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Monday, 4 March 2013

New SMH home page goes down the middle

It's a big day for Fairfax editors at the Sydney Morning Herald as they introduce a new "compact" newspaper and, at the same time, a new web home page design. In the video they put up on the web page they take care to refer to the new print format as "compact" rather than the technically correct "tabloid" to make sure readers distinguish it from rival Sydney paper the Daily Telegraph (the Terror). While it's clear that SMH operators have retained the serif font online to help distinguish the SMH from the Terror, some elements of the new SMH home page look like those of the News Ltd tabloid's home page. Both websites are looking for the same readership, so it's not surprising that this should be so. Then is the new home page like the Mighty Angus, McDonald's premium burger? You know, "A little bit special."

Perhaps, but the SMH is also a major competitor of the Australian (the Oz), News Ltd's broadsheet, which went to a subscription model last year. And the new SMH home page takes a leaf out of the playbook of this rival by going for a cleaner, more open design. Fairfax Media has had a lot of things to take into account for this design launch and it's pretty clear to me that they've paid attention to a number of different threats, while looking for opportunities as well. They know that keeping all their sections under one URL is important and the internet statistics no doubt underscore this consideration. They are looking for volume because of the purported returns from online ad impressions. It is to be seen if they go back to using those hated sidebar ads that made reading the home page sometimes so unpleasant.

To underline how important this new design launch is for Fairfax editors, Julia Gillard was asked to write a short piece which appears today. It's a very effective little piece, and you wonder if the editors had any hand in its writing. Titled 'Struggling journal became a great newspaper of record', the column quickly points out the features of the SMH - longevity, integrity, impartiality, notoriety, influence - that make it such a force in Australian society today. It's flawless, really, because it also points to the location of Fairfax editors' aspirations: that the SMH should be a "newspaper of record". Informed individuals have pointed out in the past (at least in my recollection) that Australian journalism is, in the main, populist, and the quantity of popular content in the SMH - sport, entertainment, motherhood, automotive, lifestyle - reinforces that perception in an immediate sense. But what is a newspaper of record?

It's where people go to find the most important information about any topical issue. Again, the SMH has competition here from the Terror and from the Oz, but the first one is a bit too populist and the second one is too overtly conservative in its bias. This makes the claims of Fairfax editors germane. But it really depends on what kind of story you're talking about. For international events, for example, I think a lot of people would agree with me if I say that the UK's Guardian and the US's New York Times are the newspapers of record for any event unfolding somewhere in the world. Events of international relevance, that is. So the aspirations of Fairfax editors remain homebound. Which is fine. We should congratulate them and wish them well. Big, ugly newspapers are essential elements of any democracy (and I will certainly subscribe when that becomes an issue, probably later this year) because there are a lot of big, ugly institutions and big, ugly people out there who need to be held to account. You've got to be big and, well, ugly to do that.

I think the new home page design is beautiful.

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