Boned: Here’s another reason why newspapers are losing readers…

Having just completed the 14 km City2Sea race on Sunday I was given a copy of The Sunday Age for my troubles.

Sweaty and tired and looking forward to a big breakfast, I turned to the front page of the newspaper which had as its headline: “End transimssion” with a granny photo of Channel 10 newsreader Helen Kapalos.

Expecting a big story about a financial crisis or collapse – indeed perhaps the end of the TV network’s own transmission – I read on and found that the story was about Kapalos losing her job as part of network cutbacks.

Reading like a suspense novel plot, the story describes how “within minutes of bidding viewers a good weekend and walking off set, Kapalos was grabbed on the arm by the personal assistant of Ten’s head of news, Dermot O’Brien, and instructed not to leave the office”.

After a tense stand-off, Kapalos was allowed to return to her computer to retrieve her holiday booking – it just so happened her sacking occurred on the day she was due to fly out for a holiday in the US.

Now I don’t wish to make light of anybody losing their job – having been “boned” myself in the past I know how it feels  – but I have to ask: was a newsreader losing her job the biggest and most important story of the weekend in Melbourne or Australia or anywhere for that matter?

Was it the biggest story of the weekend and did it warrant front page courage?

I bet Kapalos herself was surprised to find news of her boneing (for overseas readers, “boneing” is an Australian term referring to getting fired) her photo splashed across the front-page of Melbourne’s only Sunday broadsheet newspaper.

It’s the kind of story that should have warranted a side column somewhere in the middle of the newspaper, not the front page or third page or even the fifth page.

Apart from Kapalos herself (who will surely be fielding many job offers on her return from her overseas holiday), and some of her fans who enjoyed watching her read out the day’s news items in her rather sultry, whispery voice (I didn’t mind her interrupting my Thursday night viewing of Law & Order with a news update) this is not a story that warranted the front-page splash it received.

Yes I know Channel 10 is in trouble (and that’s the bigger story) but it’s the network’s own fault really –  have you watched some of the dreck they have come out with lately: Being Lara Bingle, The Shire, Everybody Dance now? All of them rubbish. All them failures. All of them axed!

As for the story of Kapalos’s dismissal this was a just another example of how the TV networks operate- indeed anyone who has enjoyed a television show on the commercial networks only to see it suddenly “boned” from the schedule will know they are a ruthless bunch.

You could also read into the “misplacement” of this story as a sign that’s its not just the internet that’s too blame for newspapers’ falling readerships and advertising woes.

Is The Sunday Age a learned, high-brow broadsheet or is it re-making itself into another tabloid? Or perhaps it is having an identity crisis?

Surely, there had to be a bigger story on Sunday then Kapalos getting boned?

First of all it was Remembrance Day, so that might have warranted a front page  – after all there are Australian soliders involved in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and risking their lives on a daily basis.

And there are many other local and national issues that would have deserved front-page priority.

Instead, The Sunday Age has gone for a front page story which (with the greatest respect) is what you’d expect on the front cover of the Herald Sun.

And I wouldn’t have a problem with it being on the front cover of the Herald Sun because those sorts of stories are its bread and butter- attention grabbing headlines about attractive news anchors being pulled aside after their last news broadcast and told to pack their bags.

The Sunday Age is a weighty newspaper and deserves weightier stories on its front page.

Is it any wonder its readership has fallen around 15% in the space of year!

Update to this story: As I predicted, Helen Kapalos is reportedly being courted by a host of TV networks since being boned by Channel 10, which only re-affirms what I wrote about this never being an important enough story to warrant the front page of a major newspaper.

Getting it right: Is the internet killing good journalism?

A story appeared on the front page of The Age (Melbourne’s only broadsheet newspaper) last week written by one of Australia’s most respected and well-known journalists, Adele Ferguson.

The story was about the death of the former chairman of a collapsed mortgage lender called Banksia, which has left thousands of small investors (families and pensioners) out of pocket with $660 million owed.

Ferguson reported that the Banksia chairman – Ian Hankin – had died in a head-on collision with a truck just three months before Banksia went bust.

“Ian Hankin, 59, died on August 8 when his BMW and a truck collided on the Western Highway at Burrumbeet, about 25 kilometres west of Ballarat.”

The story then went on to say that three weeks earlier, “on July 18, Hankin drove his Mercedes-Benz into the path of an oncoming truck on the Midland Highway near Scotsburn, 18 kilometres south of Ballarat”.

In the first crash Hanking escaped with minor injuries though the car was written-off.

Clearly, what was being implied was that Hankin had taken his own life after learning that Banksia was heading into financial failure and having failed the first time, he did a better job of it the second time.

Except, as was later pointed out by rival Melbourne newspaper the Herald Sun (owned by Rupert Murdoch) Hankin had stepped down from his role as chairman of Banksia three years ago and had no association with the company, making it highly unlikely his death and the previous collision was in anyway related to the mortgage lender’s sudden collapse on 25 October this year.

The chairman of Banksia is Peter Keating, who is very much alive.

The Age did print an update to the story, but only to add the word “former”  in front Ian Hankin’s title of ‘chairman’. (I have since discovered that The Age apologised to Ian Hankin’s family, but the story remains unchanged except for the addition of the extra word)

The error was reported in the media section of The Australian (another Murdoch-owned paper, but a broadsheet, with more gravitas than the Herald Sun) under the heading “Page one howler”

The Australian pointed out that “The Age ran a correction on Saturday on page two, one strangely lacking any apology to Hankin’s family who are understandably distraught.

“Journalists are not infallible. But the correction does appear buried and insubstantial given the size of the error,” The Australian went on to say.

Hankin’s colleagues at the law firm where he worked until his sudden death have spoken out against the insinuations in the article, though this hasn’t stopped controversial radio DJ Derryn Hinch (famous for naming convicted sex offenders on air against court orders) from labelling Hankin’s death a “coward’s exit” on his own website.

The Age’s error was indeed a bad one  (made worse by the lack of an apology)  and should have been avoided by some simple fact checking, something you would have thought would have been given extra priority, since the story was destined for the front page of the newspaper.

But this should all be put into the context of the challenges facing Fairfax – publisher of The Age and rival newspaper publisher Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited as well as other newspaper groups all round the world.

Fairfax is currently in the process of getting rid of 1,900 employees, many of them journalists, in an effort to cut costs and deal with a loss of print advertising revenue as readers shift to getting their knews online and via mobile devices (where advertising revenues are much smaller).

Fewer journalists mean fewer sub-editors checking articles before they go to print and less time spent by journalists themselves reasearching their articles.

Making things worse is the fact that Fairfax has outsourced most of its sub-editing to an external company called Pagemasters.

A sub-editor is not just a spelling and grammar checker. A good sub-editor understands the subject matter they are reading and the context and history behind the article.

A good sub-editor would have asked the question: Was Ian Hankin the chairman of Banksia at the time of his death?

These sorts of mistakes are likely to become more frequent as publishers scramble to find a way to scrape a profit.

In the online age of the 24 hour news cycle, smaller teams of journalists must produce more content at a faster rate with less time for research and few pairs of eyes to check facts and ask important questions.

Out of curiosity, I took a look at the jobs currently advertised on the New York Times media group website, publisher of the venerated New York Times, International Herald Tribune and Boston Globe.

There are currently 54 jobs advertised.

Not one of them is a journalism role.