The recipe for anniversary journalism is simple: mix first-person reflection with archive, then layer with pundits, and Voilà! Easy filler. "Anniversary journalism, as anyone in newspapers knows, is the last resort of a desperate features editor," complained one journalist in The Independent. The annoying thing about regular news for editors and broadcast producers is, of course, that you can’t predict it. Anniversary journalism, on the other hand, is just about the easiest thing to put together: interviews lined up for days, reporters assigned weeks in advance.
In 2009, desperate editors like me found a lot of comfort. Woodstock (40 years old), Man on the Moon (also 40), even Sesame Street (40 again). There were plenty to choose from. But something weird happened. With so many nice anniversaries divisible by 10 — The People’s Republic (60), Tiananmen (20), the Berlin Wall falling (20) — anniversary journalism itself became competitive. I understand the drive to outfox rivals with leaked treasury emails or suburban terror busts. But scooping an anniversary? Surely an anniversary is by its very nature unscoopable?
Not in 2009. Commemorations sometimes appeared months before their actual dates as outlets scrambled to claim the most heart-felt historical coverage. I too was guilty of this as producer of Hack, triple j’s national current affairs show. Imagine the shame of being beaten to a story about something that’s 40 years old? By the time the anniversary rolled around, tears had dried up and talking heads had talked their heads off. Hack, like other outlets, started scripting lines like "while it’s still a little over a month away", and "attention is soon to be focused on", and "this year is the year of looking at".
Most of the events celebrated this year coincided with when my dad had a big beard and wore camel-coloured flares, and when my mum straightened her hair with a clothes iron. Forty years ago, the boomers were really living, the world was really changing. For Woodstock’s 40th, the whole of 2009 was set aside. Mentions started as early as March. By August, Woodstock’s 40th — like most 40th birthdays — became an awkward orgy of generational longing: where had those heady hippy days gone? Why are our kids so uptight? And, naturally, there was a subsequent backlash against the boomer love-in in The Punch, which claimed that "MySpace is ‘the new’ Woodstock and the kids are doing alright, still". In the way familiar to Australians, Woodstock became a battle in the bigger Culture Wars, too. In one corner, those making a living out of regurgitating stories from the front lines of 60s social activism. In the other, conservatives who hate that it happened at all.
Goodness. Boomer infighting is like watching a married couple miss a turn-off because of some haggling over a map. For my part, I enjoyed Clive Hamilton’s insights in a piece he wrote for Crikey called "From Free Love to Narcissism", where he effectively dismissed the need to discuss the 40th anniversary of Woodstock at all, arguing that we’d learnt all we needed to know from its 30th.
Lead time in the race to the Moon landing was extended to months. But a question mark hung over the whole thrilling expedition. Which day should we commemorate as the actual anniversary? The day they took off? The day they landed? The day they plunged into the ocean? (If NASA had made as many scheduling blunders as the media did 40 years later there would have been nothing to celebrate.) So we celebrated everything. That "one-small-step" audio ran a marathon that week, while Australia’s role in the whole radio relay was rehashed with the help of some very cute old scientists. People talked about black-and-white television, and even the moon landing deniers and conspiracy theorists were happy with the bonus outing the whole thing provided.
China was another source of choice anniversaries, occasions which fed nicely into the increasing volume of other China-related coverage. The country celebrated 60 years of the People’s Republic, and who could forget those frog-stepping babes in f*ck-me boots parading in front of President Hu? Mardi Gras eat your heart out. Dragon metaphors (stirring, awakening) abounded, and magazines printed "coming of age" special editions. As with this anniversary, coverage of the 20 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre started months in advance with dozens of angles (security, internet crackdowns, generational memory). You can find articles all the way from January. But the highlight this year was on the actual day — the umbrella men:
At its best, anniversary journalism creates a wash of nostalgia that affirms how far we’ve come (Was it really so long ago?). As Slate‘s founding editor Michael Kinsley told NPR radio, "It has something to do with the thrill of living in history and knowing your life passed through some great events."
But at its worst, anniversary journalism is lazy and often plays to one audience over another, such as when it is used to needle younger generations for being boring good-for-nothings. And if you enjoy a nice bit of hyperbole, it can sell an entire year as the Biggest Turning Point in History. Check out Time Magazine‘s hardcover TIME 1989: The Year that Defined Today’s World, or the book The Year That Changed The World: The untold story behind the fall of the Berlin Wall, by Michael Meyer, or Rob Kirkpatrick’s 1969: The Year Everything Changed.
But even though it may look like (and often is) merely a cynical stocking-stuffer, anniversary journalism can provide a useful opportunity to correct what journalism gets wrong more generally. If journalism is the "first draft of history", anniversary journalism offers a few follow-up takes and revisions, based on the reasonably arbitrary rhythm set by the number of fingers humans have on two hands.
So even though it may be motivated simply by the need to fill the all-important editor’s whiteboard, sometimes you can get lucky and come closer to a fuller history.
Expect to see media coverage of these anniversaries next year:
India’s independence (60th)
Death of George Orwell (60th)
Israeli Knesset declares Jerusalem capital of Israel (60th)
Payola scandal in the US (50th)
First Boeing 747 entered service (40th)
Gaddafi becomes leader of Libya (40th)
First McDonald’s in Russia (20th)
Release of Nelson Mandela (20th)
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