208 Spring 2012
The end of a world
An elegy for the newspaper
It’s 2025. After a decade of litigation, controversy and arrests on both sides of the Atlantic, the non-Murdoch equity holders have taken control of the News Corporation business. They have ended the Murdoch family’s gerrymander of stockholder voting rights and moved quickly to strip the newspapers from an otherwise profitable media conglomerate.
The Australian is among the first Murdoch papers to close. It is the last Australian weekday broadsheet. By the time the Australian prints its final edition, Fairfax has long since quit Monday to Friday print publishing of the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. First, they were shrunk to tabloids, meeting with an ultimately desultory reaction from a formerly loyal but now war-weary audience. Then the week day editions were closed. Both papers continued for a while as weekend-only print editions, but now, in 2025, they can only be viewed on the new range of foldable tablets. The Age and Herald brands exist but merely as sectional categories for regional content within the Fairfax Digital subscriber umbrella.
News maintains a strong digital presence, having merged print and electronic subscribers to the Australian into the new Fox Australia multiplatform partnered with cable news. The only mass-circulation Australian newspapers are the centrally produced, homogenised News Ltd tabloids, with 90 per cent of content shared between the four key titles: the Daily Telegraph, the Advertiser, the Herald Sun and the Courier Mail. They are strident, increasingly bold and sensationalist as they, too, struggle for market share.
Will this vignette become reality? Maybe, maybe not, but it seems as likely a prospect as any, and certainly far more plausible than any scenario that would suggest the survival of ‘serious’ newspapers. There is no way that particular packaging of news and analysis can endure. None of the broadsheets, right now, are making money. All of them, right now, are on borrowed time. In this country, one title exists thanks to the patronage and indulgence of its owner. Two others remain in large part due to a nervous corporate structure that is hobbled by indecision and several failures of imagination. The executives will make their minds up soon enough.
To lose one newspaper may be unfortunate. Three is beginning to look like carelessness. Our broadsheet media is not what it was. Its slow failure as a business has lowered the tone of its content, betrayed the trust inherent in the fourth estate role these newspapers have filled since they tumbled to the winning formula of high sales, cheap cover prices, vast advertising and lofty content midway through the eighteenth century. That’s done now. All over.
The popular view is that the ‘business model’ for serious broadsheet journalism was crippled by the advent of the internet and its superior capacity to carry classified advertising. In truth there has never been a business model for quality journalism, only a happy coincidence in papers like the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the New York Times in which a successful platform for the publishing of classified advertising coincided with newspaper owners who saw advantage, influence, power – and perhaps even a public duty – in fostering serious, thoughtful journalism.
The repeated boast of the internet is that content is free. The truth is that this particular content has always been delivered at a vast discount. We never paid for it. A two dollar newspaper cover price goes nowhere near to recovering the salaries of 300 journalists.
It’s wrong, then, to say that the internet killed off the upright, serious press – it’s been dying for decades, all the while agonising over the changes by which it might have been saved.
The newspaper has always been a creature of the technology that produced it. The daily miracle: that’s how old hands back in the mists of time – the 1970s and 1980s – would think of their daily routine, a jumble of adrenalin, habit, concentrated skill and intellect that each day, pretty much on time, saw newspapers spill from the loading bays in the major print houses.
I had my first brush with newspaper production in the early 1970s as a Saturday afternoon copy boy at the Sporting Globe, a now-dead bi–weekly title. It was a Melbourne paper that specialised in racing, football and cricket. It had the distinction of being printed on pink stock … another sign of how resolutely times have changed.
This was back before newspapers lost the plot, the last days of real clarity in the business, a time when journalists, editors and proprietors had a shared sense of what might be achieved with the medium and why. It was simple: papers existed to present as accurate and comprehensive a picture of the day’s events as possible within the deadline available. Each in its way and in its field of speciality was a paper of record. Think on that for a moment, and wonder at how much that daily duty has been abandoned or changed.
Here’s how it worked at the Sporting Globe.
We’re in the main newsroom on a Saturday afternoon in winter. Football is the go. In the centre of the room is a bank of tables, men – all men – in shirtsleeves, some in ties, seated round. Most are smoking. There are probably two dozen. Along the walls of this room, perhaps half the size of a tennis court, are carrels. A few are empty, but most are filled by a busy combination of a woman, a telephone and a typewriter. There is a fair bit of clattering, hectic office noise. A lot of cigarette smoke. Typewriters were loud then. Phones, too.
The name of the game is to produce match reports from the day’s round of VFL matches. All will be played on the Saturday afternoon, beginning just after two. All will be played in Melbourne. All will be played between the teams of the unreformed suburban competition. The paper, with a full set of completed match reports, scores and stats, will be available for purchase by fans on their way home as they mill around city train stations and tram stops.
The stories arrive paragraph by paragraph throughout the afternoon, phoned in from reporters at the ground. A real skill, this, composing a match report as a strangely inverted narrative: one that ends with the beginning, written from the bottom up. The phone rings and the copy taker belts out the next paragraph, typing onto a pinned wad of copy paper (postcard-sized sheets) separated by carbon paper. We have spent the morning making these up. Hundreds of them.
As each take is completed, the copy taker reefs the paper from the roller of her machine and hangs the sheets from a hook screwed into the top corner of the carrel. Our job is to gather that paper, split the carbons and deliver the text to the subeditor working on that story. The sub then marks up and corrects the copy, writing a slug on the top right corner of every sheet, each numbered as the story runs in. Then the typesetting marks, whatever corrections and rewrite might be needed, all scribbled by hand. They send them batch by batch, ultimately topped by a coversheet that carries a headline, guesstimated pretty precisely by that old skill of counting characters, to fill the required space.
The story, or its evolving fragments, is held aloft by the sub, collected by the copy boy and taken to the vacuum tube carriers in a corner of the room, bundled, then whooshed to the composing room one floor up and half a building away. Molten metal is formed into type, type into plates, plates into papers. And out they roar from the loading bay downstairs, passing the fans in their badged and numbered duffle coats along Flinders Street; papers and people making their way to the trains, heads full of footy.
This is a newspaper in its simplest, purest, most effective execution. What followed for that business over the next three decades would slowly destroy it.
The afternoon papers went first, killed deftly by the advent of TV news, a clear case of informational redundancy. In their prime they were huge. The Melbourne Herald would sell around 600 000 each afternoon in its heyday, but had slumped to less than 200 000 when it merged with its still successful morning sister the Sun (‘Daily at Dawn’) in October 1990. The story was the same in Sydney: goodbye to the Sun and Daily Mirror, all praise the Daily Telegraph.
There was strength in the tabloids – and even today they hold their own, by and large, in circulation and profit. That’s what clarity and simple purpose will do for you: it is the tabloids that will be the last papers in this country, surviving on their coldly-calculated mass appeal. Think Daily Telegraph, think Herald Sun. Think also Fairfax online, which will endure with its proven mix of link bait and the semi-serious.
The failure of serious journalism has been a long slide. In this country, or market as they say in the newspaper business, the story must focus on the Fairfax group. The quality newspaper of News Ltd, the Australian, is an indulgence, a well-coiffed merkin to conceal the vicious tabloida dentata that is Murdoch’s main commercial game.
For twenty years, Fairfax has been focused on cost and declining sales. Way before the World Wide Web, Fairfax management was absorbed in a struggle to counter the decline through natural attrition of its readership and circulation. Its subscribers were dying. The papers needed to be more ‘female-friendly’, more ‘youth-focused’, more anything you might think of that showed a glimmer of demographic hope. The marketing people took a prominent role; focus groups were never ending.
Still the numbers fell: TV and the more immediate allure of the tabloids claimed young eyeballs long before the smaller screens and rapid fire infotainment of the internet. The editorial resources that once propelled the earnest, reporterly papers of Graham Perkin and his ilk were spread out from news to feature frippery so as to paper the cracks. Journalists and the budget resources that accompanied them were diverted into increasing segmentation of the Fairfax broadsheets. In the myopic calculus of newspaper management, the only way to attract an advertiser was to deliver editorial content that spoke directly to the business they wanted to bleed. Want car ads? Then you need a car section! Food ads? A food section! And so journalistic resources chased endless rabbits down numberless burrows.
That’s where the editorial staff ended up, beavering away at sections and supplements, unless, of course, they were bunkered down in pillow-plumping redesigns led by editorial executives who wouldn’t know newspaper design from their elbows, but had an unshakeable conviction in the power of splattered red ink, mastheads suddenly stamped as blue boxes, repeatedly reworked page one blurbs, and increasingly ludicrous opinion page photo by-lines.
There were days in the recent history of the Age when a general reporter was hard to find. The old model of facts assembled diligently then pummelled on a subeditorial floor into a consistent, coherent form was broken. Subeditors took on more and more of what were once pure production roles – or they were sacked. Journalists who could multiskill between writing and reporting were favoured; opinion and impressionism began to dominate. What credibility and gravitas the Fairfax papers had were eroded by the realities of cost and slow commercial failure. The company has long been in tactical withdrawal that in recent years has looked more like a rout.
These have been the editorial obsessions of the past twenty years at Fairfax – these and the trimming of costs and the slow corrosion of the once solid ‘Chinese walls’ that shielded editorial operations from direct contamination by the company’s commercial objectives. The sad truth for journalists in a commercial construct is that their department is exclusively a cost. It produces no revenue. Yes, it makes content, but the expense just drags on the gun arm of the business. In the commercial mind, journalistic content is either the plaster between the ads or something tailored specifically at attracting them.
Which is where the internet comes in, a final self-tapping screw in the lid of a coffin already three-quarters shut.
The truth is probably that Fairfax was just too big, too clumsy, too hydra-headed, too Sydney-centric, too Melbourne-focused, too slow … too everything wrong to respond to the challenges. It held the market in small advertisements; it was quick to go online. But it fumbled and fluffed and squandered its early chances.
They’ll ponder all this and the implications for serious journalism and the health of the fourth estate, and they’ll say now that the Fairfax business model was broken. But, again, there was never a business model for quality broadsheet journalism in this country, only a media company that simultaneously sold a lot of little ads, and by coincidence produced thoughtful well-reported newspapers. There never was a relationship between those two things – and in the end, precious little readership for the journalism once the little ads walked out the door to a brighter, more sympathetic and compelling environment online.
Make no mistake, the papers will go, and that will be no small thing. We’ve been well served by this happy little accident, this weird conjunction of advertising and reporting that has managed to maintain a healthy fourth estate. Content is free, that’s the cocky boast of the internet. But, to repeat, newspapers never recovered the cost of their content through the sale of the journalism. No-one ever valued serious journalism enough to pay for it. Think on that.
There are upsides. The current rash of commentary and analysis online is a positive. We have never had a healthier, more enriching and intelligent discussion of big picture national and international affairs. Fifteen years ago we’d have been lucky to read a dozen writers in rotation through the country’s three thoughtful opinion pages. And now? Apart from the journalists, we have actual primary sources – the thinkers, the participants, the best analytic minds in the country and the world – gathered round the key issues of the day, all of their work readily available to us all, if we know where to find it. It enriches all our understanding.
But is it possible that serious discussion can be at once enriched and fragmented? If our understanding is so isolated, can it have political and social weight? Does an intelligent view of the world need a mass-market champion? If debate about serious issues – surely the cornerstone of fourth estate journalism – is dotted through the vast sweep of the online world, will it be too easily overwhelmed by the shared trivialisation of mass culture? Is this not what we are losing with the inevitable demise of the serious newspaper: a mature, moderated conversation that was broadly shared and thus to be reckoned with?
This may be nothing more than a nostalgia for the newspaper itself; a grieving for a vanishing aesthetic, an object that had great simplicity and extraordinary functionality. But the newspaper punched above the weight of its narrow commercial intentions.
The newspaper has an institutional gravity, a seriousness that secures the framework of the national discussion. Removing that element from the structure of our discourse (drink!) invites a sense of instability. We will need another pillar, and it’s entirely possible that it may form through a more solid body of public opinion, a body made sturdier by a freer flow of quality information.
But who knows? It’s as likely that things may fly apart, that the centre may not hold. It is now too easy to construct a vision of the world from the unmediated online that simply reinforces belief and prejudice. The result – and we see it in our more fragmented, shriller public life – is the rise of dogmatic certainty and conspiracy parading as fact, of vested misinformation passed off as truth.
When the newspapers die, so do the great newsrooms of journalists in their hundreds, a resource that might girdle not only the neighbourhood but also the globe and report it in detail for the record. Remember, it is the newspaper newsrooms that provide the raw material for the far less well-resourced operations reporting for TV and radio. It is the newspaper newsrooms that generate the base content without which internet aggregators would aggregate only thin air or incestuous online opinion.
Who or what will report the goings-on of a suburban magistrate’s court? Assemble the junior netball results for the Monday sport section? Sit through the adjournment debates of state legislatures? Sift the little doings of the broader world and relay the detail of our civic culture?
Nothing has emerged from the teeming plethora of the internet to fill this role, far less any hint of a business model that will sustain old-school newsrooms; the kind of fact-focused institutions geared to accumulating the public record that have served the public interest well enough for nigh on two hundred years.
Public broadcasting might be a partial answer, but only if it survives the coming challenge from desperate private media who see it not as a publicly funded adjunct to the fourth estate, but as competition funded by fiat rather than public preference.
The world will carry on. Its activity isn’t contingent on its being reported. But down in the increasingly unremarked shadows, much of that world will be lost to view: its victories never savoured, its villains never held to account. The world we all live in.