The ructions at literary journal Meanjin Quarterly remind us that what counts in publishing, print or online, is not only money, but quality writing and editing.

It’s indicative of the economic and technological changes transforming Australian culture that this is the second publication I write regularly for to get into difficulties in just four months. In June, New Matilda shut down; four months later, it’s already in the process of resurrecting itself. Now it’s the turn of venerable Meanjin Quarterly to feel the icy gales of change. Meanjin‘s editor Sophie Cunningham is departing, and the journal may now be transformed into an online-only publication.

The news that Cunningham is leaving has already aroused considerable regret and sympathy in Melbourne’s literary community. Cunningham was well-liked by her writers — certainly by me — and under her charge the journal gathered new readers and developed a vibrant, contemporary agenda. Cunningham’s last edition, a book-length love-letter to Melbourne, was a cracker.

In particular, Cunningham was prepared to back new voices and emerging writers. She created space for both literary fiction and quality, long-form non-fiction, often printing 5,000 and 6,000 word essays on substantive topics. It’s the kind of writing and journalism that has all but vanished from our newspapers, enjoys precious few publishing vehicles in magazines, and is yet to be supported in a meaningful sense online. What now for Australia’s second-oldest ‘little magazine’, which turned 70 this year?

The developments do not auger well, because when Cunningham inherited the editorship from Ian Britain three years ago, after MUP subsumed the masthead, financial backing of the journal as an ongoing print publication was supposed to be part of the deal. Britain told Crikey this week that “this is a replay of three years ago, except this time I suspect it’s end game … the whole future of the magazine concerns me”.

Britain’s concerns are widely shared. In The Age, the inimitable Peter Craven has declared that “if Meanjin is taken online, it will cease effectively to exist”.

That need not be the case. Meanjin should certainly be online, but there is no doubt that the loss of the handsomely printed quarterly codex will be deeply felt. If anything, Meanjin is just the sort of high-value, niche artefact that should be ideally placed to survive and thrive in the new publishing landscape, as the successful efforts of niche publishers like McSweeney’s in America and The Lifted Brow in Australia demonstrate.

Meanjin‘s small-run printing should of course be backed up by an equally well-designed and presented online presence. But Crikey understands Cunningham was never given the resources to develop this.

What’s perhaps of most concern are the automatic assumptions that online means cheaper. This is not necessarily true, especially in a small-run imprint like Meanjin, as those exposed to real-world experience in online publishing know. It’s not just style-sheets and content management systems. Transitioning from a quarterly publication with limited material available on the web  to a true online journal will require more editorial resources, not less.

The case of Meanjin also raises some intriguing policy implications for funding bodies that support it, such as the Australia Council. As a cultural institution, Meanjin is older than Opera Australia, the Australian Ballet and most of the nation’s orchestras, and yet receives just a tiny fraction of the support given to major performing arts bodies. This is a reflection of the Australia Council’s broader funding priorities, which place writing and publishing well below opera, ballet and theatre.

Yet the Australia Council’s own statistics show reading and writing at the top of the list in terms of cultural participation by ordinary Australians.

Ultimately, what counts in publishing, print or online, is not only money, but quality writing and editing. With Meanjin, MUP and the University of Melbourne have a rare repository of such quality. But do they still want to support it?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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