Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

2348 words

True believers

29 May 2014

The Saturday Paper displays both the strengths and limitations of a primarily print-based publication, writes Sybil Nolan


Cutting through? The first edition of the Saturday PaperRichard McKenzie

Cutting through? The first edition of the Saturday PaperRichard McKenzie

Australian media history is littered with cases of early extinction. In their recent book about colonial journals, Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver remind readers that almost 600 periodicals with literary content were launched in this country between the 1820s and 1920s, and only half of them survived a year or more.

This staggering statistic feels curiously contemporary. The current proliferation of digital publishing ventures should be seen against that background, not least by politicians who spout the cliché that we are living in an era of unprecedented media competition. It reminds us that the optimism of editors and publishers springs eternal but that publishing is a brutal gamble, particularly in Australia with its small audiences, high production costs and vagaries of distribution.

Of all the challenges new publications face, the most fundamental is the relationship between proprietor and editor. Often this starts out well enough but degenerates as the proprietor discovers the editor is a person of extraordinarily strong views, and ditto and vice versa. (Who would have foreseen it?)

Even if the leaders are thinking and speaking as one, the editor still faces the challenge of staffing. With a “small but dedicated” editorial team, deadlines seem to come around in a flash. On a weekly paper, production day becomes a bullet to dodge, an obstacle in the way of finding and publishing the next great story. Too often, valuable staff writers have to waste time churning out ho-hum pieces to fill a gaping hole in the opinion section or supply a regular feature. And without sufficient staff support, a new publication can become captive to academics, NGOs and politicians who are sympathetic to its stance and will write for free. This results in predictable content and a thinness of tone more than a little at odds with the editor’s initial rose-coloured vision.

Katharine Viner, who has just completed her first year as founding editor of the Guardian Australia website, summed up the challenges well in a recent interview with Radio National:

We really did start on a shoestring and while I tried to make it look like it was the complete full offering, it really wasn’t at the beginning. There was one news editor, one production person, just two people in Canberra, not many reporters. It was very hairy. We were all working eighteen-hour days. It was a sort of sleight of hand to prove that we could exist, and once we existed then we got more investment and more decent staff.

As Viner suggests, a new publication has to be made over and over again before its existence is recognised. This is true not only for readers and investors, but also for those who work on it. It takes many editions before they know exactly what they have created, and understand its potential.

Traditional newspaper industry wisdom says to wait two years at least, but most publications, whether print or digital, are not fortunate enough to last that long. The Guardian Australia looks set to survive, partly because of an investment of funding from Wotif founder Graeme Wood. But the Global Mail, which Wood also backed, was not so lucky. He pulled the plug on the journalism website not long before its second birthday for reasons that are still not entirely clear. It wasn’t to do with the quality of the output, since the site had won a couple of Walkleys for its photographs and several human rights awards for reporting.

Fortunately for the new Saturday Paper, its proprietor, Morry Schwartz, has deep pockets and a track record of backing his publications (if not always his editors). His magazine, the Monthly, launched in May 2005 and took several years to build a stable circulation base of 30,000-plus. It recently celebrated its one hundredth issue with an article by a former Queensland cabinet minister, Rachel Nolan, on Tony Abbott’s “woman problem.” The cover illustration by Neil Moore was a brilliant caricature of Abbott and his circle of male colleagues and appointees, splendid in dinner jackets, uniforms and medals in the smoking room of a gentlemen’s club.

Schwartz’s newest venture was cunningly hatched the very day that the Saturday editions of the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald went tabloid. Edited by former SMH journalist Erik Jensen, the Saturday Paper clearly seeks to play Fairfax Media at its own game. Its thick white newsprint suggests a palimpsest, a ghost of great newspapers past, a much-faded front page on which the editor is attempting to create a new story. This might explain the remarkably serious tone of the undertaking, and the absence of that salty, side-of-the-mouth humour that has played such a defining role in the alternative press in Australia, not least by helping to report the unreportable.

Jensen is in his mid twenties and his limited experience as an editor shows in the first editions of the SP. If you aspire to scale the heights of newspaper modernism, then you need to be nimble with the apparatus. Unfortunately its headlines are often wordy and unmemorable, its photo selection less than inspired, its captions small and barely legible. The use of initials instead of bylines on its book reviews, whatever Jensen’s intention, comes over as a nod to the era of received literary authority, when the symbolic capital of a journal such as the Times Literary Supplement was more important than the literary fetishes and blind spots of its contributors. In the era of Goodreads and ABC TV’s The Book Show, audiences expect literary discussion to be inclusive and accessible, not – dare one say it – clubbish.

These weaknesses detract from the experience of reading the Saturday Paper, but they are foibles, easily fixed. What is more important is whether the paper has the ability to cut through and make an old-fashioned journalistic contribution to the nation’s understanding of its current condition. That is what it professed to be its mission in its very first editorial, which set out to explain why the paper’s creators “still believe in print”:

We have no agenda and no single view. We owe nothing: to government, to vested interests, to a legacy at odds with the present and with itself. We are interested each week in only one objective: to drag news out of the narrows into which it has been forced and make a virtue of knowledge that is broad and deep, to try in a single paper the great task of explaining Australia.

At present, the success or failure of that project depends rather too heavily on three staff writers, Martin McKenzie-Murray, Mike Seccombe and Sophie Morris. McKenzie-Murray, the paper’s Melbourne-based reporter, is a major find. A former Labor media adviser and speechwriter who used to contribute a column to the Age, he is that increasingly rare thing, a reporter who will knock on the doors of the bereaved and afflicted, and write humanely about the people he encounters. These eye-to-eye encounters are memorable in themselves (as in his interview with Rosie Batty, mother of the murdered Melbourne boy Luke Batty), but they are also tableaux in a layered long-form journalism that critiques failing policy or regulation. His article “The Fires of Greed” was a particularly powerful indictment of the failure of successive Victorian governments to adequately balance the interests of Gippsland residents against the interests of the foreign owners of the Hazelwood power station.

In Sydney, Mike Seccombe was working at the Global Mail until it closed a month or so before the SP’s launch. He was a smart hire for Schwartz and Jensen, especially once the ICAC hearings into Australian Water Holdings’ political connections opened in mid March. Seccombe, who had covered politics for the SMH for eighteen years, grew up in Queensland in the Bjelke-Petersen era, and served his apprenticeship on the state politics round under Quentin Dempster on the old Brisbane Telegraph. He has an almost instinctive feel for the AWH story.

His coverage has adroitly developed themes emerging from ICAC’s work, most notably in his recent report, “The Clean Money in a Dirty System,” about backdoor donations to the Liberal Party in New South Wales. When Barry O’Farrell surprised everyone by announcing his resignation on Wednesday 16 April, Seccombe, with a Thursday afternoon deadline looming, elegantly surveyed where it had all gone wrong for the NSW premier.

When supplemented by strong work from contributors, the SP can be a powerful read. Issue 4 was a stand-out, leading with Debra Jopson’s superb National Times–style account of the veil of secrecy over passport cancellations instigated by ASIO. That edition also contained Seccombe’s “The New NSW Disease,” an account of Arthur Sinodinos’s former involvement with AWH, and on the opinion pages a scathing indictment by Professor Marcia Langton of the federal government’s plans to reform the racial vilification laws.

Nevertheless, a common complaint among casual readers I talked to for this article was that the edition they might have lighted on in a café or airport lounge didn’t feel sufficiently compelling. After a strong piece on Manus Island by Sophie Morris in issue 1, the paper’s Canberra coverage has failed to cut through. The central thrust of its immediate post-budget coverage was an investigation of the motoring organisations’ objections to the reinstatement of indexation on the petrol excise. It’s mystifying that the SP could opt for such a “beer up, cigs up, fuel up” angle, when waves of public outrage were crashing over Joe Hockey’s first budget well before the paper was put to bed. Nor was its coverage advanced by former treasurer Wayne Swan’s mangled analysis on the opinion page: “Ultimately, this budget is one step down the road of shifting the balance towards corporations and away from working people via less corporate tax and a higher GST. And a smaller government.” Yikes.

The following week the SP carried a sharply drawn reflection on Tony Abbott as a stranger to the Australian people, trying to sell them a budget they didn’t trust. It was written by David Marr, who has been a longstanding presence in the Monthly. But Marr is now a reporter for the Guardian Australia, which probably explains why he has been missing from the Monthly for many months now, and has only written a few times for Schwartz’s new venture.

The Saturday Paper could do with more from his laser-like pen. Aside from his contributions and a handful of others including Langton’s broadside, its opinion columns have been a weak spot, filled with predictable advocacy on worthy causes.

The issues that the paper has repeatedly pursued in its first few months are the vexed politics of environment, the damage being wreaked on Australian communities by an underregulated mining industry and other industrial hazards, the treatment of asylum seekers and government management of their detention, and a society that is increasingly turning on itself through family violence and institutional or governmental neglect. At its strongest the new paper seems to pick up where Laura Tingle left off in Great Expectations, a brilliant analysis published in Schwartz’s Quarterly Essay series, which linked disaffection among voters to dysfunctional governance in a post-privatisation polity.

Yet in Canberra, the SP is not really on mainstream politicians’ radar. One Labor adviser says that people in his line of work now confront a crowded media landscape and are reassessing the best ways to get their political messages out. While he thinks the SP potentially has a lot of relevance to many Labor electorates, particularly in inner-city seats in Sydney and Melbourne, the Guardian Australia remains his go-to choice to launch a story in alternative media. It is better established than the SP and, like many popular websites, inextricably enmeshed with social media; it has more than 37,000 followers on its main Australian Twitter account and many others following associated Twitter accounts. It also has a Facebook page which has received more than 107,000 likes. Federal Labor now has a big push on to reach Australians through social media. Bill Shorten’s Facebook page invites followers to “LIKE and SHARE to join Labor in our opposition to Tony Abbott’s lies.” It’s claimed that in the week after the budget, frontbenchers including Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese each notched up more than a million individual interactions on social media.

This is one of the main problems with the SP. Although it produces an app version and a website based on the paper, and has more than 10,000 followers on Twitter, its use of social media often seems like an afterthought, miles from the frenetic rhythms of industry best practice. Continuing to puff articles and cartoons days after they appeared in print does not cut much ice with the twitterati. Popular media twitter streams usually consist of rapid-fire, almost continuous conversations that offer followers new information regarding issues they care about and succeed more by wit than conspicuous self-promotion.

What emerged from the soundings I took for this article among sympathetic, informed readers in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, is that the Guardian Australia, not the Fairfax press, is the SP’s main competition. The charismatic Viner has been promoted to the Guardian’s New York editorship and will be leaving soon. With her departure and replacement by another British editor, the Saturday Paper has a moment of opportunity to remedy some basic flaws in its approach, and even to do so at its competitor’s expense. Perhaps this would be an opportune time for Schwartz and Jensen to extricate Marr from the Guardian’s clutches, and ramp up the SP’s social media strategy. After all, it would be sad if the paper, started with such fine intentions, became just another statistic. •

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Swastikas long gone: supporters of Sweden Democrats during a rally in July this year. Johan Wessman/News Øresund (CC BY 3.0)

Swastikas long gone: supporters of Sweden Democrats during a rally in July this year. Johan Wessman/News Øresund (CC BY 3.0)