Putting some light in with the shade

One of the (dubious) pleasures of being the deputy editor of The Age is that I get to see the comments of people who are both subscribing and unsubscribing from our masthead, and the more general feedback that appears in various channels from those who read our journalism.

Watching these channels is such an interesting exercise. Our subscribers are smart and engaged people, and you are paying for something from which you rightly demand value for money. Some of you are delighted to be joining (welcome!), and others are unhappy enough to want to leave.

There are story ideas in there, and valid criticisms, and things that we certainly need to improve – among them the (still-present, still infuriating) delivery problems, for which we sincerely apologise and which we are working on.

One complaint, though, caught me off guard: a disgruntled subscriber asked why we bothered with all the culture and lifestyle content; this was not real news, and we should stick to being more serious.

It must be said it’s not a widespread complaint, but I’ve been chewing over it nonetheless. Every day the editors and senior staff of The Age hold national and local news conferences to discuss what we are doing that day, what our journalists should be working on for the week, the weekend, and the broader, investigative or feature stories that take longer to cook and more effort to produce.

Part of these discussions is always what we call “the mix”. You’ll notice on our website that, in the three slots at the top, there is almost always something that takes you away from the seriousness of the world. As I type this, we have chaos at Melbourne Airport, the live coverage of the January 6 hearings in Washington, and Adele Ferguson’s extraordinary revelations about the dark, dangerous corners of the cosmetic surgery industry. So far, so serious. Tucked in there is also a story about Rebel Wilson’s new girlfriend. It’s what our online editor Mat Dunckley calls a “change of pace”.

While it’s undoubtedly frivolous and of little import in the world, many, many of the smart, engaged people who subscribe to The Age respond with enthusiasm to these stories. The Rebel Wilson story is, as I write, in the top three best read on the site. Sport can provide a change of pace, as can stories about the ballet, books, TV and movies, or the stories from our lifestyle journalists about workplace issues, health, exercise and fashion.

There was a bad habit a few years ago that many global media organisations fell into – and The Age, unfortunately, was one of them – where we noticed how well-read celebrity stories were and started filling more and more slots on the site with them. The managers at the time thought this would bring enough readers to make our advertising pay. It did not work, and it damaged our brand for a time. The solution is the subscription model, where people will pay if the quality of the news is good enough – a virtuous cycle for high-quality journalism.

Our daily challenge is to make it so.

But that does not mean we are all serious all the time. Which brings me to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Though many of us (including subscribers, no doubt) are republicans, the spectacle and celebration around the remarkable Queen Elizabeth and her unparalleled longevity as England’s and Australia’s head of state was among the best read series of articles we produced this week.

You loved everything that our Europe correspondent, Rob Harris, produced, from the pomp of the Trooping the Colour ceremony to the awkward appearances of Harry and Meghan, to the hilarious video the Queen shot with Paddington Bear (showing she’s a good sport as well as a good monarch), all the way to Prince Louis’ behaviour as the spotlight fell on him and his exasperated mum, Kate Middleton. The story Kerri Sackville wrote about this, sympathising with the Duchess of Cambridge as a mother, was a delight.

After that, Boris Johnston faced a leadership spill and we all got back to the serious business of bad weather, an energy crisis, rising interest rates and inflation.

All the better, I suspect, for having enjoyed a brief change of pace.

Gay Alcorn sends a newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive her Note from the Editor.

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