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Panpa Bulletin : February 2010
www.panpa.org.au IN an era of spending constraints, the new boss of Australian Associ- ated Press believes newspapers will soon be spending more on his com- pany's journalism. Editors will dedicate more of their budget to specialist journalists who analyse and comment and will rely on agencies to provide the straight news reporting, predicts Bruce Davison, who took over as the chief executive of Australia's largest news agency earlier this month. By providing the "nuts and bolts" of the news, AAP will free editors to focus on distinctive content that readers value. Editors might decide they won't use their own journalists to cover "every court story, or the road toll, or those sorts of things which everyone wants to know about, eve- ryone wants to hear about" but are easily covered by a myriad of news sources. Instead editors will ask, "what can we do to distinguish ourselves from everyone else", says Mr Davidson. "AAP will become more impor- tant, more relevant, as everyone struggles with where they're going to be in the next 10 to 15 years." Mr Davidson says newspapers are unlikely to look the same in a dec- ade as they try to find the editorial balance to sustain print and digital models. "As revenue shifts to the website, they (publishers) must come up with the compelling content for those platforms. AAP has a fantastic role to provide the base of the news every day for all publishers," he continues. Mr Davidson's vision for the future of the newsroom will be sobering for many journalists, but he is not alone in his view. The need to hire specialist journal- ists and editors to create content that the reader values is a priority for the chairman and chief executive of News Ltd, John Hartigan. He told The Bulletin last October: "Commercially, we are going to need to focus on journalism that makes a difference. "For print we are going to have to hire more specialists -- individu- als with great knowledge of specific subjects who have the ability to write and communicate in all forms -- a style of journalism that really gives context, and the truth." Such a mission for exclusivity and quality will take its toll on editorial budgets even in robust economic times. Mr Davidson believes the option to reduce costs dedicated to straight news stories to pay for higher value journalism will benefit AAP. His optimism is tempered by the current challenge that the economic downturn has given the agency, and the difficulty in recovering revenues to previous levels. The company has created diver- sity in its media portfolio so that it does not have to rely on the news agency alone for its profit. The agency also runs a media services business, MediaNet. "The challenge is that as one rev- enue stream slows down and then goes into another area, there are sometimes short-term difficulties in keeping something alive, because all of a sudden you're not making any money out of it any more. "We need to be ready to meet those shifts so we maintain the health of the agency in terms of the ability to pay for all our business units and make it all work. "AAP is first and foremost a news agency, which has a very long stand- ing tradition of quality journalism and fast and accurate supply of editorial, of text and image and now video on a daily and hourly basis. Mr Davidson presents an optimis- tic vision for print media, mention- ing several times that he believes the "death of newspapers" is an exaggeration. "Sometimes, we're our own worst enemies," he continues. "There's been a lot of woe-is-me about newspapers recently, and it's probably time we got off that tread- mill. We should be talking about the health of newspapers. "I don't think newspapers will die now that the internet has come along, but they'll be different. They may not sell as many copies, but they still should be healthy in whatever sphere they end up being in." Although he's only been in the job for a few weeks, taking over from Clive Marshall who left for the top job at the Press Association in London, Mr Davidson brings with him the experience of running Page- masters -- the most profitable part of AAP. "I've got some advantages in that I was managing director of Pagemas- ters, so I have a fair bit of knowledge of the inner workings of AAP," he says. "That's made the transition a bit easier than if you'd come directly in from outside." Mr Davidson started Pagemasters with Martin Thomas in 1991, after both finished working for the Herald & Weekly Times, the Melbourne- based newspaper company owned by News Corporation. After 15 years of gradual growth, Mr Davidson says the AAP acquisi- tion in 2002 gave Pagemasters the opportunity to extend further into editorial work, which led to the edi- torial outsourcing for sub-editing for APN New Zealand, Fairfax Media in Australia, and the Daily Telegraph in London. Pagemasters' future lies in markets outside of Australia. "We're continu- ally talking to other publishers, not just [in Australia] but also in the UK and Asia, about trying to develop more editorial services," he says. "We're becoming known in the in- dustry as someone to approach, and talk to and see what we can offer." Overseas, other companies offer- ing editorial services have begun outsourcing to India in an effort to lower costs. While he doesn't rule out going down a similar path, Mr Davidson says it is unlikely that will happen in the medium term, believing that sub-editing and listings require cul- ture-specific knowledge to be done well. "I'd rather develop technology here to enable us to be more effi- cient," he says. "The interesting model that we've got, as opposed to perhaps the In- dian companies that are working in America and elsewhere, is that we're not about a wage arbitrage. "We're more about efficiency, productivity, centralising and using the economies of scale and having 10, 12, 15, 29, 30 or 40 people in one room that can be more flexible, can iron out the deadline fluctuations throughout the day." "You've got these peaks and troughs in any newspaper cycle, and if you've got a group of people work- ing across several titles, or across several parts of titles, you can make that more efficient." As far as the quality of sub-edit- ing goes, Mr Davidson challenges anyone to distinguish the work of Pagemasters from in-house subbing. "Pick up the Sydney Morning Herald and tell me who subbed what," he says as a challenge. "I'd be very interested if you can tell me which bits Pagemasters have subbed, and which bits the internal editors subbed." Mr Davidson says he is privileged to have become the chief executive, and he is proud of the agency's his- tory, which enters its 75th year. "It's a lot different than it was 75 years ago, and it'll be a lot different in another 75 years," he says philosophically. Newsroom revolution AAP boss Bruce Davidson tells NICK EVERSHED how his agency will thrive as newspapers rely on his journalists for straight news reporting AAP chief executive Bruce Davidson in the company's modern offices near the Olympic Stadium in Sydney . . . 'we're in the information business. How we supply the information is really immaterial' What can we do to distinguish ourselves from everyone else . . ." " On newspapers' challenge . . . We're more about efficiency, productivity, centralising and using economies of scale" " On Pagemasters' value proposition . . . Pick up the Sydney Morning Herald and tell me who subbed what" " On Pagemasters' quality . . . 14 | The PANPA Bulletin | MARCH 2010