In the late 1980s I proudly served as a subeditor on The Sydney Morning Herald. Since then I’ve kept a close but fond eye on the SMH while, more recently, watching Fairfax’s foray into digital publishing in horror.

Before the internet was invented, a senior editor defined the SMH to me as “a second-day paper”.

What he meant, I think was that the Herald published analysis alongside  beautiful photographs and art on its broadsheet acreage, while also breaking the odd political or investigative yarn. Leave the others to chase ambulances.

It made sense to me, as an observation of reality and as a marketing strategy, that the SMH culture focused on its core journalistic strengths.

So the tragedy is that, given the utterly predictable, rapid and irreversible migration of the advertising “rivers of gold” to the internet, the Herald has failed to protect and promote the very niche that distinguished it in Australian journalism.

Now the SMH masthead drowns in the ever-expanding array of online news, information and entertainment. It has failed to grasp that brand loyalty and a seamless brand experience are as paramount to commercial online publishing as they are to toothpaste.

What is the point of half-heartedly (not to mention inexplicably) reviving the National Times brand, just to have it wallow over a mishmash of unpromoted, poorly aggregated but generally good-quality journalism?

Indeed, does anyone in the “quality” press see any value these days in publishing journalism that’s a delight to read?

Outsourcing the investment in highly skilled, dedicated value-adders such as in-house career subeditors represents the final chunk of canned ham Fairfax has chucked at the spew that passes for news in most formats.

As for the print edition, we all know that hurling some rolled-up tree pulp onto my lawn is a dying business, as much as I used to adore tucking the first edition of the Herald under my arm as I left work late at night.

The question Fairfax has failed to answer this decade is: what is the perfectly profitable ratio of celebrity titillation to well-researched, incisive and engagingly presented journalism?

Sadly, I think the SMH has missed the chance to monetise online the extraordinary value the masthead once held, blindly trashing the brand in the process.

Now, in trashing the sorely under-appreciated, complex skill of subediting, the brand is ruined. As is my life-long loyalty to the SMH.

Peter Fray

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