Thursday, December 17, 2009

GLW: time for an overhaul

Published in Alliance Voices, the internal bulletin of the Socialist Alliance, in the leadup to the January 2010 national conference.

Green Left Weekly is a great newspaper, but its lack of rivals can blind us to its faults, for lack of anything to judge it against. The format of GLW has barely changed over the nearly 20 years since it began publishing. In this time the internet has arrived and changed news presentation dramatically. Print media are struggling everywhere, as people go online for information.

GLW’s sales have declined immensely over the last 20 years. In 1992 I recall we had a weekly “campaign 4000”, which was rarely met, but aspired to sell 4000 print copies of the paper. Now we sell somewhere around 1000. Our subscription base has held up better but is now dipping below 1000.

A dispute may be raised that the sales rate (per hour of effort) hasn’t changed much. But this is not a useful figure unless we also analyse where the sales are coming from: has the sales rate on street corners, or on campus changed? Is the current sales rate being held up by a higher proportion sold at rallies and movement events?

Despite all this, our internet publication is very successful, with around 13 000 hits per day last I heard.

It is time to re-evaluate how we publish GLW. As the practical backer of GLW, the Socialist Alliance needs to discuss it. I am in general agreement with Bernie Rosen’s comments already made in Alliance Voices, but want to add some suggestions of my own for a radical change in how we publish, based on my observations of the paper’s impact and readership.

1. Maximise our net potential

Currently it’s hard to sell the paper to other activists because they already get more information than you can poke a stick at (let alone read) from the net. Some of this includes GLW articles, when they are on topic and have something useful to say. (A lot of younger people also get their information from the net, and are unlikely to buy a left newspaper except as a novelty or if it’s relevant to a special interest.)

Our net presence basically functions as a weekly upload of our print edition. This is behind the times. There is space for so much more: we could run a news updates section for any latest that comes in, independent of the print edition. We could also make better use of the Links webzine style longer articles that are normally only run in abridged form in GLW, making them the norm for the site and just posting abridged or excerpted articles in the print edition.

The print edition then would evolve into a weekly download of the most pertinent information from the online news and opinion, suitable for subscribers and others who don’t get their info all online, and as an introduction to the green and left movement for those who meet us for the first time on the street.

Most people who are already activists are, I find, likely to have sorted out their information sources already from the net. We should make GLW their news website, rather than trying to push the print edition too heavily. On the other hand, people who are not activists but interested in left politics, or less active supporters, are much more likely to read the paper. The content of the print edition should reflect this.

2. Improve the readability of the print edition

Often we reprint articles from the US Socialist Worker. This is fine, except frequently I’ve noticed that what we run as one long article in GLW was originally two separate (linked) articles in SW.

GLW is weakened by too many long, specialist articles (especially on Latin American and generally on international affairs). On the other hand, we struggle to get all the necessary news about local campaigns and issues into the paper.

The most common complaint I hear from regular readers and ex-readers is that they never finish reading it. While it’s not imperative to finish reading it, I think this is another way of saying, it’s hard to read GLW. Bear in mind that the average reading level of the English-speaking community is probably about year 8 level, not Arts-graduate level.

Making it more readable is partly to do with language and writing style. Here I can’t pass over the words of Jose Rebelo, from FRELIMO (the 1970s anti-colonial liberation front in Mozambique):

Forge simple words that even the children
can understand;
Words that will enter every house
Like the wind
and fall like red hot embers
On our people’s souls.

If that’s not clear enough, go to here to use a tool that can help to tell you if your article is too wordy and here to see if you use too many specialist or uncommon words.

Readability is also a lot about presentation. Recently I wrote a long article on climate change and natural disasters (available here ) which was the week’s feature story. I managed to break off one topic – an appeal for aid from Philippine socialists – into a separate article. Re-reading the piece now, it could easily have been broken into four articles, which is roughly how I have sub-headed it on my blog: 1, the details of the floods in the Philippines and India; 2, the link between extreme weather and climate change; 3, remedies and relevance for Australia; and 4 (incorporating the article on the relief appeal) on the impact on poor communities. The final paragraph of my article was covered in more depth in another article that issue by Simon Butler, so could have been cut entirely.

I guess this sort of break-up would mean more work for the layout staff at GLW but it would make the pages much, much more readable. Short articles are less daunting and many people decide to read something based on the headline alone. In fact, “action updates” and news briefs are some of the best-read sections, so we should pay special attention to how they are written and presented.

We could also cut a lot of the long analytical content, especially in our international coverage. International coverage should focus on news more than analysis, which can be highlighted and advertised in the print edition but published more online. This would help to take our international coverage out of the field of experts and scholars, into the field of everyday discussion of readers who would find the articles more accessible.

GLW currently functions as a mostly in-depth (“propaganda”) paper, but with simple slogans (“agitation”) for covers. This often doesn’t work: an agitational slogan on the cover leads a new buyer to a lengthy and often very detailed article on the inside.

There are other problems. Surveying how regular readers see the paper would help. One common comment I hear is that GLW is too repetitive. This needs more investigation, but I think it’s to do with the introductory nature of many articles that go over the same background information each time, for the new reader. Perhaps a little text box over one side to give some dot points for background info would help separate out this information. We shouldn’t force regular readers to sift through paragraphs and columns of background they already know to find a few new snippets of news and analysis. We should also refer readers more explicitly to our website and to Resistance Books pamphlets for background info. The paper still does reach an audience who need introductory information to issues and we should maintain this aspect while considering ways to improve it.

3. Shorten it to free up resources

We put a huge amount of effort into distributing GLW and raising the funds to keep it afloat. While this has kept the paper afloat which is a good thing, it has become a point of honour that we must maintain our flagship publication without a step backward. Actually, I think retreating to a shorter publication would help us make steps forward.

As I’ve already argued for shorter, more readable articles and more content to be moved to the Internet edition, this would seem obvious anyway, but there are better reasons still.

We struggle to run election campaigns that go beyond empty-bucket campaigns. This is partly due to the lack of time our members have but also lack of funds hampers our ability to produce decent publicity material. There is often a groan when election fundraising comes up because it means substantial work on top of the already stretched fundraising schedule we carry. We should not put these two essential areas of work in competition with each other.

Other fundraising is also important. We almost never organise fundraisers for other community or political groups and campaigns. I can remember only one such fundraiser in Melbourne in the last decade, for a Koori childcare centre that was in trouble. Such solidarity, if we can provide it, is invaluable to build up goodwill and support for our paper and for SA. But we almost never do it because we are so stretched raising funds for ourselves. Really it should be a regular part of our repertoire. A joint 50/50 GLW fundraiser with another cause is often very successful also at attracting people we don’t usually see or get donations from.

Whether it is election campaigns, rally organising, or printing leaflets for our next fundraiser, we are always scrounging for money or handouts, and often complaining that it eats into GLW fundraising if we have to spend time finding money for other costs.

We face not just unrelenting opportunities to be involved in political campaigns, but a situation where frequently we are the leading/most experienced activist group involved. Yet we still look for other organisations to play host in terms of guaranteeing finances and resources for events. Our lack of funds is not entirely credible when you consider our inner city office buildings which are worth a mint. Once again this points to the need for re-examining priorities.

4. Budget proposals

We need to be shown the figures for GLW publishing and distribution to have an informed discussion about the paper. How much would we save by cutting 4 or 8 pages from the print run? What if the print run increased, how much would unit cost go down? What are the other overheads (roughly) for production: offices, staff, computers? These have to be extracted from the general costs for offices and staff as much as possible, so we can see what we are fundraising just for the paper.

The cover price of the paper is quite low at $2, but could we make it lower? In poor areas, the price is a disincentive for many to buy the paper. Would sales increase if it was for sale by “gold coin donation”? Could we re-jig production to make it cheap enough that $2 per issue represented a profit, and $1 was break-even? Branches could raise money simply by selling the paper this way.

I am making a request for GLW staff to make available what figures are available on these issues so the SA membership can consider what other possibilities might exist and how we can improve. They should be published in Alliance Voices, or if too sensitive, made available to each branch for discussion in an appropriate way.

5. Sales culture must go

We must eradicate the “sales culture” that permeates the current GLW distribution methods. “Sales” has infected our campaigning such that we measure success by GLW sales and push this as a primary aim of our “interventions”.

To paraphrase an argument Dave Kerin has put to Melbourne SA meetings, our “sales culture” reflects the all-pervasive consumerism that afflicts people’s lives outside of politics. If the first contact (or most frequent contact) we make with someone is trying to sell them something, they will in many cases be repulsed – not by our politics, but because they are trying to find something more than consumerism when they come to the left. Of course we want to distribute the paper and of course we need to get money back to keep printing it, but we need to be more sensitive in how we do this.

“Hi, would you like to buy a paper” is not a great way to introduce ourselves. A more sophisticated sales pitch than that just looks even more suss, because blind Freddy can see that “have you heard of Australia’s best independent news source” still just has that one aim in mind: a financial transaction.

Our sales culture has infected our rally presence most negatively, where a substantial part of our effort goes into setting up merchandise stalls and carrying piles of T-shirts and badge boards. We risk making ourselves into some kind of merchandising side-show.

6. Building up distribution

Too much of our branch organising is consumed by responding to the urgent, such that we often don’t find time to do the “merely” necessary. Green Left subscriptions renewals is one example. But our whole approach to subscriptions is often overlooked. Every introductory subscription is worth 7 papers. A year’s subscription is worth over 40. But they usually only take a few minutes to sell. For those worried about their “sales rate” that is a lot better than the rate at most rallies and street corners!

We need to look at other options for selling subscriptions. Make it the first thing we ask to someone who approaches a stall, not an afterthought. Initiate a special subscription for The Flame that only sends out the monthly edition with the Arabic supplement (and likewise the new Spanish supplement). Try door knocking and bundles for sale in local shops even. One of the main ways to ease the burden of our “sales effort” and fundraising is to build up the subscriber base. I am confident that with improvements like the ones I discuss above in readability, subscriptions would be much easier to sell.


  1. Well thought stuff.
    Important, too.

    A last word. the state of the world left media presence is *ridiculously* poor. It needs to be a *lot* better.
    Then again, the *whole* state of the world left is pretty bad too.

    In that context, Chavez call for a new international might prove all important.

    And since press infrastructure, methods, content, etc can often be reused..and since a far bigger scale allows for more ambitious stuff to be done...please DO bring this to any potential fifth international meeting.

    For example...a newspaper? a printed one? why not cd's, instead? could work, could it not?
    And text? Why not video? Or a whole tv channel, for that matter?

    Sure, sure, I hear you, there are a few problems. Many typical small left parties simply can not do video, or a well, pro-quality two-hours video CD. Sure. But a well organized international might. It works for non-local stuff (which can and should be added, of course).

    Anyway, well done, and let's dare to think bigger. Hopefully, see you at the fifth!

  2. I'm one of those people for whom video is just a whole 'nother world, I'm afraid. But I do agree with you.


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