journalists in a newsroom
(Image: Unsplash)

In London’s Covent Garden, there’s a poster shop filled with old, slightly yellowed music hall posters.

Thin sheets they were called: long, single strips listing — in half a dozen typefaces — the acts playing at the Lowestoft Hippodrome, the Abergavenny Bijou, etc.

Two dozen acts a night, Myrtle and Ethel the singing sisters, the Tumbling Trimboles, etc. People who did the same routine for decades and, when retiring, “sold the act” for someone else to take on.

They date back to the ’20s, ’10s, further. They must have been the excess of huge print runs, now going for a fiver, making a great poignant present for the cheap gift giver. 

Running your eye down their long lists, you try and imagine what music hall and vaudeville was really like in the days when you could come and go, lean at the bar at the back, talk through the acts.

People at the time saw music hall as a “tonic”, a cheer-up, among other things. Something that gave you a shot of joy, wildness, unpredictability — an essential burst of “the carnivalesque” amid gritty urban living. 

Coming back now, those audiences would be bewildered to find that, essentially, it does not exist, that a whole register of urban existence has gone. How could you get through, they would wonder, without being able to go see a tapdancing ventriloquist now and again?

Yet all attempts to revive the form have failed. People go once, twice, but never enough to make a venue viable.

We are torn in a way: we recognise it as something we would like to need, but we don’t, even though its absence is a loss. The sudden precipitous decline of news is an example of this phenomenon, but it presents itself as something else.

The virus-led snapping shut of dozens of newsrooms — the evisceration of regional media by News Corp tumbling over the near-death of AAP, and the collapse of online-local models such as BuzzFeed — can be blamed on collapsing ad revenues and antisocial managements, but at the root lies something that few in the industry want to admit: if the demand were there this wouldn’t be happening.

Journalism, by taking a somewhat demarketised view of itself, has obscured the conditions of its production and started to judge its winnowing in terms of the myth it has told about itself: that it is something people desperately want but are now being actively denied.

The hard truth is that a lot of the journalism that people like us — writers and readers of this publication — regard as crucial was never profitable on its own terms, and piggybacked on the supply limits created by the dominance of physical printing.

Everyone who wrote for the old Fairfax weekend groaners — papers a half-foot thick, stacked like cordwood in the newsagents — had the same experience of seeing  punters buying one and dumping everything but the car classifieds in the bin outside.

The exposés of corruption in the administration of the department of administrative services, frontline reports from Madeupistan, searching reviews of a new biography of Frank Forde — all binned!

Yes, there were readers. Yes, people tuned into key columnists and commentators in huge numbers. And yes, stories made things happen — but we really don’t know how many readers “highbrow” news had.

The business was so profitable no one needed to check, and different types of news were less thought of as separable, for the simple reason that it all came bound up in a single physical object.

Proprietors committed to expensive investigative journalism sometimes out of genuine civic commitment, but also as a way of building a paper’s cultural capital, its sense of command: with a half-million buyers and 1.2 million readers for a weekday edition, advertising was matched by reader revenue. 

The proprietors and managers could imagine cutting down investigative journalism — which was, as a mass enterprise, a recent post-World War II development — and there were continuous running battles over such. 

What no one could imagine would also disappear, as a staple, was city and community news.

This has been the most disconcerting thing for many of us: the thinning of news sites and papers to such a degree that one no longer knows what is really happening in the large city one lives in, that a paper is no longer a picture of the whole city at a point in time — the local council scandals, a pizza shop robbery, a local footy side that lost 250-nil, the court reports, the vice-regal list, the Trugo scores, etc.

What we now get are the highlights of the very biggest stories, which put the emphasis on isolated and singular narratives. What we don’t get any more, what has disappeared in my adult reading lifetime (and yours too, I’m guessing) is coverage. 

To me, rawly, that feels like the end of civilisation, nothing less, total atomisation.

But again, one has to be forensic and ask: what was the basis of thinking that such stories constituted the essential news? Why is there no demonstrative, active demand for them, the way there is for episodic screen entertainment, for example, people rushing at Netflix to give it their money? 

The answer of course is that the suggestion that news was created as a response to demand is a myth which news proprietors put out to justify shaping the news feed through priorities of supply.

City news evolved at a time when the city bounded people’s lives, when reporters travelled on train and tram, spoke to people face-to-face; when, right into the ’60s , a newsroom might have two phones for a roomful of journalists.

The papers of a century ago reveal an entirely different conception of what news was: along with the coverage of violent crime (often in lurid and near-pornographic detail) there are church fetes, visiting lecturers and overturned milk carts. There are whole columns devoted to “accidents and falls”, people going down lift shafts, etc (particularly grotesque ones would get taken up by wire services and sent round the country).

The “suicides” columns — there was a regular column devoted to suicides — were manuals of lethal self-harm. The weddings coverage comprised small masterpieces of prose description of the clothes, the floral settings, the reception buffet and the like. Carnivalesque all this, too, a representation of the riotous uproar of life in a few small squares of paper.

Who decided all that was news? No one, absolutely.

What was news grew up as a set of interlocking practices of reading and writing, steered by sentiment, habit, supposition. “News” produced itself, because it trained new audiences afresh to like what news said news was, and to see it as a representation of the world, a ranking of what mattered.

In our era, both investigative and city news have decayed rapidly, yielding to a global news centred on celebrity lives — not as representations of glamour, but as hero figures who perform, at an empyrean level, the struggles of our everyday life. Their breakups, addictions and misadventures, troubled footballers and PTSD actors.

What may have begun as a cheap substitute for city news has become the news many people live their lives by.

We actually accept this to a fundamental degree: no one is surprised, for example, that BuzzFeed is shutting its Australian news arm while keeping global celebrity circulation and cultural/product/gossip sampling and takes going.

Economies of scale, of course, but the fact that that’s the viable strategy tells us a great deal about what’s shifted if we take a step back from the process. 

The same is true for local and regional news. If people were really as devoted to the local paper as they once had been, if it were still an essential service, then a collection of them would not be the first thing that conglomerates would close, they would be the last.

They’d be the bedrock of a revenue model. Currently, that bedrock is provided by the city tabloids — and their priority and selling point is celebrity scandal.

It seems likely that a lot of the community stuff that was done by such papers — announcements, notifications — is now occurring through social media and list subscriptions. Small rural papers once were social media — they would publish lists of townspeople who were away on holiday and when they’d be back, and publish their holiday pics.

The principal, desired consequence of such a rethinking would be an unsparing analysis of what we need to do now to produce the sort of news we want to have.

We being the audience who want the investigative stuff and the social coverage, believing it important while rejecting the illusion that it must necessarily be popular.

That may mean new models of specialist coverage and outlets, with higher subscription rates for a smaller audience — but also new ways of synthesising and coordinating those outlets, without believing that they have to be gathered into a single entity.

The loss of rural papers might simply be an opportunity to reorganise rural coverage around regions, and using freelance and part-time contributors scattered across an area — many of the rural papers News Corp had bought up and then shut were century-and-a-half old, small-town letterpress papers which had long since lost a base. 

Should News Corp have been permitted to buy them? No, of course not. News Corp should be blasted into the heart of the sun.

But is it certain or even likely that no other controlling conglomerate would not do the same? If News Corp has indeed created a vacuum, then it can be filled by other players, in an era when new media start-ups don’t have to own a printing press to get something out the door.

We can’t complain both about News Corp’s octopus-like reach into everyday life as a propaganda model, and also complain when it quits the field.

The demise of these old mastheads is sad, but maybe they should have been rationally consolidated a while back. In all these transformations, what would assist is European-style 25%-50% matched funding by the state for any news service that can gain — or which has a reasonable prospect of gaining — some sort of audience, and provide essential services such as births and deaths notices, council reports, court reporting, etc.

This would be bread-and-butter stuff in addition to the funds squeezed from the government during the latest media regulation shake-up. 

But whatever we do, the important point is to think clearly, not first about what news might become, but about what it really was, and what was myth, the persistence of which would blind us to new possibilities.

For those of us who grew up on newspapers, loving them even as news lingered into a digital era, it’s sad beyond sad.

But it just is. Time to sell the act. The carnivalesque is over. 

Peter Fray

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