Is the online version of The Age still a paper?

I value having The Age delivered to my door each morning, but I’m disappointed with the online version, theage.com.au. I refer to it often, but my experience with the site suggests I’d have to think long and hard before I’d be prepared to pay to access it online.

Charging is of course Fairfax’s ultimate goal (the online version of The Financial Review, which is also Fairfax owned, is pay for use) and seen as a way of making up for the declining popularity of newspapers – sales of the Monday to Friday edition of The Age fell 4% in the March Quarter, 2010. Sales of the Saturday edition fell 5%.

Those video advertisements that automatically start when you click on the site are a real turn-off but I have some sympathy for Fairfax’s search for a financially viable online model (although since I pay for the hard copy, why should I have to endure such intrusive advertising?). No, my disappointment relates to management issues.

A key reason for my dissatisfaction is basic – it’s hard to find stuff on the site. I imagine that many people want to track down an article they recall seeing in yesterday’s paper or last week’s, yet you can’t search by date of publication. You have to know the title or author. That seems like a terribly basic omission to me. Why can’t I look up a simple table of contents for each day, showing the name and author of articles with the ability to jump straight to what I want?

And there’s lots of other stuff that’s simply too hard to find behind that impenetrable front page. For example, The Age is still running it’s Project Melbourne series on urban development, yet there’s no reference to it on the front page of the site. Unless you remember the phrase “project Melbourne” or the title of one of the articles in the series, you’re stuffed.

To my eyes, the site lacks an obvious nested menu system for finding content. Who’d want to pay for content you can’t find?

And what is the logic of the search function? Results come back subdivided into sections that seem to be from other Fairfax publications – what for example, when I search on “obesity”, are The Inside Back, Fat Forecast and Heckler? And why do they and the extensive Sydney Morning Herald results get listed before those from The Age? On top of all that, results within these sections are not even in strict date order!

I realise Fairfax is seeking economies by providing a single site for all or many of its publications. But please, if I’m supposedly on “theage.com.au”, take it as given, unless and until told otherwise, that I’m looking for results that pertain only to The Age. If that’s too hard, surely results for The Age could be listed before those from the SMH?

A particular frustration is that too often stuff simply doesn’t work. For example, this past week I hoped to post here about the interesting live forum The Age streamed on 3 June to present the Committee for Melbourne’s new report, Shaping Melbourne. The trouble is after my initial viewing, the livestream wouldn’t work again. Now of course I can’t even find it!.

And there’s stuff that’s published in the paper than isn’t posted to the site. I could understand if premium content were not accessible, but the big stuff is always freely available. It’s more the little stuff, like the small piece on Thursday relating to Kelvin Thomson’s complaint that sprawl is making Melbourne like an obese man.

But my biggest complaint is the absence of imagination. The site reads too much like a digital version of the paper, rather than as a fresh new medium capitalising on the opportunities offered by the technology.

The internet has at least two great advantages over paper. First, it should mean that further information can be accessed instantly so the reader can extend and deepen understanding of a story. Second, it should also mean that debate and discussion can commence immediately, bringing other interpretations of the original story and further amplification and information.

I would like to see, for example, hypertext links in each article like those that I and other bloggers regularly use (like this). If there’s a commercial constraint, at least link to other Fairfax material such as an earlier story or a feature on a similar topic.

And I would like to see most articles offer provision for comments so that debates can roll out – again, like you find with most blogs. Yet looking at the site on Friday, only two of the eleven lead news articles had provision for comments (of those two, by midday, an article on Myki had 92 comments and the one on the financial crisis had 31). I’d expect, for example, that many people would have views on the news story “Greens hold line on drugs” which was also published that day, but they weren’t offered that option.

The opinion section is much better, although amazingly, you can’t leave a comment on any of the editorials or on any of the letters – they, surely, are the epitome of “opinion”? What’s that all about?

I have a 22” screen (1680 x 1050), yet it takes me nine presses of the Page Down key to get to the bottom of the home page! Is the editor of theage.com.au still thinking print? And broadsheet at that? It might be that the solutions to all my complaints are buried somewhere in all that electronic paper – but if they are, I can’t see them!


4 Comments on “Is the online version of The Age still a paper?”

  1. TomD says:

    Important service and reader issues and well canvassed. The failures in terms of fully utilizing search capabilities are chronic indeed.

    Have had a previous issue with trying to use the ‘print version’ of their articles too. Was forcing me to include and print the text column’s ads too! Another quirk is that after scrolling down to a lower section of the home page, the page will ‘jump’ back to its original top position suddenly and I will be forced to scroll down again.

    There are too many options for news these days – even if often all sourced from the same lousy wire services – to keep me visiting the Age site for news. Particularyl if they keep this poor approach up, let alone start charging me for the ‘privilege’!

    And I’m not exactly highly motivated to read the Age or most news outlets these days given their poor standards of journalism and ongoing establishment and conservative political bias on most things.

    And forget about any genuinely hard hitting investigative journalism … or anything seriously critical of business (advertisers) … or anything truly meaningful in the way of access to valuable alternative perspectives on major issues.

  2. Andrew says:

    We will soon put the video of the forum up on the Committee for Melbourne’s Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/user/Committee4Melbourne and also http://www.melbourne.org.au Andrew

  3. […] in light of my comments yesterday, it’s good to see that both the hard copy and the online editions of The Age ran this […]


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