PANPA conference: Lessons from America, promises from Canberra

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Are Australian publishers doing better than their counterparts in the USA, or merely taking time to follow them down the gurgler?

Keynote speakers on the opening day of the PANPA conference on Queensland’s Gold Coast didn’t seem to agree, but the sum of their advice suggested that we could learn from contemporaries across the Pacific and might yet avert disaster.

Having accorded to its incoming chief executive Mark Hollands, the opportunity to present the annual ‘state of the industry’ report, PANPA was rewarded with a thoughtful assessment of challenges facing publishers.

Hollands, who worked for Gartner and Dow Jones for ten years, drew on research to contrast Australia’s situation with that in the “very sophisticated” information market of the USA.

However, it was the hands-on experience of Brian Tierney – who had helped turn around the ‘Philadelphia Inquirer’ after finding “a small group of millionaires” to help him rescue the ailing newspaper – who provided real hope.

Certain that “the issue is competition,” Tierney recruited key staff to exploit the publisher’s strengths and create new initiatives. “We have the best armaments but are the least prepared,” he says. “In many respects the business side has let down the journalistic side.”

Major successes included the website, a focus on the “lower hanging fruit” of a female 35+ audience, and advertising partnerships which gave customers ownership of sections of the paper.

The themes were pursued by others including WAN consultant Juan Senor, and will continue into the programme for the conference’s third day.

Revolution for some

Most of the newspaper people I spoke to were underwhelmed by this year’s performance by Kevin Rudd. Making his return visit to the conference after a couple of years – and after then asserting that leadership thoughts “couldn’t be further” from his mind – the prime minister delivered a speech which majored on the government’s achievements and aspirations rather than its engagement with media issues.

There was mutual agreement (echoing the comments of president Robert Whitehead) that change in the media landscape was creating an impact “almost as profound in your profession as we are in mine”. And a lot of talk about the ‘education revolution’, a concept Rudd says is “not a slogan” but managed to mention more times than I could count.

Concerns about freedom of information legislation were covered with the promise of a two-stage reform and an ‘exposure draft’ providing opportunities for consultation late this or early next year. Rudd suggested there would be “questions of balance” and promised “argy-bargy”, but claimed that journalist shield laws would protect from prosecution, journalists whose stories merely embarrass politicians.
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