As the newly-appointed editor of The Monthly, the last thing Ben Naparstek needs is advice in the egg-sucking department from the former editor of The Daily Telegraph.
It may surprise you to learn that I have only seen the magazine a few times. All I’d say about the content is that it doesn’t cover league very well. It could benefit from a Monthly Confidential section — Revealed! What really went on between Gerard Henderson and Julie Bishop at her Sydney Institute address. And as for that 48-million word essay Kevin Rudd wrote, a tabloid sub could have chopped it to read “Capitalism is stuffed but I’m going to fix it” and everyone would have been just as informed and regained three days of their life.
These are just my observations and Ben Naparstek is free to ignore them. But the nice people at Crikey asked me to give my thoughts on what he can expect as a young editor, so here goes.
The first thing Naparstek will have learned is that even the intelligentsia — who are so quick to accuse the journalistic mainstream of facile stereotyping — will also grasp for the nearest cliche to tell a story.
In The Age, The Australian, on Defamer and Crikey, Naparstek has been labelled a boy genius, a wunderkind, the Doogie Howser of journalism, and the boy-Manne, a double put-down which both takes the piss out of his youth and suggests he’s a patsy for publisher Robert Manne.
Some of these tags are benign shorthand descriptors that attract the reader by making a joke out of what is clearly a genuine angle to the Ben Naparstek story.
At their nastiest they reflect the sometimes-toxic level of jealousy from people who think you’re a blow-in, a queue-jumper, a mad experiment, and saddest of all, the bitterness of some older folks whose best days are well behind them at seeing the next generation came through.
I’m sure that when I was appointed there were a few mutterings in the tearoom about my apparent youth (35, ancient compared to Naparstek). But in my years as editor I felt that, internally, my best sounding boards and biggest backers were the wiser heads on the newspaper, people like Roger Coombs, Malcolm Farr, Phil Rothfield, with the support of people at the very top of News Limited I made it clear to them from the outset that I wanted their help, that I wanted them to tell me if they thought I was wrong, and they did both.
I am sure Naparstek will take the same approach — given his age he’ll be flat out seeking the input of any younger members of staff, unless he recruits the local kindergarten.
His external critics will be harder to manage, and the best advice I could give is: don’t even try. I doubt he will cop the flak I did — Mother Theresa could edit the Tele and people would still think she was a bitch — but if the recent byzantine stink on his mag is any indication there will be petty politics and he will have his detractors.
In terms of publishing, Naparstek will find that just as things will go spectacularly right, they also go hideously wrong. He will see the reverse ageism at play in the media which amplifies failure and success by younger people in equal part. When the Tele was kicking goals, on stories such as Marcus Einfeld or the Crosby-Textor leak, or when we broke Morris Iemma’s fatal sacking of Michael Costa, I was hailed for bringing “youthful energy” to the paper. When I made mistakes, such as the ANZ call centres cock-up, my critics put it down to immaturity or inexperience.
If you’re diligent in your job and invite the input of older colleagues, I don’t think age is an issue at all. There are plenty of people out there in their 20s and 30s who are at the top of their professions. The country is no worse for the current PM having a 29-year-old chief of staff in Alister Jordan, who looks set to outlast John Howard’s first-term chief of staff, the political veteran Graham Morris, who was sacked along with five frontbenchers over an amateurish series of disclosure scandals.
Finally I’d wish Ben well and remind him that editing is like Iraq — you need an exit strategy. He is clearly a talented writer so he should look forward to returning to a life where words dominate his day.
*David Penberthy edited The Daily Telegraph from April 2005 to November 2008 and is the editor of thepunch.com.au, a new opinion website being launched by News Limited next month