Huffington Post success will rely on fresh voices

Alexandra Wake, RMIT University

The doomsayers of Australian journalism will have to hold their tongues this week as the Huffington Post breathes some fresh life into the local media scene.

Launched in Australia today, HuffPo, as it’s affectionately called by journalists, joins a growing number of international news organisations which have found a new audience – and it hopes advertisers – in Australia.

The opening of HuffPo Australia’s doors (temporarily in the old Fox offices at Darling Harbour) is indeed welcome news for the 28 or so local staff who have been hired by the global journalism player which has already extended its reach to 13 countries.

The global takeover isn’t a bad effort from the team behind editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington who only established the online site in 2005 as an alternative left wing (Americans would say “liberal”) outlet and alternative to news aggregators.

The Huffington Post deal in Australia is interesting, with a 49% stake in the venture held by Fairfax Media. The commercial details of the arrangement haven’t been publicised, but some have suggested Fairfax fought hard for the deal as a way of “keeping its friends close and its enemies even closer”.

There are however fears from a few media watchers that HuffPo will cut Fairfax’s audiences which are already feeling the pinch from locally grown digital sites such as Crikey, The Conversation, New Matilda and Mumbrella as well as the relatively new international players, The Guardian, the Daily Mail, and BuzzFeed.

The Huffington Post’s chief executive in the US Jimmy Maymann however is buoyant about the deal, which mirrors that in other international ventures.

He told the Australian Financial Review earlier in the year:

“Our ability to partner with established local players has been critical to the success of our rapid international expansion over the past two years. We have created a very effective repeatable model that has enabled us to enter new markets and establish strong positions very quickly.”

HuffPo can credibly claim to be an international news organisation, having won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012. It boasts 214 million unique visitors each month, and there is no reason to believe it will not achieve its stated target of becoming a top-five publisher in Australia in three to five years.

HuffPo Australia boasts a strong team with good local connections. The chief executive Chris Janz comes lately from blog publisher Allure Media, which was bought by Fairfax in 2012, and the editor-in-chief Tory Maguire brings a long News Corp pedigree.

Also in the news crew is Canberra-based political editor Karen Barlow, one of the many talented journalists axed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in its cull of international services, a former executive producer of video at AAP Tom Compagnoni, and a former assistant Daily Mail editor Chris Paine. The list of highly regarded journalism hires goes on, but features many who have either jumped or been pushed out by the seismic change in the country’s newspaper landscape.

So while the local industry is no doubt delighted that high calibre journalists are finding work with the Australian edition of HuffPo – the one question readers should be asking is will the Huffington Post bring them anything different to the already established media outlets.

Getting writers to blog for free has been a critical part of the Huffington Post’s strategy in each market.
Neville Hobson/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Point of difference?

Certainly HuffPo gains much by linking its brand to the high standard of journalism that many Fairfax reporters demonstrate. Look for example at the coverage of tax avoidance by multinationals operating in Australia, or the revelations and reporting of Australia’s scandal ridden financial services sector.

If HuffPo Australia champions more of this reporting, and helps grow advertising revenue for both it and Fairfax, then that will auger well for all. But The Huffington Post has built much of its reputation on providing a space for bloggers, for insiders, to write about their passions.

HuffPo does not restrict itself to the normal crew of footy commentators, political analysts and think tank spruikers. HuffPo asks everyone to write. And it is this network of real-time bloggers in Australia that could be the making of the site, even if it is the use of such unpaid writers that has caused the organisation the most criticism at home and abroad. Although to be truthful, there are many sites in Australia and internationally who do not pay writers, however good they maybe, including The Conversation.

What really matters is whether or not HuffPo can attract new and emerging thinkers who can write, or if they will lean on the same-old crew who pop up on QandA on a Monday night.

It’s a now a truism that the internet provides us with what it thinks we want to know, not what we need to know. As readers, we hope the paid Australian curators at HuffPo can help change that adage. If they can, it might be enough to save Fairfax.

The Conversation

Alexandra Wake is Lecturer at RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Huffington Post is coming – but will Australians care?

Axel Bruns, Queensland University of Technology

The past few years have been positively revolutionary for the Australian news landscape. From a static and highly concentrated media market, dominated by News Corporation, Fairfax, and the ABC, new players have gradually entered the market, and the next new entry lumbering up to the starting blocks is the Australian version of The Huffington Post.

Emerging from founder Arianna Huffington’s earlier forays into political blogging in the mid-2000s, HuffPo has become a major political voice in the United States, and has recently expanded into a number of global markets, with over a dozen localised editions now available. Huffington Post Australia, in partnership with Fairfax Media, is slated to launch on Wednesday, August 19.

Does Huffington Post Australia stand a chance of gaining a foothold in the increasingly crowded Australian news and commentary market? The fate of some of the other recent additions to the media mix may provide a useful guide here.

Comprehensive data on site visits collected by Experian Hitwise shows a range of crucial trends: first, with the general shift towards online news consumption, the total number of site visits to the leading news sites has been trending strongly upwards – from an average of just under 6 million visits per week during 2013, leader has grown to over 13 million weekly visits since June 2015, for example.

Total visits to selected Australian news and opinion sites, 2013-15.
Data courtesy of Experian Marketing Services’ Hitwise.

Second, while the shape of the market has long remained stable, with, the Sydney Morning Herald, and nineMSN (now 9 News) fairly evenly matched, since early 2014 the fortunes of the market leaders have diverged. Having embraced a more populist, tabloid content strategy, has established itself as the clear market leader, while the SMH’s growth has merely followed the overall trend, and 9 News has stagnated both before and after its rebranding.

Meanwhile, the entrance of two UK-based news organisations into the local market has affected the status quo considerably. The Guardian and the Daily Mail had already been reasonably popular with Australian audiences well before their local spin-offs were announced and launched, but their dedicated domestic coverage has been able to boost their appeal considerably.

Total visits to selected Australian news and opinion sites, 2013-15 – Daily Mail Australia and Guardian Australia highlighted.
Data courtesy of Experian Marketing Services’ Hitwise.

Growth in visits to Daily Mail Australia has been especially pronounced, from a weekly average of just over 2 million in 2013 to nearly 8 million visits per week since June 2015 – well above the average growth trend. The trajectory shows a clear bump in readership since the transition to dedicated Australian content in May 2014, and since the start of 2015 Daily Mail Australia has been clearly established as the third most popular Australian news site.

Even before its Australian launch, in fact, Daily Mail was easily more popular with Australian internet users than local tabloids Herald-Sun or Daily Telegraph.

Guardian Australia’s progress has been somewhat slower, building from a lower base. Even after its official launch in May 2013, the site struggled to break through the barrier of 1 million visits per week, until the 2013 federal election campaign provided it with the opportunity to establish a stronger profile as a new space for quality political coverage; since June 2015, the site has averaged some 3.7 million visits per week, and sits comfortably in the top ten of Australian news sites.

Buzzfeed’s official launch on 31 January 2014 did cause at least a momentary spike in visits, and marks the point at which the site becomes more strongly competitive in the Australian media landscape. Long running neck-and-neck with Guardian Australia and the international edition of Huffington Post, during the remainder of 2014 Buzzfeed Australia gradually pulls ahead of both sites. It is now established as a popular site in Australia, rivalling 9 News, The Age, and ABC News: it has attracted an average of nearly 5 million visits per week since June 2015.

Total visits to selected Australian news and opinion sites, 2013-15 – Buzzfeed and Huffington Post highlighted.
Data courtesy of Experian Marketing Services’ Hitwise.

Ahead of its Australian launch, the international edition of the Huffington Post remains a considerably more niche publication – yet still ranking ahead of more established Australian titles such as The Australian (whose partial paywall may affect visitor numbers, however) or the Canberra Times. Notably, HuffPo’s Australian visitor numbers have been trending downwards over the past year, averaging some 1.7 million visits per week since June 2015.

It will be interesting to see whether the launch of an Australian edition of the Huffington Post can arrest or even reverse this decline. The performance of other recent entrants into the Australian online news and commentary market has clearly shown that such sites can establish themselves as viable and even leading players in the media landscape. However, the greatest successes have been reserved for comparatively populist and tabloid outlets like Daily Mail Australia and Buzzfeed Australia.

By contrast, Guardian Australia’s achievements to date have been more limited. Its parent organisation is recognised as a globally leading, quality news brand, whose closest Australian equivalents are perhaps the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. However, in spite of its undoubted contributions to Australian political journalism, Guardian Australia has yet to even come close to rivalling the visitor numbers attracted by these Fairfax titles’ sites.

Huffington Post, in turn, caters to a considerably more narrow audience. By boosting its coverage of Australian politics and current affairs, it should be able to at least maintain the established Australian audience for its international edition, which would leave it placed above titles such as The Australian in total weekly visits.

It seems unlikely, though, that it could catch up again with a site like Guardian Australia – whose numbers it matched, one year ago – in the immediate future.

The Conversation

Axel Bruns is Professor, Creative Industries at Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Book review: Santamaria, A Most Unusual Man

John Warhurst, Australian National University

Bob Santamaria deserves Gerard Henderson’s lively and informative biography, Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man, because he was an inherently interesting man and because of the large place he and the organisations he led occupy in Australian political history.

Santamaria also naturally sparks continued speculation about his role in shaping Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s career and values, fuelled by Abbott’s own references to him as his first political mentor.

Henderson clearly has the credentials to write it because of his previous research, going back more than 30 years to Santamaria and the Bishops. So, this biography has had a long gestation. It is also born out of an association between the biographer and his subject.

The book is therefore the culmination of both traditional research and an accumulation of relevant documents and insights through the observations of a participant in National Civic Council (NCC) meetings in the 1970s.

It contains a thorough bibliography and index but is not footnoted. At times, because of its gestation period, I don’t think sufficient account is taken of some other recent accounts, including Kevin Peoples’ Santamaria’s Salesman.

Henderson knows his subject and is right to correct errors by authors such as David Marr and myself, but he also makes it too obvious when he has disdain for others working in this territory, such as Marr, Jim Griffin and Brenda Niall, the author of the recent biography of Archbishop Daniel Mannix. He uses the combative style that readers of his newspaper columns will recognise.

Henderson has produced a rounded and at times fascinating portrait of Santamaria and of some of his closest colleagues. He covers his whole life, from his family and schooling through his lifetime’s devotion to the cause of Catholic Action, broadly defined, in leadership positions in the Australasian National Secretariat of Catholic Action, the Catholic Social Studies Movement and the NCC.

Henderson’s broad conclusion is that Santamaria was a compelling, skilled and persuasive man who was enormously devoted to his causes.

Melbourne University Publishing

Henderson is generous to his subject but certainly not uncritical of Santamaria’s strategy and tactics on occasions. He made this clear to Santamaria himself many years ago in an episode at a NCC seminar also covered recently by Greg Sheridan in When We Were Young and Foolish. He believes that Santamaria was right about his one big thing – anti-communism – but wrong about some other things, though he was most influential on the question of state aid to private schools.

Revealingly, Henderson concludes that Santamaria “led a relatively isolated life” with respect to international and even national travel, but also in regard to personal contacts with those he could have sought to influence, such as some bishops and politicians:

There was home, there was the Church, there was the Carlton Football Club, there was the office and, more broadly, there was The Movement.

Henderson also paints a portrait of a man who could be difficult to work with and who could sometimes be extremely hard and unfair on those within his organisations who disagreed with him or sought to supplant him. This conclusion is reached in a chapter entitled “The Cult of (Santamaria) Personality”.

Henderson’s treatment of Santamaria’s early working life and of his role in the Labor divisions of the 1950s which produced the Democratic Labor Party is authoritative and detailed, though interpretations will continue to differ.

For those who feel they know this story well enough, it is the later chapters – which deal with Santamaria and the Liberal Party, including John Howard and Abbott, and the NCC’s internal politics – which may be of particular interest. Santamaria was far from close to the Liberals and at times quite hostile to them. He appears not to have encouraged conservative young Catholics, including Abbott and Kevin Andrews, to become active in that party.

According to Henderson, Abbott was:

… influenced by – but not a follower of – BAS.

If that is the case, then commentators have been misled by Abbott’s own inflated comments about the relationship.

Another instructive chapter is devoted to Santamaria the outstanding polemicist and media performer, especially through his long-running television show Point of View. It was here that Santamaria was especially compelling, speaking a seven-minute memorised script to camera with only a rare stumble.

Santamaria on Point of View, 1985.

In this way, a wider audience had some insight into Santamaria’s dominating performances within his own organisations and before episcopal audiences. These seem often, according to Henderson, to have been self-indulgently long but doubtless still persuasive to many true believers, many of whom devoted their lives to following his leadership.

Ultimately, however, this biography is a labour of love, or at least a labour to ensure that a man that Henderson greatly admires receives due credit for his achievements.

The Conversation

John Warhurst is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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