In order to stay afloat, The West Australian is looking to east-coast tabloids for editorial inspiration.
The brassy tabloid front pages that adorn Anthony De Ceglie’s Twitter feed tell the story of what happened to one of Australia’s most boring newspapers when a bright, ambitious 33-year-old editor was brought in to shake things up.
Since De Ceglie took over at the helm at the beginning of the year, he’s wasted no time in transforming the paper into a Daily Telegraph-style tabloid: punny, snappy front pages; celebrities and models in feature pictures on page 3; a more national focus. The recent Sydney CBD stabbing attack was given seven pages of coverage at the front of the paper — the same as the Tele.
Then there are the animals. There seems to be wildlife photographs most days, with an extended caption, and a notable preference for African animals from zoos around the world. In the past month, as well as local wildlife pictures of baby wombats, sharks and emus, the West has featured leopards (twice), rhinos and gorillas.
“He has an obsession with animal pics, especially African safari types, there must be several each week,” a current West journalist told INQ. “Each one displaces a local pic.”
A former West journalist said the paper had been turned into a variation of the Tele: “It’s gone all the way now, there’s lots of celebrity stuff, a lot about models, wildlife pictures.”
De Ceglie’s move to the West was a return home to Perth. He started his career at regional and suburban WA newspapers before landing a job at the Sunday Times, then-owned by News Corp. He worked his way up to deputy editor, spent time with News Corp in New York and came back to a job in Sydney at The Daily Telegraph in 2016. He shared the 2018 Walkley Award for headlines after Tele efforts including “Peking Schmuck” about former senator Sam Dastyari, and “Bundle of Joyce” on the revelation that Barnaby Joyce’s former staffer Vikki Campion was pregnant with Joyce’s baby.
He was on duty for the Telegraph’s Geoffrey Rush “world exclusive”, accusing the actor of inappropriate behaviour on the set of the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of King Lear, which the actor has since won a defamation payout over.
He’s been open in his intentions for the look and style of the paper, telling The Australian earlier this year his mentors are Chris Dore (former Tele editor and now the Oz’s editor-in-chief), and Sam Weir (editor of The Courier-Mail).
“My theory about newspapers is that we are in the fight of our lives. So it’s not just good enough to report the news, we also need to interpret the news,” De Ceglie said. “I don’t think that just because our paper is looking more engaging, that it’s looking more colourful and interesting, necessarily means that it’s going down-market. I think that if anything, we’re doing more sophisticated journalism.”
It’s now a newspaper clearly modelled on The Daily Telegraph, says Edith Cowan University journalism lecturer Dr Kayt Davies. “But while the Daily Telegraph can be accused of being right wing, it can be held up against The Sydney Morning Herald to provide balance, but in Perth there isn’t another paper to provide that balance, and we end up with a sensationalist paper being the only paper in Perth,” she said.
Predictably, De Ceglie’s approach has jolted the audience in all directions. “Some of his cover treatment is fantastic, and some of it you’re, like, what drugs are you on?” said long-time Perth journalist Martin Saxon, who worked with De Ceglie at the Sunday Times when it was owned by News Corp. “Anthony’s doing some really good things, and then you turn the page and it’s not so good.”
De Ceglie has taken the helm at a difficult time. The fortunes of the West have moved with the state it serves. At the height of the mining boom 10 years ago, the West was also booming. At one point, its Saturday edition was so large newsagents needed the jobs section printed separately to the rest of the paper. The business section was by far the largest of any of the capital city newspapers in the country, with its own economics editor and stock price listings. Now it runs only a couple of pages a day. It didn’t have an online paywall until De Ceglie established one this year.
Meanwhile, the journalists left at the West are still trying to fill the news pages every day. De Ceglie has made greater use of the network’s journalists working for its regional newspapers, but the pressure on the greatly-reduced newsroom in Perth is taking a toll.
“Some days there are three or four staff on the floor,” one of the remaining journalists told INQ. “Some reporters are running around like a headless chook all day and not having time to do proper stories. It becomes a vicious cycle where reporters that could otherwise get good stories are running around and churning out shit.”
“There are journalists at the West who are very good but the time and energy they have to put into their work is limited,” Davies said. “When you turn a newsroom into a sausage factory, you lose the moments where there is collegial sitting around, talking about something fascinating and sparking an idea for a story … you lose a sense of the newsroom breathing … the newsroom is the heart of a city, but you cut that off.”
The editor’s clear objective has been to increase readership. The Monday-to-Friday numbers reported an increase according to Roy Morgan data released this month. The Saturday and Sunday editions are down. But he’s dealing with a diminished team, and fewer pages to fill. Earlier this year the newsroom lost decades of experience in one of its heaviest rounds of redundancies, including 2018’s WA journalist of the year and the West’s state political editor Gary Adshead and Walkley Award-winning medical reporter Cathy O’Leary.
Like other newspapers around the country and world, the West‘s loss of experienced and specialist reporters has led to less in-depth local coverage — a particular concern for Western Australians, so isolated from the rest of the country. This is a state, after all, where locals refer to the other side of the Nullarbor as the “east coast”, in the same way that Tasmanians talk about “the mainland” and Northern Territorians speak of “southerners”.