Newspaper's golden age

7 Comments

The AgeOnce, I had a column in The Age. Like Karen Blixen, who famously wrote about her farm in Africa, I remember that interlude a little mistily, and as rather better than it might actually have been. Writing weekly was a challenge, a drama and cause for satisfaction. I felt honoured to do it, and hurt when it was dumped.

Watching Fairfax dividends dwindle and editors change, at the same time as overseas bastions of the press, the massive Tribune Co. and the New York Times among them, sicken and die because of falling readership and rising online advertising, I have had cause to recall those lucky days.

Fairfax has been clear about its reasons — drops in advertising revenue in print, and lack of profitability online. Costs have to be cut and changes made. The old profits are likely never to be matched. The new CEO, Brian McCarthy, has quite a task ahead of him: how to save a business without losing the heart of a newspaper.

It is apparently old-fashioned to expect to be primarily informed and engaged by a newspaper. Yet that is what Melburnians loved about The Age.

I came in — and went out — at the turning point for that venerable organ. I'd been writing for a couple of years when we were given a new editor, Bruce Guthrie (he who was just dumped from the Herald Sun editorship and has sued his employer for $2.7 million).

Bruce created a new office of assistant editor, whose duties included managing op-ed, including me. Within a week, said assistant editor had judged that week's column to be inadequate and rejected it. Within two, he had shouted at me.

When this persisted, I objected to being bullied, and Bruce decided one of us must go, and it wasn't going to be his new right hand. So I went back to writing books and for Eureka Street and The Big Issue, and the right-hand man wrote a column in my spot for a few months, which I thought much inferior to my own, and after a while went the way of all bullies — working for another one, this time in politics (and that also came to a bad end).

I wrote for a different A/age virtually gone over the last few years of shifting style, substance and editors. We know that the credit crunch and shuddering financial markets will have a big impact on local media companies, which will worry their shareholders, but will also worry us freelance writers, journalists and contributors, and the old style journalists that the struggling papers are 'letting go'.

As well, I fear for the quality of those lucky few who will continue to be on payroll.

I never claimed to be a brilliant writer. I learned by doing, as journalists do, though they won't learn that way any more, because Fairfax has cancelled its traineeship program. You don't learn about investigative work by doing a course. Seeking out facts and hammering out thoughts is part of the wordsmith's art.

Nor do you make a newspaper by paying politicians to review movies or pay peanuts to freelancers for truly big stories.

And what happened to the characters of my happiest writing days, when The Age set up the late Paddy McGuinness' column deliberately a couple of days before mine, so we could annoy and argue with one another. As then chairman of the board, Sir Zelman Cowan remarked during an old-fashioned afternoon tea for contributors, The Age wanted to contribute to the distinctive character of Melbourne.

The Age has not been what it once was for a very long time. Under the new leadership of the former CEO of Rural Press, the Fairfax Board will require it to go through an uncompromising corporate culture change, after the failure of board-approved Hilmer-style 'managerialism', rising debt and dropping earnings.

The board, of course, is where the problem lies, not the editors. And McCarthy will, obviously, have to consider whether or not running two completely independent newspapers in Sydney and in Melbourne makes sense any more. McCarthy's various colleagues in Rural Press clearly favour the idea of 'breaking down the silos'.

This former contributor, though, would beg board and boss to hasten slowly on that thought. The only reason The Age has survived is because the readership of Victoria still feel ownership of it, as a Melbourne paper. The Herald Sun ain't that bad, and will still be Melbourne's. Think about it.


Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer. She is a former Equal Opportunity and HREOC Commissioner. She is principal of Moira Rayner and Associates.

 

 

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Most Melburnians prefer the Herald-Sun to The Age because it writes what most Melburnians want to read and illustrates the stories with lots of pictures. Go figure.

Joe Quigley | 19 December 2008


The Age is a superior newspaper to the Herald Sun in every detail except it lacks the readership of the latter publication.
Terry Stavridis | 19 December 2008


Though a supporter of the State government I find The Age shows a depressing tendency to reproduce State government handouts uncritically.

Recent examples have been the recent transport announcements (which are full of puff) and the TAFE "reforms", which involve new student fees. Journalists should be suspicious of government media persons "on principle".

Failure to get to the bottom of the story also causes articles to be murky. The logic often has to be excavated.

The Sunday Age is a tabloid in all but size. And a poor one.

Thanks Moira for your articles then and now.
Brian Dethridge | 19 December 2008


I lost my enchantment with The Age many years before Moira. My disgust began in the Cain/Kirner years. I never read any strong criticism of those governments while the guilty party sent Victoria broke.
The day after Kennett was elected The Age commenced a daily written harangue against the most successful government the State had seen in years.

Bill Barry | 19 December 2008


I have always enjoyed reading the Melbourne Age although some of its articles annoyed me at times with their, more or less, left wing biases.
It has always been an intelligent read.

However, its biased,ignorant and downright bigoted reporting to a large extent on World Youth Day has turned me off it considerably. Some of the articles published were full of ignorance of the Catholic and Christian faith. Some of the writers of the articles claimed to be Catholics themselves. A considerable number of them certainly did not know much about their faith.

The sister newspaper of The Age in Sydney took a similar on World Youth Day.
John Tobin | 19 December 2008


The Age used be a 'paper of record' - take away the syndicated articles and there is a paucity of significant overseas contributions by the paper's own (& diminishing number of) journalists. Attempts to match the attraction of the Herald-Sun (eg the featured Cousins stories) are risible and devaluing of the paper. Reviews of the arts (if reviewed) often appear too late for readers to act on them if they are favourable. A number of "supplements" betray their origin in Sydney. The Sunday Life magazine makes a good bin-liner. And as for over-reliance on the spell-check and the too-obvious effort by sub-editors to create 'punning' headlines ... don't get me started!
Mike Wilson | 24 December 2008


Belatedly. Oh, for a Washington Post, New York Times or Guardian! We are poorly served by good journalists and journalism. It seems like the dawning of Rupert "the Almighty" Murdoch. Perhaps that's why I'm reading Eureka Street online?
Alex Njoo | 23 February 2010


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