings people back. Individual postings have a nice clean, readable layout, and reader comments get a decent showing too. However, not just the quality of the opinion pieces (although that’ll be vital of course), but also the quality of the comment stream will be what decides if readers return. One of the problems that render sister site news.com.au’s comments stream unappealing is that the quantity of idiotic contributions outweighs the intelligent ones. The Punch’s comment policy (or "community agreement") appears designed to encourage constructive debate, and this will be important. Early signs (and I do realise it is early) for external links are not that inspiring yet - despite Penbo's big talk suggesting otherwise. Ten news links, seven of which go out to other parts of the News Corp family at the time of writing, plus one to the BBC, one to smh.com.au and one to the ABC. Admittedly though News has the biggest local online footprint, so it would be unfair to read too much into that yet. But the same goes in the ten links in the "opinion from everywhere" section where there are (or should be) far more options - five of the six Australian links are to News Ltd sites, while every single link is to a major site. Early days again, but no sign yet of them linking to undiscovered gems. Commercially, the site looks fairly standard - a leader board and a medium rectangle as the ad sites. Mind you, I am intrigued by Penbo’s promise in his guest posting: “We will take a lateral and permissive approach to advertising and are well-up for creative executions which may struggle to find acceptance on conventional news sites.” Lateral and permissive sounds interesting. But with a site that plans to be conversationally led, there’s only so much you can do before you show it to the public. It will be far fairer to judge the site as it evolves with reader input over the next two or three months. For now it’s not perfect, but it is a successful launch.