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City Desk
17 August, 2005  
Legal Affairs v Legal Affairs

It promised to be a great newspaper battle as Murdoch’s Australian took on Fairfax’s Financial Review in a wrestle for law-related advertising. Despite Chris Merritt shifting camps, Fairfax has kept its paw on the lion’s share of the loot

After eight editions it is apparent that The Australian’s new Legal Affairs pages have failed to break or even dent the dominance of the Financial Review in the law advertising market.

People are reluctant to advertise their splendid wares in the Dirty Digger’s organ.

Two months ago The Australian launched, with trumpets blowing and banners unfurled, its new legal affairs pages under the baton of Chris Merritt.

For seven years Merritt had edited the Financial Review’s legal pages until he jumped to the Digger’s chatty empire following a spat about lack of resources and other disgruntlements at the Fun Review.

The Oz editor Michael Stutchbury has been a devoted plunger of the burnt stick into the ants’ nest of the law. Importantly, Merritt’s arrival meant that he could take on the Fun in a lucrative market it monopolised – selling expensive space to law firms, recruitment agencies, universities and other legal service types.

imageMerritt was badged by the Oz as “the nation’s most influential legal journalist” and audaciously the new section was called “Legal Affairs” precisely the name of the Fun’s law pages. Even his new gossip column “Prejudice” was billed as the best “hearsay” – Hearsay being the name of his old column at his former home.

The new pages burst into life just before the end of the financial year when the law firm partner and senior associate announcements are flowing like trickles of gold.

“Only an international newspaper organization such as News Corporation has the resources and global reach that are essential for a quality coverage of this fast changing area,” said a press release from the Lubyanka in Holt Street.

It also promised that the new section has “strong backing by advertisers”.

Well, after eight brave editions we can say that the Fun Review has seen off the challenge. Of course, it’s all about advertising revenue for the moguls and the number of ads determines the number of pages. In its first week Legal Affairs in The Australian carried a staggering 14 advertisements over seven pages against the Financial Review’s five ads over four pages.

Murdoch was discounting the normal ad rate heavily to try and puncture the market – up to 45 percent off the usual price is a figure that has been quoted to moi.

However, in week two (July 1), which was the crucial day of announcements of new law firm blood, it was evident that the initial burst was a flash in the pan. Merritt was down to five ads over four pages while Marcus Priest at the Fun had 14 ads over six pages.

Thereafter, the Oz’s section slid further and has been running at only two pages with between two and six ads a week, while the AFR mostly runs four to five pages with between four and nine ads a week. For the Murdoch tissue there is a sad scarcity of the cherished law firm vanity ads.

For the eight editions to date, Legal Affairs in The Australian has had 42 advertisements (run at a discounted price) over 23 pages, while Legal Affairs in the Fun has run 59 ads over 34 pages.

Allens Arthur Robs ran three ads over three weeks in The Australian, but appears not to have done anything since. The Fin Review had a splashy full-page ad from Phillips Fox which did not appear in the competition.

imageQuietly, the Oz’s brassy page pointers and boasts have disappeared. The strategy at News Ltd was to try and cannibalise the opposition’s legal readers and advertisers rather than bother with creating a unique presence with something fresh and different. It hasn’t worked.

Editorially, there’s not much to distinguish the two “platforms” as newspapers are called these days. Both have had good stories and both are run by capable editors. Merritt and Priest, poor sods, are being worked to the bone having to write most of the content.

There are outside contributors, and in one edition (July 29) poor Merritt must have been utterly desperate because he ran a piece from the excruciating David Flint.

There’s no sign that the new recruit has been lavished with too many of the promised extra resources.

Promises, schomises. This is Murdochville we’re talking about.