You Expect Us To Actually Buy This Rubbish?

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Back in the 1950s when television arrived in Australia, many people where predicting the death of radio. At the time it was the height of journalistic fashion. Radio did not die, but it did change, and now there are probably three or four times as many radio stations as there were 60 years ago.

Nothing is as good as it was when it was better. When television started in Australia it was so fascinating that people would sit on the footpath outside electrical goods shops watching it through shop windows. TV has come a long way since then but you would not get a crowd outside a shop watching it now. In fact, these days, getting people to watch TV even in their own home is becoming increasingly difficult for broadcasters.

So, now that it is fashionable to predict the death of newspapers because of the arrival of the internet, we need to stop for a moment and remember some facts which show that the newspaper may be dying, but it’s not the internet that’s killing them. The truth is newspaper circulation in Australia has been declining for decades. Back in the 1960s, when our population was half the size it is now, we had twice the number of newspapers. Even 25 years ago Sydney had four daily newspapers with most other Australian capital cities boasting two or three. By the time the internet had truly arrived, Sydney and Melbourne had been reduced to two daily newspapers and most other capital cities had been reduced to one. We have also have had two national newspapers in Australia for over 40 years and neither is showing much sign of growth to fill the void left by the "disappeared" newspapers, or of taking advantage of the growth in population.

So why are so many newspapers in trouble? Simple. They are not engaging with the population, not evolving into something in tune with public expectations, not doing the job. The problem is not that there aren’t any good journalists working in the industry. There are. There are many brilliant people with wonderful skills. But far too often journalists are producing publications for budgets, not the readers, and it is the readers who buy newspapers and magazines, not budgets.

In his book This Is the Life, the founding editor of Smith’s Weekly, Claude McKay wrote, "On the day we started preparing our first issue I heard the lift door clatter outside my Somerset House attic, and the noise of a stick jabbing the floor approaching my door. The handle rattled, and in came J.F. Archibald, formerly the editor of the Bulletin."

"Train them in what you want," he used to say. "You get what you give. Print rubbish and rubbish you’ll get. But print gems and they’ll shower you with jewels. You make your writers, and they’ll make your public. And always remember nobody can take your public from you but yourself."

It was good advice back in 1919 and it is still good advice. Archibald should have known, as he was arguably Australia’s greatest editor, editing the Bulletin when it was the most influential publication in Australia. McKay acted on Archibald’s advice and became a wealthy man, as did the managing editor of Smith’s Weekly, Robert Clyde Packer (James Packer’s great grandfather), who founded the Packer fortune.

One of the reasons Channel Nine did so well for so long was Kerry Packer. He did not know much about what went into running a television station, but he did know how to watch television and he ran Nine as a viewer. Gerald Stone in his book, Who Killed Channel 9? wrote that Packer, "spurred his staff on to heights they never dreamed possible. ‘You can do better, son,’ he constantly prodded them. And he gave them the resources to make it happen, most notably in sports, news and current affairs, as well as in special event programming — celebrity concerts and spectaculars — that Nine did as well as any network in the world." In Packer’s opinion, if a show was not worth watching it was not worth broadcasting. A similar rule applies to newspapers: if it is not worth reading it is not worth printing.

Back in 1989 Packer objected to the Bulletin running its list of Australia’s "Most Appalling People". At the time he was not upset about the idea of the list. He was not even upset some of his friends were on the list. What upset him was a bunch of journalists sitting around making up things and then publishing in the Bulletin what he thought was trivia. He said entertainment magazines like Cleo and Dolly could do that, but not the Bulletin. His view was if the Bulletin was to retain its authority the list should be researched and contain some substance. He conceded it might be funny and might help sell extra copies of one issue of the Bulletin, but he claimed that in the end it would kill off circulation, not build it.

Content is why people buy or do not buy newspapers and magazines. Unfortunately, in the view of a growing proportion of our population, newspapers are unable to produce a product for which they might be prepared to spend less than the cost of a cup of coffee. This cannot be explained away by saying people are not interested in news, as news on radio and television rate highly. News-based internet sites also have no shortage of users. So it is not unreasonable to assert the problem lies with the product newspapers and magazines are delivering.

The unpalatable truth is our newspapers have been very good at getting things wrong for a long time. It was 50 years ago when newspaper journalists were the powerhouses of news reporting in Australia and newspapers were doing well. Newspapers journalists are still the powerhouses of reporting but newspapers are struggling. So there must be something wrong in the delivery of the product. The problem might lay with newspaper managements who give the impression they are far more interested in lowering costs than lifting quality.

There are many who will say things are different now to how they were 50 years ago and that the internet has changed the newspaper industry. They are right — the internet has changed the industry. People no longer have to put up with being presented rubbish when all they want are good newspapers.

So, when someone tells you newspapers are dying, tell them they are wrong. Newspapers are committing suicide.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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