The Rutland and Stamford Mercury, founded in 1695, claims to be Britain’s oldest newspaper. Founded in 1859, The Queensland Times (QT) in Ipswich is Queensland’s oldest surviving provincial newspaper. The distance between them is 23,222 km as the crow flies, or, 16 years – and a lot of history.
Stuart Sherwin was fascinated by newspapers from a young age. “It’s all I ever really wanted; all I ever thought seriously about doing,” he said after he tells me that his dad bought “an incredible amount of newspapers”. He lists The Sun which is the right wing tabloid and the left wing Daily Mirror, the local evening paper and four weekly papers.
Despite his passion for the news, Stuart studied history at university. “At that time journalism degrees were a relatively new thing and they were sort of looked down upon,” he says. Work experience at the local paper, the Rutland and Stamford Mercury, led to a job as a trainee journalist, and: “The rest is history.”
When he became editor at The Queensland Times in March 2009, he discovered what all managers do – that editors have bosses, and editors rely on a lot of other people to get the job done. “Sometimes things fall over and mistakes get made. I wish you could do everything yourself, but you can’t really, it’s a team process,” he says.
Stuart admits to a love-hate relationship with the role of editor, but there’s nothing else he would rather do. His enthusiasm for the job was inspired by a couple of really good editors he worked for in the early years and a passion for knowing the news before anyone else.
“If you’re interested in society and what goes on in the world, it’s the best possible job there is. It’s also an incredibly sort of creative job. I think newspaper design and front page layout is kind of an applied art. You never hear anyone talk about it. It is a form of applied art, there is a craft to it. I would look at famous newspaper front pages. There’s a blend of things in there.”
I ask Stuart if he has a formula for the readability of news websites. There needs to be a balance: what’s important is not necessarily what’s newest.
Stuart replied there’s no one answer to that. Some websites are about breaking news, but The Daily Mail website is very static. The Daily Mail, with millions of browsers each day, became the single biggest news website in the world within five years.
“They have an absolutely enormous home page. It takes you about five minutes to get from the top to the bottom. Unless it’s an absolutely incredible breaking news story in the UK, they don’t really change it regularly.”
Bringing his thoughts closer to home, he reflects on metropolitan and regional daily papers. “There is always a balance to be struck between what’s new and what is still going to be the most interesting thing. Often our best read story is something that happened maybe four days ago,” he says.
“The Guardian website comes pretty close in that it’s quite reactive. There’s also large elements of the website that remain the same.” Stuart believes people need at least a little time to absorb the information online so that a space on a little screen works as best it can.
Drawing on his 16 years’ experience at UK and Australian newspapers, Stuart says the loss of newspaper circulation is the industry’s biggest challenge. Although Fairfax and News Ltd are firing staff and making huge investments online, Stuart says eight in 10 Australians read a newspaper each week. I add that Australians are among the highest readers, per capita, of magazines.
We agree that the industry is not dying any time soon, but the challenges remain. The rise of the internet with increased use of social media and mobile phones means that journalists’ work is consumed by a greater number of people.
On the flip side, he says, it is harder to remain economically viable – and news websites don’t thrive without newspapers. “It’s not an either/or, they need to work together.” The Daily Mail, the world’s largest news website, is powered by the work of print journalists, and the Brisbane Times piggy-backs on The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald for national news.
Newspapers and associated websites cost considerable money to produce, so a paywall or fee for online circulation places a value on our work. Stuart says: “Personally, I think we made a mistake not starting out on that basis. Basically, we’ve given away our work for free. We’ve given out a message that we don’t value it.” He believes when News Ltd or Fairfax goes down this route, others will concede.
When I ask about the loss of advertising revenue, Stuart replies that based on research: “People tend to respond more effectively to newspaper adverts than most other forms.” The difficulty is that newspapers are no longer the only game in town.
The key pillars of regional advertising remain real estate, cars, and retail advertising. Job ads have almost all gone to online, but “in regional media, mining jobs are still putting a lot of money into newspapers”.
Since a sense of community is one key to boosting readership and increasing advertising by local business I ask for a breakdown on readership. The QT is delivered to Ipswich and surrounding suburbs and towns in the Lockyer and Somerset Valleys. I quote the only benchmark I have: the paper’s circulation is just under one-tenth of Ipswich’s 2009 population.
Stuart replied by giving a comparison between The Courier-Mail and The Queensland Times. The heart of the QT’s readership remains the ‘old Ipswich’ – people born and bred in Ipswich – who will buy the QT, three to one.
“In Goodna and the eastern extremity of Ipswich, The QT and The Courier-Mail sell about one a-piece. Springfield gets included in the Ipswich figures. Springfield is becoming closer to Ipswich over time but it’s essentially a freestanding community. That penetration in those parts remains pretty low.
“…New communities are always hard. I always think of UK, Peterborough. It was a new town that had a lot of suburbs added to it in the ‘60s and ‘70s with people who moved into it from the East End of London. It still remained pretty hard to crack because people didn’t have the relationship with the community or the newspaper.”
Which brings us full circle – no newspaper can convey a sense of community without a skilled journalist. Stuart’s top tips for journalists were thoughtful.
Shorthand is really important.
Never forget that you are writing for a reader.
Keep a sense of objectivity and be passionate about the story for the right reasons.
You’ve got to have your news antennae turned to number 10. If you notice something different, just ask, find out what it is.
Be quick as you can – it’s a team effort and there are other people who will be relying on you to get the job done so we can get this newspaper out on time.
If you can’t think of what to write then just start writing. It will come to you.