Vale the Bulletin


Vale the Bulletin, Australia’s oldest magazine and originally one of our most racist.

Old journos, pint in hand, have rushed to reminisce. Veteran newsman Tony Wright called it "the last bastion of the long view," pointing to the many quality features and in-depth analyses that the magazine was able to provide. Gary Linnell, whose career since leaving the Bulletin has been chequered, recalls Kerry Packer theatrically stubbing out a cigarette and instructing him to "just make ‘em talk about it." Former editor David Dale recounts a lunchtime meeting with Packer stalwart Trevor Kennedy, who informed him there was only one thing that could save the Bulletin: "fucking good stories".

Another former editor, Peter Coleman echoes the thoughts of many by blaming the internet for the magazine’s demise. "The Bulletin may have been able to survive as a literary-political review of modest circulation," he writes in The Australian. "But as a weekly news magazine it was suffocated in cyberspace and the blogosphere."

Business writers were less forgiving. Jesse Hogan in The Age‘s business section relates, "in 2000, media analyst Steve Allen described the Bulletin as ‘spectacularly unprofitable’. Yesterday, the Fusion Strategy managing director said the announcement proved ‘the rationalists’ on PBL Media’s board had eventually won."

"When they know damn well they can save millions by closing something, even if it’s iconic, they’ve got to do it," Hogan quotes Allen as saying.

Advertising guru Harold Mitchell agreed. "Quality journalism will always have a place but people are not prepared to allow much of their time to absorb it," he said in the Herald Sun.

The silliest comment of the day came from Chris Warren at the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the parent of the Australian Journalists Association. Warren blamed the Bulletin‘s death on Helen Coonan’s changes to media ownership laws, as though the death of the magazine’s key patron Kerry Packer had nothing to do with it.

Warren played the protectionist card, claiming the dastardly "overseas private equity" partners at CVC were "only interested in money and not really understanding I think the important role that many of the assets within that company play within the broader Australian culture."

In one respect, however, Warren is right: media proprietors are increasingly only interested in money. Unfortunately for MEAA and Australian journalism, magazines like the Bulletin are and always have been for-profit enterprises. No amount of what Frank Moorehouse calls "cultural citizenship" can keep a money-losing proposition going forever. Even Australian operas and orchestras are these days focusing more and more on the mantra of "sustainability."

As Crikey has pointed out today, the sudden longing by so many Australian journalists for the good old days of Kerry Packer seems incongruous, to say the least.

Media moguls may well have once had the wealth and inclination to support money-losing flagships long past their prime. We shouldn’t let this blind us to their prolonged and pernicious influence on Australia’s archaic media policy – or the way Packer senior used his vast media empire to negotiate sweetheart deals with compliant governments in a range of highly regulated, low-competition industries like gaming. Indeed, it may be that in the longer term, Australia will benefit from media proprietors who are more interested in the bottom line than the power and influence their mastheads give them.

Nor does the simple diagnosis – "it’s the internet’s fault!" – bear up under scrutiny. As Slate‘s experienced journalism correspondent Jack Shafer notes here and here, newspaper and news magazine circulations have been declining for decades – long before the interweb was invented.

In truth, "quality" journalism is a comparatively new invention in the history of news media. Early newspapers in 18th century Britain and France have more in common with today’s celebrity gossip publications than dignified broadsheets like the New York Times. In a very real sense, the pursuit of investigative journalism and specialist beats has always had to be subsidised by other parts of newspapers: crosswords, public notices and – most importantly – classified advertising. Woodward and Bernstein stood on the shoulders, not of giants, but of second-hand car sales and lonely hearts personals.

How good was the Bulletin anyway? In some cases, very good. Laurie Oakes’s column and Maxine McKew’s celebrated long lunches both broke important stories, and were often must-reads. The ‘long view’ features could also be excellent, as in the case of Paul Daley’s ground-breaking early investigation of Brendan Nelson’s Super Hornets purchase. But much of the Bulletin was also stale, tired and repetitive. Wishy-washy social interest stories based on pop demography or dubious survey data became a staple. And why republish Newsweek when it’s all available online anyway, for free?

The broader implications of the Bulletin‘s death are also mixed. As Margaret Simons showed in last year’s important monograph The Content Makers, much of the mainstream Australian media is unresponsive, unrepresentative and even unethical. On the other hand, it also provides essential reporting services that online media (including this publication) and blogs depend on.

My reference above to the operas and orchestras was not flippant. In the future, news journalism may need to survive on a philanthropic, subsidised or publicly funded model. Now that news is disaggregating from entertainment, classifieds and indeed advertising in general, journalists can expect the resources and pay available to them to further dwindle.

But such change will not all be for the bad. Blogs and online journals do many things better than newspapers. One of them is engaging with their audience. I’ll meet you in the comments section below.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.