The Death of a once great newspaper – Vale The Age

When I was growing up, there were three daily papers in my home town of Melbourne. The Herald, an evening broadsheet of conservative persuasion, the Sun “news pictorial” – which means they won’t publish a story unless there’s picture. And The Age. Many years before there had been another daily, which delighted in the name The Argus, but it was closed by Rupert Murdoch’s dad back in 1957.

The Herald was merged with the Sun in 1990, although it was more of closure. Nothing much of it was left in the Herald-Sun, it’s bylines disappeared and it’s people moved on.

Which left the Age as the only serious paper in this town. I was raised on it, that and the ABC where the media in our house. It was a fat paper, I remember Saturday editions in the early nineties that weighed about a kilo and had four or five sections of classifieds.

The Age presents itself as a relatively unbiased news source, not inclined to tow anyone’s line, and having a declaration of editorial independence for all including it’s board members. It is what they used to call a . It wasn’t owned by any moguls, although several tried. Most recently a certain mining billionaire has bought a stake.

But as we know, times have changed for newspapers. The Age was one of the first online, starting a website in 1996, which in Internet ages was only just after dinosaurs walked the earth. It still took a long time for the internet to start really killing papers, but Fairfax, the publishers of The Age, responded very late indeed.

As circulation dropped and dropped, The Age lost news pages, lost most of its classified pages, and lost readers. The management responded poorly, losing chances to buy in or create lucrative online sites to help pay the bills.

The crisis started really biting in the last few years. But rather than, say, focusing on being a quality journal, The Age retrenched many reporters, outsourced its sub-editing, and seemed to indulge in an ongoing series of restructures. There would be an overall editor for The Age and its sister paper in Sydney, the Sydney Morning Herald, who both also had editors. Then there would be editors for sections across both papers, and separate editor again for the Sunday papers. And of course editors for the website etc. etc. Then there’d be another structure, and more people would come and go. The dance would go on, indeed still goes on.

Finally early in 2013, some big changes – the paper went to a tabloid format, so people could read it on the train. I have yet to see anyone doing so, they’ve stayed diligently attached to their devices. Now this once paper of record looks like a slightly fatter local paper.

But what of the quality of the stories? Here lies the problem. Of late they have looked like utter beat ups. And stories with misleading headlines but little or no actual content. Then stories that look like they’ve been written up from a press release by a work experience kid. The multimedia section of the website features content dredged up from somewhere – decade-old documentaries and the like. And the only updates on their site during the day seem to be run of the mill crime stories plucked from police press releases, and celebrity gossip.

But the low point, the point that has made me decide never to read the paper again, online or on actual paper, was reached this week. First there was an opinion piece entitled Abbott, the thinking person’s prime minister. This piece of inaccurate drivel turned out to have been written by a former Liberal party staffer, and contained a number of barefaced lies.

The nadir however was the front of Saturday’s paper. I’m not even going to do the “story” the honor of linking to it. Suffice to say that a major Australian newspaper, a paper of record, an unbiased reporter of facts, demanded that the Australian Prime Minister stand down for the good of the country. I can’t tell you how livid this made me – and not just me. It’s bad enough that the mainstream media have had only one story about this federal government, focusing on leadership disputes rather than, say, critiquing the policies of the government or the utter lack of policies of the opposition. No, this paper had the gall to say that this leadership issue was clouding debate on policy when they themselves have been feeding the leadership debate because they seem incapable of finding another angle to report out of Canberra.

So as of now I refuse to read The Age again. This leaves me with few options for news. The Herald-Sun doesn’t report news, it reports what Rupert Murdoch is thinking. There are not other daily papers here. The Guardian’s Australian site which recently launched is proving to be well written and unbiased. And then there’s tiny little Crikey, who have some first-rate writers and a well honed bullshit filter.

Vale The Age. I knew you well. You brought this upon yourselves. I leave you to the dwindling, aging population of people who still read day old news printed on dead tree.

Say goodbye to The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald

This week, in fact in the next few days, the Senate will be voting on Helen Coonan’s Media “Reform” package. This package seems to be universally unpopular with everyone – the journalists on the ground, most of the media owners, and we consumers.

One of the smaller media companies in this country is Fairfax, publishers of arguably the best newspapers in the country – the sister publications The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. Whatever you may think of recent changes to these publications under their current editors – there seems to be far too many “news” pages populated mostly with large color photographs, like a flimsy daily magazine – these two publications are still the papers of record in this country.

They are the two publications which really attempt, with greater or lesser success, to tell both sides of the story. Watching an issue being thrashed out, day to day in the opinion pages will both delight and infuriate depending on which view is getting aired that day.

Compare this to some of the other major dailies, such as The Australian, which is clearly has a viewpoint, and clearly expresses it every single day in the way in approached stories and the stories it chooses to report. The Fairfax approach is both better and, unfortunately far rarer.

Now, despite reportedly increasing circulation and very successful websites – whatever you might think of the “lifestyle” content – Fairfax is a small fish, compared to Rupert’s News Limited and Packer’s Publishing and Broadcasting. And indeed any number of large overseas media companies.

It is a little fish which is very likely to get gobbled if the restrictions on media mergers and acquisitions are removed. As is currently before the parliament.

Now, some would argue that “ownership” does not automatically mean “editorial control” or “undue influence.” That a well-behaved, hands off proprietor will allow an organisation to have and keep its own voice.

This argument is, to put it politely, bullshit.

Every organisation tends to, over time, come to reflect the particular biases and opinions of its leaders. This is true from the local scout club all the way up to the international corporations. Look at News limited. It wouldn’t be the kind of company it is if it was run by someone else. Anyone who argues that the whole place isn’t infused with Rupert’s DNA is also talking bullshit. A company like that is a massive externalized expression of the proprietors personality and, indirectly his opinions. Just by the decisions the guiding hand makes, the company will slowly evolve into the proprietors beast, ditto the new divisions it acquires.

There are no guarantees that the Big Fish can give about the little fish they will swallow. They can’t guarantee anything about retaining editorial independence. No matter how hands off they will attempt to be, the corporate mind set will permeate and take over.

Assuming they even attempt to be hands off. More likely will be the slashing of journalist roles, the combining of functions with other parts of the organization, and other “synergies” which will quickly sap anything unique about these newspapers.

Now, they might not be your preferred daily rag, but they should at least have your respect. And they are an endangered takeover target, for reasons that are still not clear.

So don’t just sit there. The folks over at Getup have started an online campaign to lobby senators about the upcoming changes, sign on and tell them what you think.

And get the “paper dinosaurs” delivered or go pick up a copy, read them while you still can.

The Age
The Sydney Morning Herald
Getup’s Media campaign