Departing Meanjin editor Sophie Cunningham says she only met Melbourne University Press chairman Alan Kohler once during her three-year reign and that she was locked out of formal discussions about the publication’s future.
Speaking exclusively to Crikey from Japan where she is enjoying a two-week sabbatical before her contract expires, Cunningham said that MUP took a hands-off approach to the storied 70-year literary magazine’s future and that the recent pressure on her position came as a shock.
“I was not formally consulted once about Meanjin’s future,” Cunningham told Crikey, adding that she was under the impression Kohler wanted to remove the print edition from shelves and take its content solely online.
“In the only conversation I had with Alan, some months ago, I thought he said I should consider putting Meanjin online only. He may not have meant exclusively online but the details were not elaborated on. That’s what I took away from that meeting.”
The popular Cunningham resigned last month, however since the news broke, speculation has swirled as to the reasons behind the move.
A respected author who will now return full-time to writing, Cunningham said that while the specific reasons behind the breakdown remained opaque, there was a divide between Meanjin’s independent streak and the outlook of the publishing house.
“In recent contract discussions it became clear that the board wanted to pursue some strategy of Alan’s — a strategy I still don’t know the details of. Since I wasn’t in the loop about what that strategy was, I could see I had to leave,” said Cunningham.
“I do know there was a sense — expressed by MUP — that I was not working with MUP closely enough and was being too independent. I had understood my task to be to keep Meanjin’s separate identity.”
The dispute mirrors the rancour over the resignation of former editor Ian Britain in 2007, who fought Meanjin’s administrative takeover by the “corporate” forces of MUP. Late last year the university publishing house raised eyebrows by publishing the memoirs of gangland identity Mick Gatto.
Britain had also expressed concern that the magazine would move entirely to the web.
In the early years of her editorship Cunningham was free to take an independent approach, but she says the relationship soured after she submitted a comprehensive three-year business plan to co-funder the Australia Council in May and went to MUP for advice.
“It was read by the board and senior MUP staff and they signed off on it. But I had trouble getting real engagement from MUP on it and I could tell that was a problem,” Cunningham said.
The plan was to beef-up the magazine’s online presence by providing exclusive content and access to its 70 years of digitised articles with the print run restricted to subscribers and standing orders from bookshops. Meanjin has revamped its website under her tenure and the suggestion the quarterly print run be eliminated entirely came as a shock.
But Kohler rejected this interpretation, telling Crikey that reports in The Age and elsewhere of his support for an online-only strategy were “ridiculous”.
“It’s like saying The Age will only go online … maybe it will eventually because that’s how its readers want to read it, maybe it won’t. Who knows? It’s entirely up to the readers,” said Kohler.
“Our view … my view … is that Meanjin is a terrific publication and Sophie Cunningham has been a fine editor and will leave it in good shape. It’s been around 70 years and has a wonderful history. We want to grow it and build on what Sophie has achieved. That’s the bottom line: we want to make it better and have more readers. The question is how are we going to do that?”
“Meanjin is a part of MUP, and the MUP board and management are now considering the strategy for the publication, in consultation with its stakeholders.”
Under Cunningham’s tenure the popular “little magazine” published a range of younger writers and also implemented a new design by creative gun Stuart Geddes. It costs about $150,000 a year to produce its four editions and usually breaks even thanks to joint funding from the University of Melbourne and the Australia Council. Beyond back-office and logistical support it is not believed to have received any specific cash from MUP.
While sales total only about 1,100 to 1,200 an edition, the fundamentals are believed to be solid.
Kohler specifically ruled out a financial motive for the strategy change: “If you’re wondering whether the changes have been financial…that’s not it that’s not what it’s about. We’re not trying to save money in Meanjin.”
Cunningham agrees, saying that she didn’t lose subscribers despite putting up the price of the journal, and that circulation had withstood her pursuit of a younger demographic and the ill winds of the Global Financial Crisis.
“I increased funding, I got the journal key organisation status from the Australia Council,” Cunningham said.
“Perhaps the issue is to do with having a funded journal in a large commercial organisation. It’s not a comfortable fit — Ian Britain tried to make that point when he was campaigning to stop Meanjin going to MUP.”
During her time in the editor’s chair, Cunningham launched several successful public events in Melbourne and Sydney (notably Meanland, in collaboration with Jeff Sparrow, editor of fellow literary journal Overland) to lead public debate on issues around digital publishing.
“Meanjin is an old-fashioned thing in some ways. I was not sure it could be refashioned in the way a new concept could be. That is, great mags are being born online, but I don’t think they are migrating there successfully.”
In what is shaping as Cunningham’s swansong, Meanjin’s 70th birthday edition has just returned from the printers featuring reprinted screeds from Helen Garner on her use of the first person, Christos Tsiolkas on his perfect mix tape, Graham Little on Bob Hawke and fiction from Peter Carey and Tim Winton.