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The sun is rising over Sydney Harbour. In the heart of the city, commuters are bustling around the outside of Seven’s Sunrise studio, where out-of-towners press their face against the glass while newsreaders on the other side shuffle their notes. Over the Harbour Bridge at Channel Nine, Today, 31 years on the air, is waging a war to win back the ratings Sunrise took from them a decade ago. In the sprawling city studios of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Fran Kelly switches on her microphone for her influential Breakfast programme on ABC Radio National and across the water in the Pyrmont newsrooms of Fairfax, corporate headquarters for the Sydney Morning Herald and its Melbourne sibling The Age, executives and journalists are facing the fight of their lives to preserve the 180-year tradition of their morning papers.

For Australia’s media, this is the moment that matters. Across television, print and radio everything begins and ends with the mornings – and the battle for their control is a bloodsport.

“What we do as an operation is 24 hours a day,” says Michael Pell, Sunrise’s 30-year-old executive producer. “I don’t feel I can drop the ball at any time. I think of Sunrise as my baby, so if it screams at any time of the day or night I have to wake up and feed it.”

The breakfast shows are where the analysts look first when they judge the free-to-air networks. When the ratings come in just before nine, both Pell and Neil Breen, the new executive producer of Today and former editor of the Murdoch tabloid The Sunday Telegraph, admit to a need for solitude.

“You look at them, but I reckon it can paralyse you,” says Breen. “We want to win. And that’s what you’re in the game for. I don’t think we’re going to win every day, and we’re not – nationally we’re losing the year, but we’re winning the battle of the East Coast.”

Today co-host Lisa Wilkinson, a former magazine editor, thinks that the key to success is the chemistry of the on-screen talent. “When you’re getting up at the ungodly hours that we are,” she says, “if there are tensions on set, it’s very difficult to hide that. I don’t think any of us would get up at 03.00 if we weren’t enjoying the relationships with the people we were spending three and a half hours in front of a camera with.”

Rival network Ten attempted its own Breakfast in 2012 with disastrous results. The show was cancelled before its first year was out, leaving the business, controlled by Lachlan Murdoch and James Packer, scions of two Australia media dynasties, on the ropes. But they have not given up; instead they hired Adam Boland, the man who revolutionised the genre as Pell’s predecessor at Sunrise, to come up with plan B. It will need to be radically different to Seven and Nine if it is to succeed. A popular bet is that Boland will first tackle the safer space of mid-morning talk shows rather than jump directly into the breakfast trenches. The reach of these shows extends beyond the borders of Australia. Whether it’s the election of a pope or the tenth anniversary of the Bali bombings, the networks encourage their morning shows to buzz around the world, catching events as they break. “When something big is happening we send a whole team,” Pell says. “I think there has been a misconception that the public in Australia is not interested in world events and that we’re a bit parochial. Most of the news that happened while you were sleeping was overseas, so there’s a craving for that.”

Wilkinson, drawn to the TV arena in her forties, was known as a trailblazing editor-in-chief at popular women’s magazine Cleo. “The popular myth is that the only women on TV are in their twenties and thirties and a size eight,” she says, “but I think the audience is after people who have something to offer, who have experience outside of television and aren’t just autocue readers.”

The shows have become a key tool for politicians in search of power. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s regular slot on Sunrise is credited as a major reason for his popularity with the electorate and it’s a trick many other politicians have sought to emulate. Pell, however, says he has no desire for his show to become a political kingmaker.

“I don’t think it’s something we do intentionally,” he says. “It comes about from the fact that we interact directly with voters. As a consequence of that, you are in some ways making rock stars out of these guys. We don’t want to get anyone elected or not elected, but if they perform well, that can effect massive change at a federal level.”

Lisa Wilkinson and her Today co-host Karl Stefanovic have also found a way to balance the light format of their show with interviews that can be harder hitting than the politicians expect. Wilkinson’s tough grillings of the current opposition leader, Tony Abbott, have attracted hundreds of thousands of YouTube views.

“They make a grave error if they think we’re just touchy-feely,” she says of the show’s guests, “because we ask the hard questions as well. That’s our number-one game.”

Though new forms of broadcast media continue to emerge, there remains no morning agenda setter quite like the wireless. In late 2012, Sydney station 2DayFM gained global notoriety when a prank call to the Duchess of Cambridge’s hospital ward led to the firing and subsequent suicide of a nurse. Though the station shut down all advertising for days, the outrage was nothing new for keen observers of 2DayFM. Breakfast presenters Kyle Sandilands and Jackie O have become regular targets of nationwide ire, and short-term advertiser walkouts, for stunts such as subjecting a 14-year-old rape victim to a lie detector test.

Tim Burrowes, editor-in-chief of influential media and marketing website Mumbrella, suggests that these blow-ups cause a short-term revenue hit, but it’s not enough to threaten the network’s approach. “What advertisers need is a way of talking to young audiences in number,” he says. “It’s still the number one show. Kyle and Jackie O at breakfast will always deliver those mass audiences, which is why they still choose to advertise.”

In the breakfast chair at 2GB sits Alan Jones, whose voice has loomed large over the AM band for decades. It has been a long-held belief for Australian politicians that governments can rise and fall on the strength of his audience. But after race riots erupted on Sydney’s Cronulla Beach in 2005, regulators found his programme to have been complicit in stoking the fires. Those same regulators recently forced him to undertake extra fact-checking efforts on his show.

Burrowes sees Jones’ style of talk radio as the most at threat. “If you were to look in pure audience terms, then you’d say 2GB is as strong as ever,” he says. “But radio is taking fewer dollars across the board. For talk radio, it’s an ageing audience. Are the next generation genuinely tuning into the radio in the same way?”

abc Radio National Breakfast host Fran Kelly sees hers as one of the great jobs in Australian journalism. “It’s fantastically interesting, on a good day exhilarating,” she says. “If you’re a journalist, what you want to do is have an impact.” Kelly’s show is a near-compulsory morning stop-off for politicans and opinionmakers. “A lot of them see it as part of their job,” she says. “There’s a good deal of respect for the programme; if they’ve got a message to sell or if they’re answerable on a story, our programme is one of the places to tell that story, to give that justification.”

Public radio, for Kelly, has not faltered. It has, she prefers, come into its own. “The beautiful thing about radio is that it’s so fleet of foot. We can start on a story at 06.15 and revisit it throughout the morning, picking up on stuff that’s happening and unfolded.”

The past few years have been painful ones for the newsrooms of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age but, against a backdrop of mass redundancies, tumbling circulation and falling advertising revenues, a new business model is emerging. At its core is an editorial restructure unlike any the organisation has seen, and a shift from traditional broadsheet to tabloid, or “compact” that would have been unthinkable until very recently.

“There had been a division between our print and digital teams for a long time and we had to bring them together,” explains Garry Linnell, editorial director of Fairfax Metro Media and a journalist who first joined The Age more than 30 years ago. “A lot of the core journalistic talent was locked into the print side with a fundamentally print way of thinking.”

The restructure will allow the mastheads to manage their story across platforms and geographies. “It’s something that we call ‘feeding the fire’,” he says, “which is taking a running story, breaking it, then adding bits and pieces to it: sidebars, in-depth analysis, retopping the story, updating regularly, so that you keep your audience peaking all the time.”

By shifting to the compact format and shutting down two dedicated printing plants in Melbourne and Sydney, the company will save AU$45m (€36.7m)a year in fixed costs. But according to Metro Media ceo Jack Matthews, a plain-spoken American with a background in pay television and digital media, the primary driver for change was not financial. “We wouldn’t do this if the market said they didn’t want these papers,” he says. “That would just accelerate the decline.”

According to Linnell, the process of reinventing the paper was not just “Honey I Shrunk The Newspaper”. Matthews instead likens the process to a digital media development cycle. “There’s a lot of iterative design,” he says, “where you do something, you go out to the market, you test it, you change it. We did something called neurotesting, where you put the funny hat on and measure brain activity using eye-tracking glasses.”

Maybe that’s a reason for some funny thinking. Since the March relaunch, some reports show a modest circulation boost of two to five per cent; readership continues to increase across tablet apps. However, the restructures haven’t come without cost, including the loss of many key journalists. Linnell claims this won’t lead to a decline in the quality of investigative and political reporting: “The day that Fairfax stops doing big investigative reporting and fearless journalism is the day we shouldn’t be in business.”

Some prominent journalists that left the organisation during the restructure have taken up positions with the UK’s the Guardian, soon to launch an Australian presence with the backing of Graeme Wood, a multimillionaire entrepreneur who made his fortune in travel websites.

“I have to say, I am mystified by the focus on the Guardian,” says Matthews. “It just seems like yesterday’s question. In the old days, you got a newspaper and you read a newspaper. Those days are gone. Today, media is fragmented. People don’t go to one place any more. The Guardian is not ‘coming’ to Australia, it has been in Australia since they put up their website. I’m sure that a number of Sydney Morning Herald readers will also read the Guardian.”

After the pain of restructure, Linnell hopes that the worst is over, but change still awaits. “I don’t know what’s around the corner,” he admits. “But if you’ve got a great voice and a way of pulling in your audience or your readers, through words or video or audio, it doesn’t matter. The platforms, the structures, how we look at audiences, will keep evolving and changing. But the thirst for a great story doesn’t change.”

“Audiences are bigger than they have ever been in the history of Fairfax,” agrees Matthews. “[The editorial team] are delivering deeply engaged audiences. They get impacted by business issues, clearly, but the problem is the monopoly profits of the old days are gone. We don’t have an audience challenge; we have a business model challenge.”

One of Fairfax’s most intriguing struggles has been with mining billionaire Gina Rinehart, the world’s richest woman, and their largest single shareholder. Though the board rejected her attempts to increase her holding in exchange for input into editorial process, Burrowes thinks a longer game is in play. “If she wanted to buy it, she could have just bought it,” he says. “Is she just trying to irritate and annoy the people who irritate and annoy her, who tend to be those people associated with Fairfax, or are we just seeing the beginning of something else that’s already more complicated?”

Until recently Australia’s old media institutions operated in relative comfort, protected by generous regulation and offering limited options to a locked-in audience. But in the new scorched-earth landscape, threats, challenges and opportunities arrive from all angles at impossible speed. For the people who turn on the lights each morning, the pressure is greater than it has ever been; to survive and thrive will take energy, invention and ingenuity. And very little sleep.

Who owns Australia’s print and broadcast media?

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

What: TV networks; local, regional and national radio
Who: Publicly owned, with a government-appointed board.

Fairfax Media

What: The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian Financial Review, The Canberra Times; radio stations including 2UE (Sydney), 3AW (Melbourne), 6PR (Perth)
Who: The largest shareholder (14.9 per cent) is mining magnate Gina Rinehart, the world’s wealthiest woman. In 2012, the Fairfax board resisted an attempt by Rinehart to increase her shareholding, rejecting her stated desire for involvement in editorial decisions.

News Ltd

What: Tabloid newspapers including The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), The Herald Sun (Melbourne) and The Courier-Mail (Brisbane), plus the country’s only daily national broadsheet, The Australian; also a 50 per cent stake in monopoly pay TV service, Foxtel.
Who: Wholly owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. For Murdoch, this is where it all began.

Seven West Media

What: The Seven Network, The West Australian (Perth), Pacific Magazines
Who: Kerry Stokes (68 per cent), one of Australia’s last great media moguls.

Nine Entertainment

What: The Nine Network
Who: Private equity firm CVC. The network fought off administration in late 2012 over debts of more than AU$3bn (€2.5bn).

Network Ten

What: Channel Ten
Who: Lachlan Murdoch, son of Rupert Murdoch. James Packer, son of Kerry Packer. Together they hold 19.9 per cent of shares. Gina Rinehart is in the mix with a 10.6 per cent share.

Southern Cross Austereo

What: Owner of the Today Network comprising an arsenal of commercial radio stations, including 2DayFM (Sydney), the home of the popular and controversial breakfast presenters Kyle Sandilands and Jackie O and the station behind the prank hospital call to the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge.
Who: Publicly listed. The company is currently in merger talks with Nine Entertainment.

Macquarie Radio Network

What: High-rating Sydney radio network 2GB, which is home to Australian phone-in king Alan Jones.
Who: The majority shareholder is the Australian advertising legend John Singleton, who is also a significant shareholder in Fairfax Media.

Special Broadcasting Service (SBS)

What: Nationwide special-interest broadcasting service across television, radio and online, which includes the dedicated indigenous channel NITV.
Who: Public ownership, with a government-appointed board.

The global view

It’s a truism that the ways people access different media is changing rapidly, with a shift to smartphones, and tablets beginning to replace PCs for internet access. Most people in Western countries will be smartphone users next year (in the UK, 53 per cent already are). What’s changing less is the rhythm of people’s days. They still tend to sleep at night and the morning is when they reconnect. Most smartphone users now keep their Samsung or iPhone by their bed and start looking at news when they are still in bed, along with their emails. If you’re an advertiser, this is a time when you can catch their attention. For both print and radio consumption, mornings are the time.

In most countries the political and economic elite tend to focus on one or two key morning broadcast programmes such as BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in the UK, which foreground stories that often then dominate the day’s news. Even with 24-hour news, print newspapers have millions of readers and their sites have a daily edition, again read first thing in the morning. TV news often “reports” what papers choose to print that morning, and have regular slots for newspaper reviews based on the morning’s editions. In news, mornings matter.
Ben Page is CEO of researchers Ipsos MORI

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