Journalists in lycra tights - say it isn’t so
Three new books about groundbreaking figures in Australian journalism - a proprietor, an editor and a reporter – provide some interesting insights into the contemporary media landscape.
The three men are: Rupert Murdoch, who needs no introduction, Graham Perkin, revered ‘60s and ‘70s editor of The Age after whom we name one of our highest journalism awards, and Alan Reid, guru of the Canberra press gallery from the late ‘50s to early ‘70s.
The three books are reviewed in the June issue of The Australian Literary Review today. Les Carlyon, no slouch himself, looks at Alan “The Red Fox” Reid: Pressman Par Excellence, by Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt; former Fairfax editor Max Suich tackles Breaking News: The Golden Age of Graham Perkin, by Ben Hills; and Clive Mathieson, a rising star at The Australian, considers his boss’s big deal in War at the Wall Street Journal: How Rupert Murdoch Bought an American Icon, by Sarah Ellison.
You can check out the reviews at The Australian today.
But if I were asked to take one overarching message out of the books, I’d say it was this: Perkin would be lucky to get a job in journalism today, Reid shouldn’t have had a job at all and Murdoch will be instrumental in deciding what sort of jobs those of us in journalism, especially print journalism, end up with.
I say that about Perkin because he lived and worked in a different era, when journalism was fun. When you were encouraged to have a few drinks at lunch time and when HR departments belonged to some mean Orwellian world that did not concern us. Well, times have changed, that’s for sure, as Carlyon pointedly observed when he launched the Perkin book a few weeks back.
I want to dwell on Carlyon’s speech, even though it’s not about the book he’s reviewed for me. He opened with a lovely anecdote, which I’d like to share. He starts off by talking about a dinner he was at in South Yarra about two years ago …
I went outside for a smoke. It was just before nine o’clock and Domain Road glistened with rain.
I saw a cyclist coming along. He could have been Tony Abbott: flashes of Lycra, a space helmet on his head, a bag, which I suspect contained either mung beans or a headland speech, swaying on the handlebars.
Anyway he went to turn right at the Botanical Hotel. The front wheel screwed at right angles on the wet road, there was a clatter of aluminium and a groan, and suddenly the cyclist was lying on the tram tracks, bleeding slightly, the space helmet skewed on his head.
I went over and asked if he was all right.
He was about thirty and clearly sober.
He said: ‘You’re Les, aren’t you?’
I’d never seen him before.
So I said: ‘Do I know you?
And he said: ‘I’m an Age sub-editor.’
I still haven’t recovered from the shock of that night. As I say, the world changes, but here was an assault on my bank of memories that I couldn’t handle. As a result of much culling and sorting, the Age in Graham’s day ended up with a first-class general subs desk, lots of people who could quickly meld five stories into one, or reduce a thousand words to three hundred without losing the thread of the story or making a fool of the reporter.
But none of them went home at a quarter to nine. Graham’s paper was a nocturnal beast. It hit fever pitch at about midnight. At nine o’clock some of the subs were only sobering up from the night before.
They went home at one or two o’clock in the morning—after the madness and temper tantrums of the second edition, after stories had been tweaked, after badly shaped headlines and lazy captions had been replaced, after there had been a ritual fight with the night printer about late copy—a fight the night printer always lost—after Michelle had made her fourth series of changes to her Canberra story and had retired to get a second wind, after a large number of cans had been demolished, and after a roistering game of cricket.
These subs didn’t go home drunk, but some weren’t that sober either. None would ever have gone home on a bicycle. None of them would have worn Lycra.
Is it just nostalgia that makes me think the world Carlyon describes was a better place? Perhaps. Max Suich, in his ALR, piece admits that after reading the book “my bones so ached from nostalgia … that I thought I had ‘flu coming on … or perhaps I had raised the ghost of a ‘70s morning after.’’
But Carlyon’s comments on Perkin’s commitment to good writing – good writing in newspapers – seems to me important today:
“Graham was, first of all, a gifted finisher of news copy, as good as you’ll ever see. That, to me, was close to being his greatest legacy. The finishing of news copy matters. Despite what the post-modernists tell us, all writing is not the same. Despite what some people in management might think, everything reporters write doesn’t necessarily make sense, and it doesn’t magically fit into a page that has designed itself. … I’d seriously suggest that these days an editor like Graham would worry the corporate people who run newspapers. I’ll go further and suggest he probably wouldn’t fit in.’’
Carlyon, a former editor of The Age, and a Walkley and Perkin winner, continued:
“Editors have been waylaid. They are seen as managers rather than handlers of words. They are seen as marketers, promoters, team players and gladhanders. They have been drawn into advertising matters. All this is madness, a distraction from the main game.
The corporate people seem to have only one idea: to cut costs. Maybe they have two ideas. The second one is to panic. This panic is strange because the written word isn’t in great danger elsewhere. Look at book sales. If you travel on the train these days, you now see more people reading books than newspapers. So maybe some of the trouble is that newspapers are printing the wrong words. But how would someone trained at McKinsey know which are the right words?
You cannot simply cut costs and nothing else and call that a strategy. Newspapers are organic things. They must keep evolving. They must keep hiring young people and stealing good people from other papers.
I ask you to name any newspaper anywhere in the world that ever became famous by doing nothing other than cutting costs.’’
But that’s the Perkin book. The book Carlyon has reviewed for the ALR is the Reid one, which he sees as the ultimate cautionary tale for journalists who also become players, in this case in the political scene. “ … the best thing about this book is the light it shines on murky places,’’ he writes. “It reminds us that journalism can be as morally hazardous as politics and that journalists can get too close to their sources.’’
The bottom line on Reid? If journalists are supposed to be objective reporters of events rather than subjective shapers of them, then Reid should have been out of a job.
Which brings us to Rupert Murdoch, who probably more than any other single person will determine how journalism works now and in the future. Mathieson opens his review with a nice story in which Murdoch, shown the wall of Pulitzers at the HQ of his newly-acquired Wall Street Journal, offhandedly remarks that what matters, what it’s all about, is “selling newspapers’’. Of course, winning journalism awards and selling newspapers need not be mutually exclusive, and Murdoch is one of the few media proprietors investing huge sums of money in print journalism (and in other platforms). If those of us who still scribble on dead trees for a living have a future, we may well have Murdoch to thank for it.
*For video footage of Les Carlyon’s launch of the Perkin book go to The Age’s website.
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