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In Australias increasingly polarized media landscape, SMH fights to stay in the middle – The Drum

The Australian news media landscape has become increasingly polarized, with News Corporation on one side and a growing group on the other. The Drum finds out how The Sydney Morning Herald is trying to stay in the middle.

In recent times, major news publishers in Australia have made million-dollar commercial deals paid by tech giants Facebook and Google for their news media content, where even government-funded broadcaster ABC has a deal.

This means they are being paid for their content and will be less reliant on playing the polarizing click-bait game to drive traffic, which was a failing strategy of the past. However, the Australian news media landscape continues to be polarized with News Corporation on one side and a growing group of others led by The Guardian on the other.

This represents a prime opportunity for Nine Entertainment-owned The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and The Age to position themselves as the voice of reason and as the true fourth estate that places public interest ahead of the political and economic agenda.

To do this, SMH and The Age recently launched a brand and subscriber campaign called ‘Minds Wide Open’ to foster independent thinking and open understanding. The campaign aims to highlight the broad, independent perspective provided by the newspapers’ journalism.

Belle Tayler, head of brand and acquisition at Nine, explains with global events happening like the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, inequality and global power struggles, SMH and The Age’s job is to provoke the constructive conversations Australia needs to have, a job she admits has only accelerated in complexity over the past decade.

“In the midst of filter bubbles and echo chambers, we struggle to understand each other’s differences and find common ground. The result is a community that feels more fragmented and polarized than ever before,” says Tayler.

“Within this, we recognized the role of our newsrooms is to go further than simply providing the facts and the balance to report on today’s complexity. We need to reclaim the cultural ability to listen, to learn and to engage with new ideas without seeding division. That is why independent thinking and open understanding is so crucial.”

The campaign is based on The Digital News Report Australia 2020 from the University of Canberra, which found most Australians say they prefer impartial news and that they consider independent journalism important for society to function.

“The complete customer truth was not so simple. Speaking to our own readers and subscribers, we found that impartial was, in fact, extremely partial. Our original beliefs are often fueling our perceptions of new information, whether it is left-wing or right, progressive or conservative,” explains Tayler.

“We have all got blinkers when it comes to the journalism we read. We know that our readers turn to us for our unwavering commitment to balance, to reporting every issue on the merit of facts. Open-mindedness is in our DNA. What if we created a campaign that talked to the value of taking the blinkers off and embracing the power of being open?”

The campaign comes at a relevant time as the news media in Australia is spread across a spectrum of political views and agendas, notes Darren Woolley, founder and global chief executive officer of TrinityP3.

He explains the News Corporation titles have moved significantly to the right, not only in their opinion pieces but the editorial as well, to the point that two former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull called for and supported a Senate inquiry into news media influence in Australia.

On the opposing side is The Guardian and a multitude of new, but rapidly growing news media alternatives, but none with the market dominance of News Corporation, either individually or collectively.

“This is why The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have taken this position. They certainly are inclined to take positions supporting political parties based on an independent perspective. Complaints about political bias against the mastheads appear to be reasonably balanced,” he explains.

“There is also the fact that the chair of Nine Entertainment is a prominent member of the Liberal Party and an ex-federal treasurer, which is seen as a concern in some quarters. But being in the center between extremes is always a difficult place to play.”

Nine’s brief to its agency BMF for the campaign was to “create and retain tomorrow’s subscribers by injecting The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age into the cultural conversation with breakthrough creative work”.

David Roberts, creative director at BMF, says the agency started by asking itself what gets SMH and The Age journalists out of bed every morning – why do they want to work for the publisher rather than a more one-eyed news provider on either end of the spectrum, and what is the benefit of their journalism?

“It seems like we are living in a climate of absolute certainty. People are so convinced their opinions are correct – debate is closed. The possibility you might be wrong is closed. But journalism from SMH and The Age opens things up. It brings you views you might not have considered or facts you did not know. And that is enough of a benefit. We did not need to claim they make the world all kittens and rainbows. Helping people keep an open mind is enough. So that is where the tagline ‘Minds wide open’ came from,” he explains.

“For our launch TV ad, it started from a little nugget our client shared during a meeting. One of the reasons journalists love working for SMH and The Age is that they get backed up if they tread on powerful toes. Which we found very funny but also got us thinking – what that’s really about is permission to be fearless.”

He adds: “It allows them to follow a story without having to flinch. In a time when journalism is constantly threatened through the courts, we loved the idea of issuing our own cease and desist letter. It let us talk about their values with a sprinkle of swagger.”

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