Reasons to be confident at PANPA’s forum… and why Australia’s not like the USA

Two contrasting PANPA Future Forum perspectives today - from Fairfax Media's Greg Hywood and Earl Wilkinson, who heads US industry group INMA - confirmed a message you've read here before: That Australia's newspaper industry differs fundamentally to that in North America (writes Peter Coleman).

And that we have nothing to be depressed about.

The upbeat assessment was an apt opener to a celebration of the local industry's successes which continued this evening with the Newspaper of the Year awards dinner.

And the tone was confident: In the trendy Dockside function rooms a floor above Sydney's Darling Harbour, staff from member newspapers gathered to hear about 'the power and passion' of newspapers, 'in every way, on every platform'.

Fairfax chief executive Hywood has a message to impart to financial markets and to the industry itself. Investors who had made media stocks the country's most-shorted were wrong to assume that the bloodbath among North American publishing companies would follow here.

"What the market believes is worse than wrong; it's nonsense," he said.

But he acknowledged that there was an evangelical challenge beyond that of ill-informed investors: to change the culture of those who work within the newspaper industry itself. "If you go through an endless debate about when you are going to die, you get a bit depressed, but there's nothing to be depressed about."

That message was emphasised throughout the one-day conference, which was full of ideas about the role of publishing businesses within a multimedia environment. And was echoed even by INMA chief executive Wilkinson, back for his second PANPA forum in as many years, and with Australian papers in his portfolio of success stories.

Comments about the difference between Australia and markets such as North America were "very fair", he conceded.

Culture - which Wilkinson says, "trumps strategy" - was another area of agreement, Hywod having urged, “Let's develop the culture to make the future live, and be confident about it”.

Earlier, News Limited's Joe Talcott, who is president of NPA/PANPA had looked back on the address he'd given to the conference in 2005, as a newcomer to the newspaper industry. Just six years ago, when Facebook had been a newcomer and the iPad still two years away, “people had rushed to proclaim the death of newspapers".

Talcott was happy to report that newspapers were not only alive and well, but active participants in a rate of change which was both "incredible" and slower than anything we can expect in the future.

Greg Hywood’s message was that the business model on which newspapers had been based for 150 years had been junked and replaced with a new one, "based on the core of what we do... journalism".

The success of tablets – “don’t you love them,” he said – had led to 210,000 'Sydney Morning Herald' and 'The Age' apps being downloaded, enough for one in three of the iPads in this country. And next, these apps would go right onto TV.

Hywood says ‘What's the future of newspapers?’ is the wrong question: The real issues centred around paywalls and how too-costly print could be rationalised, “so we can spend more on what we do.

“It's about breaking stories and selling ads,” he said.

There was misty nostalgia as he recalled his alcohol-fuelled first day at wealthy Fairfax’s then unprofitable ‘Australian Financial Review’ in the heady days of 1976. But he said Fairfax was now engaging with 20 per cent more people than in those "great old days".

He’d seen the future when shown internet search software on a visit to California's Silicon Valley: “You didn't have to be real smart to gather that it was the end of that 145-year-old business model,” he said.

But while the US had suffered a bloodbath, with 105 newspapers closed in a year and many going online-only, Australia was different to the “deeply conservative” US industry. “They didn't confront the reality,” he said.

And while US networks had captured online news leadership, newspaper publishers owned seven of the top ten news websites in Australia (with smh.com.au newly moved to the top of the list).

"When you have a big online audience, you're in the game,” he said.

And in a nod to News Limited, he acknowledged, “They’re the best thing we have going for us  – a best practice competitor... and we compete against them effectively”.

Earl Wilkinson – who admitted the US industry had been wrong to take high profits out of the business instead of going for growth – added Australian newspapers to a list of newspapers whose approach to change was leading the world. Contrasting the print culture where 95 per cent of revenue was “already allocated”, he pointed to a “very different” digital culture in which only 50 per cent went on overheads, and 50 per cent on “everything else”… allowing a willingness to fail, and “go on the offensive”.

Other overseas contributors at the forum included ‘Wall Street Journal Asia’ editor-in-chief Almar Latour, Guardian UK data journalist James Bell, and international newspaper designer Mario Garcia, who at 64, now refuses to take on commissions that don’t involve the creativity of tablet as well as print versions. “I don’t have so many more years that I can waste them,” he said.

And there were creative perspectives from Hegarty prizewinner Zac Skulander and Jarod Green, whose company Radical Love produced the cartoon spoof ‘Beached Az’.

• The 2011 Future Form continues tomorrow with master classes in journalism, photography (including video editing), performance management, sales and marketing, and print and production.

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