Everyone has been asking me what I think of Fairfax’s new National Times website.

The answer is: not much.  From Fairfax’s point of view, I can see the sense. Why wouldn’t you slice and dice your content in a different way, given the opportunity and the low costs involved? By doing so you maximise the national audience and create more real estate for advertising. As for the content, so far it is unremarkable – a mixture of stuff aggregated from the Fairfax papers’  staffers, mixed with content from other contributors that is nothing if not variable in quality.

Despite the little section on the history of the National Times (a publication which won’t be remembered by anyone under thirty) the newversion has absolutely nothing to do with its print predecessor. The old National Times was a news based publication. The new online version is about opinion, and nothing but. Why use the old title? Perhaps because it was there. Perhaps because they are trying to attract only nostalgic over-50s. No, surely that can’t be it…

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A couple of other points. I understand that the National Times is not paying its contributors. This means two kinds of material can be found on the site : stuff that has already been written and published elsewhere, and material written by people who have either a personal or an institutional motive for getting their name up in lights.

Now, there is not necessarily anything wrong with content written by salaried academics, employees of think tanks, politicians, professional self promoters, representatives of lobby groups and the like. But it does tend to be either predictable or “safe”.

At a time when news organisations are talking about making us pay to access content on line, there seems to be an increasing expectation that they will be able to get people to write that content for free. Well, it might work for some content some of the time. But what is to divide the National Times from other sites where opinion is written and can be read for free, such as  the long-running On Line Opinion and a host of blogs?

I think The National Times will have to do a lot better to fulfill its editor’s promise of ” the best in Australian journalism – giving readers an unprecedented depth and diversity of views and opinion…but also giving them a say.”  What exactly is the site doing that isn’t already being done elsewhere?

Opinion, after all, is cheap in every sense of the word.  But if you want journalism, in the long term you will have to pay people to do it.

The other interesting thing about the National Times site is that it draws a distinction between “columnists” and “bloggers”. Now I can’t work out quite what the distinction is, unless it is that the columnists are mostly salaried Fairfax journalists, and the bloggers are the “others”. It’s another example of what an inadequate word “blogging” has become to describe the huge variety of things carried on under its banner.

Anyway, whether the National Times and the Punch are good or not hardly matters to their continued existence. The costs involved are very low, which makes these new mastheads all upside for the companies behind them. But will the National Times really be, as editor Darren Goodsir claims: “a must-read destination for those seeking the most authoritiatve and sought after views on politics, current affairs and social analysis”? I doubt it. Doubtless some of the better bloggers and contributors will develop their own followings, but the most the National Times and the Punch can hope for is to be ONE of the places readers go to.

By launching these sites, Fairfax and News Limited stake out a market position, hold off competition from other sites, and maximise audience and advertising.

For the rest of us, it’s not much more than harmless.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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