Some time in the past, when gentlemen were gentlemen, an agreement is said to have been reached between the chaps (now dead) who ran The West Australian newspaper, and their friendly rivals at The Sunday Times. Nothing was written. Formalities were not required. It was just an understanding that carved up Perth’s print media.
If asked, and no-one dared question bosses back in the 1950s, the gentlemen’s agreement, was denied. But, as Mandy Rice-Davies so famously said of her clients. “they would say that wouldn’t they”.
“Purely coincidence, old boy,” would have been the reply. “It just so happens that WA Newspapers prefers publishing Monday to Saturday and, quite obviously from its name, The Sunday Times prefers Sunday. Now go away you pesky nuisance and stop asking questions.”
Whatever the reason for the decisions to stay on their respective sides of the fence, the result has been a very comfortable co-existence. A lack of competition tends to do that, making even the most inept manager look like a genius.
Apart from the occasional hiccup, such as Robert Holmes a Court’s upsetting of the gentlemen’s applecart with the creation of his Western Mail newspaper in the 1980s, life has been easy – until now.
The internet, perhaps the world’s most disruptive technology since man invented the wheel, is drawing the gentlemen into precisely the forum they have avoided for 50 years – open competition.
First shots in what could become a fascinating war, especially given the promised media ownership changes, have been fired with the launch of new web sites by both sides. Media junkies have been closely scrutinising both sites at www.thewest.com.au and www.news.com.au/perthnow.
When Briefcase went for a cruise across both sites last Friday (July 14) the lead local story on both was Warren Anderson’s loss in his $50 million claim against the WA Government.
At this point, some readers will be asking who cares about web sites publishing the same story on the same day. But anyone who says that is displaying a failure to understand the historic significance of this event in the closed media shop that is Perth, and an appalling ignorance as to the business significance.
By creating its PerthNow website, even if buried in the greater News Ltd internet structure, The Sunday Times has stepped over the gentlemen’s line. Sure, there’s still nothing on paper (as befits a gentlemen’s agreement) but there’s plenty on the screen.
Much remains to be done with both sites, and both also have a major problem with electronic interlopers.
The Anderson story, for example, may have been the top item on July 14 but it was also the top story on July 13 in the emailed business news service provided by this newspaper, and carried extensively on radio, television and, presumably, podcasts and web sites based in Sydney, Melbourne – or on the moon for all Briefcase knows.
And that’s the point. The media, thanks to technology, has gone global. Turf deals, such as Perth’s gentlemen’s agreement, are coming unstuck.
What was once the greatest strength of the dominant media players in a small and isolated market such as Perth has suddenly become its greatest weakness, and the people who run it are being exposed to serious competition for the first time.
Where’s this heading? Briefcase, as a business observer, is disinterested in the daily bickering of who had what first, who has more stories, and who’s left week-old stories on their site.
But like everyone else with an eye on the stock market, there is an interest in who’s carrying what advertisements, and which side is attacking what part of the other’s cash flow – events which may take some time to surface, but surface they must.
On the market, which appears to be blissfully ignorant of the opening shots in Perth’s media turf war, the share price of WA Newspapers Holdings is sitting comfortably somewhere around the $9 mark, up some days, down others.
The result is that WAN cruises along at a comfortable market capitalisation of around $1.8 billion, roughly where it has been for the past year, which is interesting in itself given that WA is experiencing its biggest economic boom.
Seasoned observers of the media recognise that no damage will be done in the short term by competing web sites. For starters, no-one has really figured out how to make serious money from the web, except Google, and all that PerthNow and TheWest seem to be doing is playing around the edges of the web’s potential.
The real issue about the duelling web sites is that they represent the edge of a wedge. They show that both sides understand the significance of what’s happening and know that they must play web games while keeping an eye on the more immediate issue of the changing media ownership laws.
Briefcase can see the issues quite clearly and also recognises that new ownership rules will change the structure of media in Australia, and potentially provide WAN with an opportunity to expanded further than its bizarre half-share in a cinema chain with the Packer family.
The new rules may provide an opportunity for WAN and the Packers to move closer together, but they also create an environment for greater competition and the further rise of the internet as a serious news and advertising medium in the once isolated and protected Perth market.
On the matter of the internet, Briefcase is watching with interest the rise of blogging, the curious custom of people you don’t know (or care about) scribbling their random and often deranged thoughts on a web site, and hope that others will read it.
While some people see blogging as the new media at work, Briefcase sees it as a phenomenon that will disappear as quickly as it appeared, for a few very simple reasons. Most of it is garbage (like talkback radio on a global scale), most of it is almost certainly riddled with factual errors, and most of it is one person’s (twisted) view of the world.
“A pessimist is a man who thinks everybody is as nasty as himself and hates them for it.” George Bernard Shaw