Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Major Mitchell and the Maranoa

The Maranoa is far from Stirlingshire but it was the fertile woody lands west of what is now Roma that most appealed to the Scottish-born surveyor-general of NSW, Thomas Mitchell. 

Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell was a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army who earned his stripes with Wellington in the 1811 Iberian Campaign against Napoleon. The Duke was so impressed by the young Scot, barely 19, he commissioned him to survey the battlefields. After 16 years of military service he was head-hunted by the Crown to perform the same duties for the young colony of New South Wales as Deputy Surveyor-General.

Mitchell’s boss was John Oxley who had opened up several areas to white settlers including the Lachlan, Macquarie and Tweed Rivers. With Allan Cunningham, Oxley beat an inland path to what would become Queensland via the Brisbane River But the difficulties of his explorations led to an early death. John Oxley died in 1828 aged just 45. Hired just a year earlier, Oxley’s ill-health was always at the back of Mitchell’s mind and suddenly he was promoted into the role he would keep for the next 27 years and four major explorations.

The first of those in 1831 took Mitchell directly due north of Sydney towards Tamworth. He found the Gwydir River and turned inland till he found the Darling. After natives killed two of three helpers, Mitchell returned to Sydney to plan his next sortie. It took four years to return to the Darling but he was determined to find out where this long meandering river emptied into the sea. His botanist Richard Cunningham was killed by the Aborigines and Mitchell was forced to withdraw again after a skirmish.

Undaunted, he was back a year later to try again. There was more battles with natives and he killed seven of a large posse of 200 that were attacking him. This time he followed the Darling until it joined the Murray near Wentworth. Mitchell went on to see the Grampians and he followed the Glenelg River to the Bass Strait coast (where Nelson is now). Mitchell returned to Sydney a hero after opening up this vast stretch of Australia Felix to the Europeans.

It led to a relative semi-retirement and there was no more expeditions for nine years. Having mapped much of what would become Victoria, he would do the same for what would become Queensland. With fellow explorer Edmund Kennedy he set off north on December 15, 1845, aged 54. Mitchell called on familiar routines striking out north-west for the Darling, as he had done three times before. But this time he continued north to the Narran River, to the Balonne, and to the Culgoa. Near the junction of the Maranoa and Balonne rivers, Mitchell found a natural bridge on April 23, 1846. He named the bridge for the auspicious saint's day he found it, St George’s Bridge.

Crossing the bridge Mitchell followed the Cogoon Creek which he renamed what he thought the natives called it: Muckadilla Creek. This took him into great pastoral country west of what is now Roma. He christened a hill in the region Mt Abundance and from its top, marvelled over what he called a “a champaign region, spotted with wood, stretching as far as human vision or even the telescope would reach.” Mitchell would continue west to find the Warrego and Barcoo Rivers but it was his description of Mt Abundance that resonated. By champaign, Mitchell meant undulating country, but many who followed in his path were made drunk by his vision. It was to be his final exploration.

When he returned to Sydney, he told his friend and fellow Scot William MacPherson about his discoveries. His son Allan MacPherson held lands at Keera in New England and Mitchell encouraged him to try his luck at Mount Abundance. Heading north-west and crossing St George’s Bridge in the path of Mitchell, MacPherson was the first white settler of the Maranoa in 1847 just a year after his mentor, bringing with him his workers, cattle and sheep.

Watched closely by the Mandandanji whose lands he craved, MacPherson was fearless and carried guns to enforce his law. Ultimately he was not successful but he laid open the path for others to follow both from the south and from the east to the Darling Downs.

Thanks to his mentor Mitchell, MacPherson had changed the region forever.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A new news beast: Newsweek goes digital

In an interview that could easily have passed for Fox talking to Murdoch, the Newsweek Daily Beast Company sat down with its editor-and-chief and founder Tina Brown to discuss the end of print at the venerable magazine Newsweek.  Newsweek fell into the hands of Brown and Beast two years ago but have been unable to resist sliding circulation and rising costs. The last print edition will be December 31.

Brown was on “Newsbeast” this week seated next to the company’s new CEO Baba Shetty as they said why Newsweek was shedding staff and its print publication.  For Brown, it about protection, both of journalists and content. Senior suited-up columnist John Avlon lollypopped his bosses with the opening question phrased as a statement: “So we are taking the bull by the horns, going all digital…”
“We are,” replied Brown.  “We must embrace the future.”  
Newsweek was 80 years old, she said. and it was time to start looking at the next 80 years.  

Brown, like many editors before her, conceded defeat for print.  

The industry has reached a tipping point and it was no longer a case if but when, she said.

And “when” said Brown, might as well be “now”.
“We decided to take away the when and…embrace it, be ready for it.”

Avlon turned the discussion to Shetty with management speak.
“Being proactive not reactive is always a good idea…”
“Yes,” replied Shetty, who unlike Avlon, was dressed down with a jumper and shirt.
The new CEO, a “brand guru”, said Newsweek was a great brand and a powerful media icon but was encumbered by “the form factor” and its economics. Taking away issues of physical printing distribution and circulation by porting the core product to digital would be “incredibly liberating”, Shetty said.

Consumers were moving to digital and advertisers would want to be there to grab these audiences, he said. Tablet devices, web usage for news, and social news meant it made perfect sense for Newsweek to now go “completely native on digital”. 

Brown gave an economic rationale to back it up. She said it cost Newsweek $42m a year to print, manufacture and distribute "before you’ve even paid one writer or one intern".
“That’s an enormous albatross,” Brown said.
“We thought it was more important to protect the journalists, the contents, the photographers, the ideas.” 
Brown said she wanted a digital Newsweek to focus on the marketplace of ideas.

But how then, would it be different to the Daily Beast, also entirely online, asked Avlon.
Shetty said they were “incredibly complementary".
In four years, the Beast had gone from a start-up to a site with 15 million visitors a month, up 70 percent since 2011, a huge spike in readership and engagement.
Many were “lean forward, participatory, multiple visits a day,” Shetty said. “The Daily Beast is indispensable in many people’s information diet.”
A healthy portion of this traffic was generated each week by Newsweek’s strong original journalism. Newsweek, said Shetty, “a step removed”,  offered more considered, thoughtful, long-form journalism. 

Brown said the the Daily Beast and Newsweek spoke to “the same reader in different moods”.  The Daily Beast offered news that was “hot and happening” while Newsweek appealed to the ipad reader on the train home. But, she said, they offered the same sensibility: reflection, context and “a thorough look at what was happening in the world”. 

Avlon steered the conversation to the new brand: Newsweek Global.  CEO Shetty called it a terrific new perspective and described who the product would appeal to: “The mobile, highly informed, highly engaged, person very aware of what is happening over the globe.”
He said removing legacy print, meant Newsweek could re-interpret what it could be in pure digital form. Brown said the Daily Beast now appealed to a similar global reader who lived in India, London or Brazil.

Brown said one of the focuses was on “really powerful live events” including ones they had organised like Women in the World. which has an associated foundation which last week launched a campaign for education of girls in Pakistan with Angelina Jolie, hot on the heels of the shooting of 14-year-old education campaigner Malala Yousafzai.

All aspects of the company, said Brown were “now playing together” but print was the anomaly. Getting rid of it went with “enormous regret” as some “incredible brilliant talent” would be leaving the company but it was “the right decision for the company.” Avlon concluded that in terms of content that was “good news for journalists” and an exciting new opportunity” before nodding to the camera to end the interview.

The Daily Beast article that went with the video, gave some statistics to back up the “tipping point” :
There are now 70m tablet users in the US, up from 13m in two years. A further explosion of use is likely, especially as two in five Americans get their news online, a number that is also growing.
“Exiting print is an extremely difficult moment for all of us who love the romance of print and the unique weekly camaraderie of those hectic hours before the close on Friday night,” the article concluded. "But as we head for the 80th anniversary of Newsweek next year we must sustain the journalism that gives the magazine its purpose—and embrace the all-digital future.”

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Brand Branson

TWENTY-THREE Australians are among the 600 people who have stumped up a cool $US200,000 each to be among the first space tourists with Virgin Galactic. The flights are expected to take place at the end of next year after Virgin test flights prove successful and the passengers undergo basic space training.

Flights on Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six commercial passengers on a two and a half journey that will involve just six minutes of sub-orbital weightlessness 21,000m high. The idea is the latest brainwave of serial inventive British businessman Richard Branson who will be on the first scheduled flight with his family.

The entrepreneurial icon turned 62 in July but shows no sign of slowing down.
Where others see disaster, Branson sees opportunity.  CNN called him part Warren Buffett, part PT Barnum and an “unflappable inventor and promoter”.He has vast interests on six continents, including airlines, express trains, mobile phones and credit cards.

Branson was always an independent sort. Aged 16 he set up a magazine to put out a student point of view. “I didn't like the way I was being taught at school,” he said in 2006. “I didn't like what was going on in the world, and I wanted to put it right.” Plenty of advertisers were willing to stump up to reach the cashed-up youngsters reading Branson’s mag and his career was up and running.

He advertised records in the magazine and started selling them himself at a London store at discounted rates under the brand “Virgin”.In 1972 he launched Virgin Records and was approached by a struggling artist called Mike Oldfield to listen to his demo. Other companies thought Oldfield's instrumental work was unmarketable but Branson took a gamble. Oldfield’s Tubular Bells was the first record released by Virgin. The album took off after it was used as the theme music for the movie The Exorcist and by the end of 1973 it was a massive international success. Branson was always grateful to Oldfield and would later name one of his first Virgin America planes Tubular Belle.

Branson’s willingness to take a gamble paid off and he was at it again in 1976 when he signed the band the Sex Pistols. Johnny Rotten and his punk crew were controversial but they knew how to shift records. Though the band broke up before Branson made serious money out of them, they successful changed Virgin's image as a hippie label. In their wake, he signed up XTC, The Skids,The Culture Club, The Human League, and Sting. Virgin’s income went from a loss of £900,000 in 1980 to a profit of £11 million in 1983. In 1992 Branson was able to sell the music label to EMI for £0.5 billion. 
By then, Branson had broadened his scope with expensive airlines in his firing line. In his autobiography Losing My Virginity he explained why. “My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them,” he said. “From the perspective of wanting to live life to the full, I felt that I had to attempt it.” Just as his assault on the expensive record industry worked, the over-regulated airline market was also ripe for picking.

His Virgin Atlantic Airways was followed by Virgin Blue in Australia in 2000. Virgin Blue took full advantage of Ansett’s collapse a year later to become the country’s second largest airline. Internationally there was Virgin Trains and Virgin Mobile and even Virgin Comics as Branson spread his net far and wide. Meanwhile there was a succession of world record attempts, film appearances and humanitarian initiatives as Branson the man competed with Branson the brand. 

He was knighted in 2000 for “services to entrepreneurship” and he now gets rock star treatment wherever he goes. Last year, stadiums in Sydney and Melbourne were filled with people who forked out $300 a ticket to attend a “financial education summit” where Sir Richard was the star speaker.
Now at an age when many are reaching for the pipe and slippers, Branson is still reaching for the skies and beyond.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Australian Wheat bickering

The Wheat Export Marketing Amendment Bill 2012 is one of many issues used as poorly understood political footballs in Canberra.  Wheat is important because it is the staple food of almost half the world's population and is one of the most important commodities produced by the Australian agriculture industry. Australia produces 3% of the world's wheat but its exports represent around 15% of the world wheat trade annually.

Yet there is little news about what this bill, currently staggering slowly through parliament will do for the industry. Instead media commentary is all about the drama of who will cross the floor and whether the bill will get up.  At its simplest, the bill is aimed at ending a compulsory 22c a tonne levy wheat growers pay to the Government export body for “accreditation”.  It would seem a piece of de-regulation ideally suited to free market Opposition philosophies. But the Opposition is living up to its name and opposing the bill.

The Opposition have hidden the obtuseness of their opposition behind a supposed need for a “well managed transition”.  In a joint statement released today by the leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott and his deputy Warren Truss  tried to explain it away.  “Coalition in our first term will implement measures agreed by the industry to ensure a well-managed deregulation to free and open competition while maintaining our international reputation for quality and reliability,” they said.  Abbott and Truss said deregulation had to wait until they formed government to “safeguard” port access arrangements, transparency standards on stock information and minimum quality standards.  It pointed to the Indonesian live export debacle and for good measure it threw in pink batts and over-priced school halls to show why Labor could not be trusted on this.

The pair denied they would bring back the single desk, which Truss managed during Coalition Government. The waters are muddied by several of his “agrarian socialists” who have joined Labor in wanting state interaction in the industry removed.  These are National party members in WA, the state that grows the most wheat. WA grew 11 million tonnes in 2003-2004 which amounts to over $2 mlllion dollars to the export agency, money the industry would rather keep. The Western Grain Growers' Committee of WA said Liberal policy was destroying its reputation in the bush. WGGC chair John Snooke said the will would remove “a redundant bureaucratic body which has no purpose and imposes an unnecessary cost on wheat growers in Western Australia.” Snook said there was no need legislation on issues such as wheat quality “because they already are being handled by the industry and by the market.”

That is the problem for Abbott and Truss: the industry is already deregulated. That happened in 2007 when the old Wheat Export Authority was wound up. Set up in the shadow of World War II, the WEA had grown to have wide powers. The main ones in the 21st century were to monitor the Australian Wheat Board single desk and to manage any other party that wanted to export Australian wheat. When both the WEA and the AWB was tarnished by the revelations of  kickbacks to Saddam’s Iraq in Oil for Wheat the WEA was disbanded.

In 2006 PM John Howard stripped AWB of its monopoly. This was against the wishes of many of his Nationals who argued the single desk was the only way to give Australian wheat farmers bargaining clout in an unfairly-run international market. The AWB was privatised and later acquired by Canadian interests.

In 2008 Labor introduced a new board with more limited power replaced the WEA. It was supported by the Liberals but not the Nationals. Confusingly the new body Wheat Exports Australia had a similar name and the same acronym. But the new WEA was given just one role to play: set up an accreditation scheme for the bulk wheat exports to ensure exporters met company standards. “The Scheme allows for the accreditation of bulk wheat exporters which meet the specified 'fit and proper' criteria and for WEA to exercise its monitoring and enforcement powers,” the (new WEA) says.

The problem is that this accreditation costs money and the (new) WEA is funded by a compulsory 22c a tonne of wheat levy from grain growers, and grain growers don’t like it. As one grain grower told me “If the bill doesn't pass we'll effectively be operating in a pseudo partially deregulated market continuing to fund  the current WEA which is of no use to us that I can see.” In May, the levy, called a Wheat Export Charge was removed pending the passing of the bill. But it was automated re-instated on October 1 when the bill had not passed through parliament.

The debate was adjourned again today with the Opposition divided and Labor wasting time on wedge politics.  The wisest words went to former Liberal MP Wilson Tuckey, who lost his seat to Nationals wildcard Tony Crook who supports the bill. Tuckey also wants a free vote in the Opposition. ''In political terms, do you feed a boil, or do you lance it?'' he said