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Newspaper's golden age

  • 19 December 2008

Once, 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