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Feb 28, 2014

Modern, subversive and short-lived: a newspaper eulogy

Newspapers were always about more than journalism. Journalist and historian Rachel Buchanan has created an obituary for Melbourne's 525 dead newspapers, revealing their true worth.

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Former Melbourne papers

On March 28, The Age will permanently shut down its Tullamarine printing plant, only 11 years after it opened.

There’s a line of thinking that says that while detrimental to Fairfax’s balance sheet, the loss of this and other printing plants ultimately doesn’t matter for readers. Newspapers are artifacts of their time, and as long as you save the journalism, you’ve saved what’s important.

Journalist and historian Rachel Buchanan strongly disagrees. A self-confessed “newspaper nerd”, she told Crikey that journalists had “a pretty warped idea” of what newspapers are actually about. Buchanan is the author of Stop Press, a book published last year about the death of newspapers and what it means not just for journalists, but for the entire supply chain that relies on newspapers. Printing is Australia’s third-largest manufacturing industry.

Journalists often forget about the supply chain, and that’s not all, she says. The types of journalism that readers have historically embraced are forgotten, too. “Journalism’s always included political reporting and the like, but journalists have also always written about food, sport, and people’s lives,” she said.

Buchanan spent much of her career writing what journalists refer to as “colour” — soft human interest stories that tell of people’s lives without necessarily afflicting the powerful. Such stories aren’t seen as important. But people always enjoyed reading them, she says.

Historically, it’s this colour that newspapers have prioritised over straight, serious reportage. In the 1940s, obituaries ran on the front page. Before that, classifieds did.

Buchanan would know. She’s the editor, researcher and compiler of the Melbourne Sirius, a beautifully designed, one-off obituary newspaper for Melbourne’s 525 defunct newspapers. She, along with her two daughters, will be giving away 525 copies (one for each dead newspaper) around Melbourne next Monday.

The newspaper, designed by Stephen Banham of Brunswick-based typography studio Letterbox, came out of Buchanan’s creative fellowship at the State Library of Victoria, which she’d hoped to use to explore ideas about the roles of newspapers left over from her book. “The initial idea was to look at obituaries, crosswords, letters to the editor, classifieds … all the things that weren’t news,” she said. “I thought I’d make a newspaper that wasn’t news. Hence Melbourne Sirius ­– to cover everything that wasn’t serious.”

Outside Buchanan’s office was a card catalogue of Melbourne newspapers, and she was struck by the sheer number of dead newspapers inside. She started typing up the names of the newspapers, and in her own words, “became obsessed”. “I wanted to pay homage to these exquisite objects that embodied communities of people,” she said.

Long-running newspapers like The Age (160 years old) and The Australian (50 years old) are historical anomalies — most newspapers last a few years at best. They were printed quickly and were thoroughly modern products binding together communities based on place or interest. “We’ve forgotten how up-to-date newspapers were. You used to be able to leave the Melbourne Cup and grab a newspaper with a photograph of the winner on your way out. They’d process the images in the van going back to the Herald, print it there, and race back. Newspapers embodied modernity,” Buchanan said.

It’s this immediacy and sense of community that Buchanan has sought to capture in the Sirius. As well as compiling the names, dates of existence, and mastheads of newspapers, she also wrote footnotes on the lives of the newspapers, which run on the last two pages of the Sirius.

They detail stories like that of The Argus (1846-1957), which leaves behind a magnificent shell of a building in the Melbourne CBD. It was the first paper in the world to publish a colour photograph on the front page — the effort sent it bankrupt. Or of The Daily Truth (1975), a newspaper Rupert Murdoch staffed with strike-breakers as the regular staff of The Age, Sun and Melbourne Herald went on strike. It lasted three editions. Or of the subversive Australasian Weed (1977-1978), a series of pro-marijuana legalisation newspapers. Its proprietor started papers called Australasian Greed, Australasian Need, Australasian Seed, Australasian Weed and Australasian Plead — all bore a marijuana leaf in the masthead, and the first three carried the tagline “All the dope on dope”.

Was cataloging the death of 525 newspapers a depressing experience? “[Stop Press] was a profoundly depressing experience, and quite painful. I was recognising that the skills I’d developed my whole life had become fairly redundant. But this was a different experience. I was blown away by it and filled with wonder at this amazing cultural heritage. I wanted to share it with people,” Buchanan said.

Myriam Robin — Media Reporter

Myriam Robin

Media Reporter

Myriam has been Crikey’s media reporter since 2014. Before that, she was a business journalist with sister site SmartCompany, covering economics and corporate strategy.

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