It’s been a big couple of weeks down at the News Corp factory, pumping out prototypes for the “outrage economy”.
Outrage journalism is the application of the “move fast and break things” mantra that Mark Zuckerberg spruiked for Facebook. It’s an application of new economy agility for old media.
When it works, it’s great. But moving fast can see the news product itself drift along the spectrum from outrage reporting to amplification to outright manufacture. Get it wrong and you can break your relationship with your readers.
Still, News Corp is betting that the reaction to the outrage will be enough people pulling out their wallets to maintain a reliable tabloid voice.
Like all legacy media, News Corp tabloids are building reader revenues models — subscriptions to replace advertising’s rivers of gold. The most successful — like the New York Times— are built on a national or global market that try to hold tight to traditional principles.
With its Australian tabloids, News Corp is trying something different. It’s aiming for a model that works city by city, demanding a product that reaches deeply into local passions. Outrage journalism is about provoking those passions.
The 21st century tells us that bannered outrage journalism drives individual pick-ups. It’s perfect point-of-sale advertising. But does it work to drive continuing subscriptions?
Last month, News Corp released masthead by masthead “internal figures” giving us a base line for their experiment. Apart from confirming the continued slump in print, it showed digital subscriptions ranging from 114,203 for Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, 108,800 for Melbourne’s Herald Sun, 85,770 for Adelaide’s Advertiser, and Brisbane’s Courier-Mail coming in last at 80,291.
Tele works blue, but for whom?
Now, separate story cycles in each of the Tele and the Hun demonstrate both the temptations and the challenges they face.
In Sydney, the Tele has been working blue, always popular in the outrage economy. We had Canterbury rugby league players getting their gear off in a private venue — but not so private that it was immune from the telephoto lens of patient photographers camped up the street.
The club cried privacy. The NRL fined them $250,000. Former NSW captain Paul Gallen called out the Telegraph on the Nine network and News Corp’s Fox league programs spent a large part of the finals build-up defending their sister publication.
Then, last Friday, the Tele followed up with a front page on the unwelcome sexting by South Sydney players, setting up an outrage likely to dominate this week’s run into the preliminary finals.
Where you think these stories fall on spectrum between legitimate exposure to manufacturing outrage, depends a lot about what you think about rugby league in general and about these very Sydney clubs in particular.
The challenge for the Tele is that league supporters and Tele readers overlap. And News Corp has form going back to the Super League wars as far as South Sydney’s fans are concerned. If the outrage amplification encourages supporters to choose between the Tele and their club (or, even, the game), then the masthead is unlikely to be the winner.
As recent Cronulla Sharks fan Scott Morrison demonstrates, it’s an article of faith that league support is the key to Sydney’s suburbs.
Meanwhile in Melbourne, the Herald-Sun found itself in a tricky place in the outrage economy when a sly finger-wagging at Serena Williams ended up the global poster for racism. Tricky, because while racism can pull a certain type of reader (and subscriber), it repels others and, in particular, advertisers. It strengthens support in one (older, whiter) demographic, while walling you off from another (younger, diverse).
In a market like the US there are enough old, white men to make this viable. Not so in a single city (and relatively diverse) market like Melbourne. That requires a certain dog-whistling deniability — hard with the stereotyping hard-wired into the cartoon.
Still, the Herald-Sun tried to keep the focus on Williams (and “free speech”), and their supporters followed the whistle. Read the comments — I know, never good advice — supporting the cartoon. They’re more or less: “Yeah, but Serena …”
Meanwhile, Nike’s endorsement of controversial American football star Colin Kaepernick gave another warning: advertisers are prepared to pay good money to avoid the right wing outrage economy.