In a fragmented media landscape, ‘The West Australian’ is straddling multiple platforms while providing an authoritative voice on regional issues. We investigate how it is succeeding where so many are failing.
It’s 11.00 and 14 section editors and high-ranking journalists have just taken their seats at The West Australian newspaper’s morning meeting table. Lists are being read out, topics being canvassed, features checked up on. Within a few fast-paced minutes decisions will be made about where audiences read, watch or listen to each breaking story.
For nearly a year, Australia’s most successful newspaper has been a laboratory of convergence. Veteran print journalists sit alongside feisty TV reporters; sub-editors confer with broadcast producers; a video camera perched on a tripod is prepped for hourly updates live from the paper’s floor. “This”, says state political editor Gareth Parker, “is what the future of news looks like.”
The story broke in 2011 when West Australian Newspapers Holdings acquired the Seven Media Group (which also owns or has interests in Pacific Magazines, Yahoo7 and Sky News) for AU$4.1bn, a move that saw the merging of print and television and the creation of Seven West Media. Last year the multi-platform model came into practice with the creation of a shared print-and-television editorial floor.
“It’s an incredibly exciting newsroom” says Parker, 33, who has suddenly found himself pulled in front of the camera to spruik regular scoops. “Everyone understands that the future is convergence; we have a real opportunity to be at the forefront.”
Western Australia, the country’s biggest state, is a vast mineral-rich territory more than 10 times the size of the UK. The daily news diet has long been nourished by a period of prosperity linked to the mining boom. With the local economy geared for a slowdown, Parker has been busy covering stories ranging from the rising cost of a beer or coffee to the Australian Dream-threatening issue of housing affordability.
“These are the ‘barbecue-stoppers’,” he says. “The inner dealings of state politics garner good headlines but hip-pocket issues like these get our audience talking.” This is Western Australia, where the searing hot-button problems largely stem from how to manage the state’s wealth. It is a luxury worthy of envy from most other parts of the world but a sunny news forecast is a challenge for a paper that still has to sell good stories.
As the region’s only state-wide printed daily, the monopoly that the The West (as it is affectionately known) enjoys is an obvious advantage. National mastheads such as News Corp’s The Australian and Fairfax’s The Australian Financial Review deliver their daily editions here too but dedicate very little ink to local issues. The neglect of the west has been a source of contention ever since Australian federation; the pugnacious voices of secession – however flippant – rear their head each and every time a national decision is seen to disadvantage the state. Balking at the Canberra-Sydney-Melbourne axis is a proud part of the regional identity and continues to shape The West’s unique voice.
From the prized vantage point of his glass-walled office, group editor Bob Cronin surveys a vast media landscape populated by the main masthead, more than 20 regional newspapers, several nationally distributed magazines and a rapidly integrating television-news service. “The biggest media challenge – from television to newspapers – is audience,” he says. “Without the readership or the viewers you just don’t have a business.”
Describing himself as “recycled” (he was first appointed The West’s editor in chief back in 1987), Cronin returned to a very different-looking paper seven years ago. He says change has accelerated with the embrace of this new multimedia model. “We’re trying to develop reporters and photographers who are skilled across the platforms,” he says, pointing to a recent page-one lead that was written by 30-year veteran newsreader Rick Ardon and then retold on the nightly news bulletin.
In this dynamic newsroom the advent of digital is prompting reporters from the Kimberley to Kalgoorlie to generate a lot more visual content. Videos shot from their smartphones regularly bring stories to life on the nightly news. “Years ago the evening papers would crack the egg and the morning paper made the omelette the following day,” says Cronin. “Now it’s the web and TV that tell audiences what happened and the morning paper explains why.”
Distribution around this dauntingly big state is the next major challenge. In the past, trains, trucks and even planes were used to push into the state’s farthest corners, forcing final copy deadlines to be brought forward to 19.30 to ensure towns separated by several thousand kilometres would all receive their morning news at the same time. A little over a year ago, exorbitant transport costs brought an end to the printed version of the newspaper in the Kimberley region north of Broome. Loyal subscribers are still able to access the digital edition; complimentary tablets (the computer kind) were provided as a peace offering.
Back at the largely deserted morning meeting table, acting editor Michael Beach is playing around with colleague Sandra Jackson’s new 3D video camera. “We’re the first newspaper in the country to have one of these,” says Jackson, beaming; her job title changed from picture to visual editor when the television cameras, green screens and four television studios were installed.
The pair enthusiastically canvass ways that the miniature camera could be used, from celebratory fireworks to the more serious task of documenting bushfire devastation. “The convergence of platforms has made everyone think more visually,” says Beach. “The presence of TV industry professionals has helped us to hone our ability to emotionally connect with our audience.”
As Gareth Parker clacks out the last few paragraphs of his weekly state-politics column Inside State, he describes the multimedia buzz gripping the building as a positive part of the paper’s constantly evolving relationship with its audience. “Over a 183-year history The West Australian has always taken its cue from the masthead,” he says, assuredly. “Taking a parochial view also means, for better or worse, that we will always advocate the state’s interests – even if this means we don’t always agree with Canberra.”
First edition of The West Australian printed in January 1833
Peak 2015 circulation: Weekly: 163,668; weekend: 272,042
2014/2015 profit: AU$51.7m
Number of regional newspapers in Seven West Media: 20
Subscribers to digital edition: 9,500
Editorial-floor staff: Print and online: 200; television: 50
Number of reporters posted around Western Australia: 80