Last night, I was paid the princely sum of $80 to take part in a 90-minute focus group session about The Age. I’d been selected after completing one of the regular online surveys emailed to Age Insider Panel members.

It was a standard focus group setting at the premises of GFK Blue Moon in Richmond: a video camera above a one-way mirror, microphone dangling from the ceiling, chips, nuts and soft drink in the centre of the oval table.

There were 10 of us: eight men, women women. Perhaps that says something? Only two of the group could be described as youngish. The rest were middle-aged, a couple semi-retired or self-employed. A barrister. A member of the Immigration Review Tribunal. A Melbourne University HR worker. A doctoral student. An engineer.

We’d obviously been chosen because we said we read the Business section. No one aside from me admitted to heavy internet usage. One self-employed male said he couldn’t stand reading from a screen.

The moderator began with general questions about The Age. Were we subscription readers? What sections did we read? How did we generally feel about the paper?

Affecting my best Paul Kelly pomposity, I described The Age as an important Victorian institution, a cultural essential, a serious paper.

There was general agreement that the paper was now “flailing about”, unsure of what it wanted to be. Mention was made of changes in format and style. A Singaporean woman didn’t think much of the international news coverage. A couple cited the crossword favourably. We all liked The Age but with reservations.

An odd little man lectured us on the paper’s left-wing bias, especially over climate change and Malcolm Turnbull. I stifled a smile when he claimed Andrew Bolt was a leading intellectual who writes lively and well-researched columns.

But the real business of the night was to gauge our reaction to two mock-ups of The Age. We were given a complete newspaper, dated last week, instructed to skim it and see if we could detect any changes. Except for Andrew Bolt’s acolyte, we all picked it: a new tabloid section called Business Day at the front with Sport at the back.

Did this combined business-sport liftout constitute a significant change? How did we feel about it?

I suggested it devalued the Business section. Others thought the mock-up contained more business news content than the real thing. The barrister said he couldn’t read the commercial property advertisements.

There was an inane discussion about the convenience of the tabloid size for train travellers. “Haven’t you heard of folding?” I asked.

Then we were given a second mock-up: still a tabloid Business Day but with Sport as a liftout inside it. Apparently the daily features such as Money and the Green Guide will be further liftouts inside Sport.

Surely this devalued the sports section, I suggested, marvelling at my even-handedness. Yes, Sport is hidden away, remarked someone. One of the women said she never read the Sport section anyway.

And then we were asked to vote for either the current paper or one of the two mock-ups. Mock-up No.1 was No.2 on the ballot paper. Mock-up No.2 was No.1 on the ballot paper. I asked the moderator if he had ever worked in Florida.

About half of us voted for the status quo. We probably still equate broadsheet with quality. Perhaps we’re just hidebound traditionalists. We certainly don’t believe the quality or quantity of the content will increase under the tabloid model.

The others voted mainly for Business Day to surround the Sport section. There were several mentions of checking stock prices and superannuation funds, so it came as no surprise.

We left, clutching plain white envelopes with our banknotes. Briefly, I engaged the man from Camberwell in a discussion about the logic of The Australian’s design. Everyone else melted into the night.

At one stage during the evening, I described us all as the dying remnants of newspaper readers. No one had children who read newspapers.

I’ve read and subscribed to The Age for more than 35 years. Whatever my criticisms, I value it. I want it to survive. Breakfast still demands The Age but I’ve migrated online even if most of my generation hasn’t.

Over the weekend, I read some elegant writing on Ted Kennedy in the New York Times and the Boston Globe, writing the like of which I rarely see in The Age.

But at least they’re going to give me a tabloid liftout Business Day.

Peter Fray

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