The news about the new compact edition of The Age is kind of good. It works, for the most part, and the things that don’t work are part of a malaise that has nothing to do with paper size.

Meanwhile the biggest determinant of success — the ads — are respectable in number, though only the insiders will know whether the rate card was discounted to achieve this result.

I found the new format attractive, easy to navigate and engaging, on a day when The Age iPad app was crashing regularly and as usual slow to load. It was only six months ago that I broke a five newspaper a day habit, and took to reading all papers on the iPad.

Would I switch back to print because of the compact? Probably not, but as I waited for the app to load for the third time, I at least had time to ask myself the question.

The pastel coding is cute, the typeface clean, the blurbs pull you through the paper and I took up only a modest amount of my cafe’s communal table when I was reading it.

The problems are not with the format, but with the heart, including apparently the paper’s understanding of its own history.

One has to feel sorry for editor Andrew Holden, who in his “Welcome to a New Age” column on page two refers  to the paper’s “pioneering editor” David Syme  whom he says “launched” the Age in 1854.

Except Syme did not launch the paper.  The facts are correctly chronicled in the Focus piece by Geoffrey Blainey. The Symes bought the paper in 1856, at which time it was almost two years old, and insolvent.  David Syme did not take over as editor and publisher until 1860.

Once there would have been a crusty old sub to save Holden from that embarrassing error.  Not now. This is part of a long term decline in sub-editing and proofreading that has nothing to do with paper size.

Other issues: stories that “spill” to inside pages in the middle of a sentence, boring headlines and a few typos throughout. These are things that only the oldies might notice as a lapse from standards that once held sway. Then again, it is the oldies who are most likely to buy the hard copy paper.

There are some respectable news stories: the big banks’ lies and the new evidence on the causes of the Kilmore Black Saturday fires.

It isn’t The Age’s fault that the Herald Sun has scooped it hollow with a cracking yarn on secret police tapes that shed fresh light on the Liberal State Government’s role in supporting rogue staffer Tristan Weston in the wake of him being forced to resign over an Office of Police Integrity report.

How long has the Herald Sun been sitting on that? They could not have asked for a better yarn with which to steal some of  The Age’s compact thunder.

Other changes in tone, again not tied to the compact but noticeable over the last six months, are a tendency to featurise what could be hard news stories, so that one has to read well in to find out why this person or incident is in the news.

Only very good writing can sustain that kind of treatment, and the writing is not that good. In fact, in this brave new edition of one of Australia’s most important papers, there is a lot of competent news reporting, and a couple of pieces that rise above the competent, but not a single piece of beautiful non-fiction writing. Yet a good read is, surely, one of the things that just might encourage readers to stick to print.

The graphics on the story about the banks work quite well, but where are the good photos? Page three has only a grainy shot of police Special Operations Group members standing around. There isn’t a single remarkable image in the paper, and quite a few posed shots of the kind rookie suburban newspaper editors are told to avoid.

The new health supplement, Pulse, is interesting. Not a new idea. I remember former executive  Steve Harris suggesting this, with the identical name, more than twenty years ago. But it is snappily written and will probably hold the attention and draw the advertising dollar.

My local newsagent had sold out of The Age this morning, which means that the paper will get at least a short term fillip from the new format. Whether it holds these readers is another thing entirely, and all to do with the content. And there are some problems with that.

Peter Fray

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