Friday, September 09, 2011

Working for Rupert

In 2005 I was appointed editor of In November that year I was invited to attend the News Ltd editors conference in Adelaide, where I was briefly introduced to Rupert Murdoch. It was the only time I met the big chief, though it wasn't the only time I felt his influence.

The editors conference is an annual, or twice annual event held in different capital cities where News Ltd has metro daily papers. It brings together all the editors of the metro and regional newspapers - as well as the most senior columnists - and over a couple of days of presentations and workshops, thrashes out the critical issues shared across the Group.

The headline agenda is set by the CEO and then fleshed out by Corporate Affairs chief Greg Baxter and his office. The topics are inevitably current and often controversial. Debates go on all day and well into the night over dinner and many drinks at the most expensive restaurants in town.

It's a big deal within News Ltd, and it's fair to say that in and of itself it's a positive thing. But it's not something you'll see reported anywhere, so outside speculation always tends towards assuming the worst.

I attended a few of these conferences during my time at News and invariably they were focused on how to manage the transition from a print centric to a digital world.

The Adelaide conference in November 2005 was otherwise notable for a couple of reasons. Rupert was in town to open the new Adelaide Advertiser building, and the conference coincided with the inaugural News Awards of which the Murdochs were very supportive.

I was scheduled to speak on the morning of the second day. My brief was to describe the online opportunity for News in Australia in terms of new audience and new approaches to doing journalism. There was real interest at the most senior management levels in trying to come to grips with the implications of digital for every aspect of newsroom organisation, reporting and news production.

The other key point of interest at that time was Myspace. News Corp had just paid $580 million for the social networking site but very few people in the Australian arm of the business knew what it was, how it worked, or how it made money. For Australian print executives it was a confusing and even threatening addition to the business, but the signal was loud and clear: digital is the way of the future.

The session took place in the boardroom situated on the top floor of the glittering new Advertiser building, opening on to a roof garden with views of the city. Twenty five people sat around a large U-shaped table. It was a warm, sunny late spring day.

After opening comments and introductions from CEO John Hartigan and then my immediate boss (one of the sharpest minds I've had the privilege of working with), it was my turn to speak.

At that stage I'd been with the company for about three months. I'd had some experience editing a major news site, having been editor of for the previous three years, so I felt confident about what I had to say albeit somewhat daunted by the audience I was addressing.

There was a web connection in the room, so I was able to project examples of online news coverage from a range of different outlets covering the London bombings, Hurricane Katrina, and other major news events of recent months. A the time there was a clear trend toward user generated, or audience contribution and it was something I was really keen to get working at

Another bugbear of mine at the time was linking out. I was directing my team to put at least one external link into each article. Australian news sites still don't do enough of this, but at we were trying to use the medium to give our readers background or further information that would otherwise not run in the actual copy of an article. The web is perfect for this.

And one of the sites we used - with caution - was Wikipedia. I emphasized caution because there are some topics you cannot rely on Wikipedia for, but by and large historical or science based topics, for example, tend to be fairly safe sources of basic information.

In today's terms I was stating the bleeding obvious. But to an audience of News editorial executives in 2005 the whole issue of audience participation was a bit confronting. And as soon as I mentioned Wikipedia arms shot up around the room.

Chris Mitchell, editor of The Australian, was the first to object. For Chris it was a legal issue. "I don't like Wikipedia," he said. "I have my lawyers looking at it."

It was difficult to respond to that, and of course Mitchell wasn't looking for a response from me. I've occasionally wondered since whether The Australian's legal team has had any luck against Wikipedia ...

The second objection came from Daily Telegraph columnist, Piers Akerman. For Piers it was a journalistic issue.

"I don't like Wikipedia," he said. "They're not journalists. We are the journalists and editors. We are the ones who check and verify information. Wikipedia is unreliable and full of mistakes."

I replied that a) the Wikipedia model has a strong self-correction mechanism, b) we used it very carefully, mostly on non-controversial topics, and c) the scientific journal Nature had just published the initial results of a comparison with Encyclopedia Britannica which put Wikipedia in a favorable light against the venerable Britannica.

Nevertheless, Piers seemed unconvinced.

The third objection came from Herald Sun columnist, Andrew Bolt. For Andrew it was a personal issue. "I don't like Wikipedia," he said. "They write bad things about me."

Legal and journalistic complaints were one thing, but this was something altogether different. I wasn't sure how to respond, but rashly decided to pull up Andrew's wikipedia entry live on the projector screen.

Suffice to say the entry was long but bland, and there was nothing in the first few paragraphs that could be immediately described as insulting or biased. Luckily for me.

As I was wrapping up my presentation Rupert came in and stood at the back of the room by the tables that were laid put for morning tea. Afterwards we broke for coffee and biscuits. Rupert mingled with old colleagues like Terry McCrann and was introduced to the few newbies like myself who were present.

Following morning tea, Rupert addressed the room. He spoke for about 30 minutes without any notes. He was quick to say that digital is the way of the future.

"As you know," he said, "we've recently purchased Myspace and we will continue to look for other suitable acquisitions.

"The web is the great disruptive technology of our time. It's where our audiences are moving to, and it's where we have to be.

"When I get up in the morning I can check the news from all over the world. I am constantly amazed by the rich variety of offerings on the web. Sites such as Wikipedia ..."

At which point I looked down the table and saw Andrew Bolt put his head in his hands, and Piers Ackerman nod wisely in agreement.

John Hartigan, whom I was sitting next to, leaned over and whispered, "I'll bet you're glad he said that!"

Indeed, I was.