The story so far: It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from undercover, have won a victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star… Ah sorry, no, that’s the inappropriate prologue from Star Wars.

The story so far is that Meanjin, Melb. Uni’s storied and visionary quarterly, is going through troubled times with editors “blowing like fuses” — the most recent incumbent has resigned — and rumours of the journal going exclusively online, a course which prominent voices have likened to a death blow. The highly respected editor No. 2 (1974-1982) Jim Davidson gave a recent 70th anniversary oration which turned into a fierce critique of the current administration of the magazine. (See Mulcher report.)

As I was writing this, MUP (Melb. Uni. Publishing) announced that Meanjin’s eight ninth* editor, replacing Sophie Cunningham, is Sally Heath. Until recently Heath was editing A2, the review section in Saturday’s Age. (See Crikey report.)

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy …

The powerpoint list:

1) It’s not economy, stupid

2) The confession

3) The Sphinx

Meanjin-tongues3a) “The forms we cannot yet forsee”

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1) It’s not economy, stupid

My understanding now is that Meanjin’s problems are not, and were never about money. There is no question that funds can be made available. Let’s put it this way, Meanjin was and can continue to be a glittering ornament for Melb. Uni — a mascot, no, a beloved pet, a beloved child, a beloved dependent. The only reason Meanjin would cease to exist is if the love for it dies.

Right: Meanjin: Tongues — Translation: Only Connect, Vol. 64 No. 4, 2005. My design, photo of J.M. Coetzee by Fred Kroh.

2) The confession

I designed Meanjin between 2001-07, during Ian Britain’s editorship. One day, in early 2006, I was chatting to my friend Sandy Grant, publisher of Hardie Grant, who was on Meanjin’s board of management. (As an imprint of MUP it now only has an Advisory Board.) At some point he mentioned the cost of putting out the four issues a year, something like $150,000.

As it was on my mind — and in the air — I thought out loud, or rather toyed out loud, why not put it online? And I meant, all online. You can see how much toying I was doing. That would take out one set of production costs — the paper and printing costs, and distribution, the returns, warehousing etc. Sandy is a doer — he looked at me and said, that’s a good idea. I’m going to take it to the next meeting.

I next heard from Ian Britain who told me with some consternation that the board was canvassing the idea of putting the magazine totally online, with an annual print volume of highlights (which Sandy and I had also played with). I said nothing about my part in it. It wasn’t that I was embarrassed, or even conflicted — I shoulda, but I didn’t feel like a long discussion just then and the moment passed.

Meanjin-rockandrollThe idea would have needed thinking about audiences (older/print/younger/ online/overseas), costs and staffing …

Indeed, I expected that it would just blow away, as being too hard to implement and without saving any costs — but at least it would have served as a discussion about the future. Nonetheless, I did reserve the domain name for our later use (it’s still registered). Meanjin had a basic website then — more or less a placeholder; there was barely any budget for it — and not one with its own domain name,, until 2008.

In the end, the idea evaporated amidst a new battle over the absorption of Meanjin into the MUP as an imprint.

Right: Meanjin on Rock ‘n’ Roll: All Yesterday’s Parties, Vol. 65 No. 3, 2006. My design, photo of Nick Cave by Bleddyn Butcher.

I understand that memory is as fluid as the motion of light in water, to borrow the title of Samuel Delaney’s memoirs. And that my recall of these events may be contested. In any case, I have told it as I remember it, and I do so for the first time …

i) to place it on the record, so we can draw a line from its benignish, airy origins to now. Events are chaotic; occuring, they tell us, due to sensitive dependence on initial conditions, and so here we are;

ii) to note that these kinds of ideas were already in the air; it would have arisen later, if not sooner.

iii) because the question of going e- is not ideological or political. It is inevitable, and it’s only the matter of how nimbly we engage the adventure.

iv) and to acknowledge I didn’t know how it might work, technologically, as editorial process, or budget-wise. Given the state of tech back then it would most likely have manifested as the kind of website we are familiar with: posted articles and blogs,  with archives, and most likely, quite static.

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meanjin-2009.13) The Sphinx

In a Crikey report (10.11.10) Sophie Cunningham, the outgoing editor, said she understood from a conversation with MUP chairman Alan Kohler that Meanjin would be going exclusively online: “That was the impression I got … I’m prepared to accept he had more plans, but I have no idea what they are … and I’m certainly out of the loop now.”

Under Cunningham, the Meanjin website now links to more than half of the articles in each issue, and the archives are being digitised (a long process) — see here for issue Vol.60 No.3 online. The website is obviously still in its early days. “We would have needed more resources to have done more,” she told me.

Right: Meanjin Vol. 68 No. 1, 2009. Design by Stuart Geddes, illustration by Kate Banazi.

In Jane Sullivan’s report (Age, 27.11.10) I believe Alan Kohler when he “denies there are plans to put Meanjin exclusively online — ‘What can I do, sign a pledge?’ ” He was saying: I don’t know what, if any, definite plans there are, so I cannot say. The missing voice in the report belonged to the publisher of MUP and the publisher of Meanjin, Lousie Adler.

She was a vivid absence in Sullivan’s long piece about Meanjin. Adler did not have the chance to address Jim Davidson’s anniversary lecture charges: Does she think editors are blowing like fuses?; Does she think there is a problem with the governance?; Does she agree that it was a profound mistake for Meanjin to have been absorbed into MUP?

This conspicuous absence was also noted by Radio National’s Ramona Koval — on the Book Show program (24.11.10) on Meanjin’s 70th: “Well, I should mention that Melbourne University Publishing hasn’t responded to our many requests for clarification on whether or not it plans to turn Meanjin into an online only journal. Funny how you hear from people only when they have a book to publicise.” Later, guest Jim Davidson quipped back with the phrase, “The Sphinx-like MUP.” Ramona said, “They are rather Sphinx-like, isn’t it funny. Wonder why?”

“The forms we cannot yet forsee”

So, now, a month after the last editor’s resignation, and the online rumours, we have a new editor and a new promise for the future, reading like a response to the rumours about existing exclusively online — not one medium, but omnimedia. In a press release* (9.12.10), MUP and its publisher, Louise Adler, finally speak, though not to respond to Davidson’s critique:

“The opportunities are growing, not contracting, for purveyors of content who are flexible and creative. In five years time Meanjin’s forms of publication will have proliferated, not diminished. The magazine will find expression in print editions, compendiums, websites, blogs, mobile applications and other forms we cannot yet foresee.”

Or, perhaps, to quote my interpretation of Kohler: I don’t know what, if any, definite plans there are, so I cannot say.

I’ve just sent in my subscription to next year’s Meanjin. Better get all my media platforms ready for the onslaught.

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Stay tuned for
Part II
To e- or not to e-: The visionary, and the e-future of the literary magazine

Coming soon to this blog…

* Notes:

— Contrary to the MUP press release, I have been advised  that Sally Heath is the ninth editor. The release says: “Melbourne University Publishing is delighted to announce the appointment of Sally Heath as the eighth editor of Meanjin.”

— The release also has a rather Freudian typo: “MUP’s CEO, Louise Adler welcomed Sally Health’s appointment.” Health not Heath? Gesundheit!

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