IN THE MEDIA, we do love a trend. If one doesn't exist, in fact, we'll make it up. Two observable instances will suffice for the ruling of the requisite connecting line. Two celebrities seen drinking tea – it's teamania! Two movies about deaf people – it's the deaf craze! Particularly popular are those that resonate with the wistful hankerings of baby boomer bosses. The miniskirt is back! T-shirts with slogans are hot! It's here, it's happening: it's the anti-war movement!
Consider, however, two parallel phenomena where the media themselves are concerned. Trend one: the public's growing contempt for journalists – as the choleric British cabinet minister Alan Clark called us recently "fellows with, in the main, squalid and unfulfilling private lives, insecure in their careers, and suffering a considerable degree of dependence on alcohol and narcotics". A striking aspect of last year's saga of The New York Times's Jayson Blair – on whom Clark's description fitted snugly – was how little his fabulations seemed to matter to its consumers. "The scariest part was that the people we lied about didn't bother to call," agreed the Times's venerable publisher Arthur Sulzberger jnr, "because they just assumed that's the way newspapers worked."
It was Blair's plagiarism that eventually brought him unstuck; plagiarism being journalism's incest – its great taboo. But a USA Today /CNN/Gallup poll soon after the Blair affair found that only 36 per cent of respondents thought the media generally "get the facts straight" – roughly the same proportion as in earlier surveys. For all the concern about the corrosion of public trust, it seemed, the scandal confirmed rather than altered prejudices. Likewise in Australia. Last year saw two books lambasting media practitioners: Paul Sheehan's The Electronic Whorehouse (Macmillan, 2003) and David Flint's The Twilight of the Elites(Freedom Publishing, 2003). To Sheehan, news has become "marbled with the saturated fat of policy agendas"; to Flint, journalists are out of touch with "the common-sense, pragmatic views of the vast majority of Australians". The public ho-hummed – tell us something we don't know, they seemed to say.
Observe also a second trend: the relentless advance, in profile and prestige, of the media as a career option, to be seen in the youths flocking to obtain journalism and communications degrees, the cult of the commentator and the salaries for top-line practitioners unthinkable as little as 15 years ago, the clamour for kudos culminating in a nationally televised ceremony where journalists pin awards on one another like members of a military junta, and the general dignification of the craft as a profession. In its own esteem, it is arguable, journalism has never rated so highly. We're even making a pitch, to use the argot of the therapist, to be "understood". Deep, complex, humane people that we are, we have Ellen Fanning acting as our own agony aunt on SBS's Fine Line.
These are not, of course, new trends so much as continuations of old. The public – let us be frank – has always been leery of us. Remember Humbert Wolfe's 1920s doggerel? "You cannot hope to bribe or twist/Thank God! The British journalist/But, seeing what the man will do/Unbribed, there's no occasion to." Nor is the idea that we simply make stuff up a wholly new development. Who can forget Scoop's Wenlock Jakes sending the phantoms of his imagination into battle?
Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn't know any different, got out, went straight to an hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine-guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window – you know.
As for that surging self-opinion, it recalls H.L. Mencken's famous essay "Journalism in America", where he described the strides in respectability taken by the American press during the first two decades of the 20th century, when "the liberated journalist, taking huge breaths of thrilling air, began to think of himself as a professional man".
Upon that cogitation he is still engaged, and all the weeklies that print the news of the craft are full of its fruits. He elects representatives and they meet in lugubrious conclave to draw up codes of ethics. He begins to read books dealing with professional questions of other sorts – even books not dealing with professional questions. He changes his old cynical view of schools of journalism, and is lured, now and then, into lecturing in them himself ... He no longer sees it as a craft to be mastered in four days, and abandoned at the first sign of a better job. He begins to talk darkly of the long apprenticeship necessary to master its technic, of the wide information and sagacity needed to adorn it, of the high rewards that it offers – or may offer later on – to the man of true talent and devotion. Once he thought of himself, whenever he thought at all, as what Beethoven called a free artist – a gay adventurer careening down the charming highways of the world, the gutter ahead of him but ecstacy in his heart. Now he thinks of himself as a fellow of weight and responsibility, a beginning publicist and public man, sworn to the service of born and unborn, heavy with duties to the Republic and to his profession.
IF MENCKEN WAS sceptical then, the scene today would surely tax his credulity, from the serried ranks of hopefuls studiously debating the question of objectivity as though they were the very first to consider it, to the photo-by-lined Fûhrers of the op-ed pages. And we might profitably ask ourselves whether the trends are related. Jeremiads about journalism divide broadly into two. The first kind, usually from the left, concentrates on proprietorship, conjuring the fearful spectre of interventionist owners serving the gods of Mammon, of Northcliffes selecting cabinets, of Hearsts staging their own wars; the second kind, generally from the right, fulminates about elite groupthink. Both have moments of clarity, but both also tend to confirm, as The Atlantic's James Fallows put it last year, the "one great truth of political life" – that "each side is absolutely convinced that the other has an unfair advantage in getting its views out". They tend to distract attention from what we might find if we investigated the quotidian reality of newsroom life.
I have some experience of this reality. I am also, in many of the senses explored by John Henningham in his research into the backgrounds of Australia's 4500 journalists during the 1990s, supremely average. I am white, middle-class, had some private-school education but lack a degree – all of which place me in majorities. I've spent most of my time in newspapers, where two-thirds of journalists still do. In 12 years of full-time employment, I worked with The Age, The Australian and the Independent Monthly; in almost nine years as a freelancer, I've contributed mainly to The Bulletin, the ABC and The Eye. And that in Australia, as they say, is your lot: Fairfax, Murdoch, Packer, Auntie, with a couple of independent failures chucked in. I am, I will cheerfully concede, a stranger to many areas of journalism. My knowledge extends no further than the print media: it is on newspapers, therefore, that I will concentrate the following remarks. My mobility, too, has only been lateral: having never coveted a column, title or executive responsibility, I have remained simply a producer of stories – or, to use the modern argot, content. But to journalism's elemental processes I have considerable exposure, and from them I have derived immense enjoyment. What follows is observational rather than prescriptive – the spirit in which journalism is undertaken has always seemed to me more important than the techniques applied. It is based, purely and simply, on the large proportion of my adult life spent among reporters and editors.
THIS HAS ALWAYS been ethnographically stimulating. Among my first impressions when I joined The Age from school in February 1984 was how tirelessly journalists complained. The five of us in our cadet intake were delighted to have jobs, yet we seemed the only ones. A fortnight after our arrival, a well-meaning young deputy news editor thought to initiate us with a night at the pub, where we were introduced to one of the paper's better-known investigative journalists. This wise old newshound, drinking with both hands, proceeded to write himself off before our astonished eyes, pouring out his hatred of the editor and the news desk as he slumped lower and lower over the bar. He sounded like a man on the brink of resignation, perhaps even of suicide. Twenty years later, I need hardly say, he is still there, doing similar work, and probably venting similar views. Whenever I see anyone from The Age these days and they bemoan rock-bottom morale, I suppress a smile. Morale was always dreadful. The pub, incidentally, was called The Golden Age. A suitable location, I used to muse, for conversations about the same subject – it being in the nature of golden ages that they are always behind us.
Members of the public often complain that journalists are negative, that we harp on bad news and feast on people's suffering. You bet we do. "Traffic lights work and all travellers reach destinations safely" is not a story; "Traffic lights fail causing 50-car pile-up" is. What I always found far more interesting was how complaint became a pathology. It is not so much that repeated and prolonged exposure to the evils and injustices of the world gives one a jaundiced perspective – though reporting nothing but venality, cupidity and stupidity every day does eat away at one's immortal soul. It is that turning every event into an outcome of these forces for the sake of "sharpening up", "toughening up" or even "sexing up" one's story, looking for the injudicious and inflammatory quotation, the incriminating and incendiary fact, become all-pervading habits of mind. Grievance is grist to our mill. The fine powder that emerges ends up caked all over us.
THE OTHER IMPRESSION, forcibly left, as of journalists' immense conformity. Again, this was a function of the industry. In no other field of endeavour – except, perhaps, oddly enough, politics – are the doings of one's competitors so regularly and totally revealed. Your story almost always has an exact equivalent in rival organs. Comparison is more than tempting; it is mandatory. In my first few years, the nightly ritual of the subs' desk always fascinated me. First editions of The Age would be perused in desultory manner, then swept to one side when copies of The Australian, The Sun and The Australian Financial Review arrived. How we performed was never absolute, always relative. Ideally, this should have fostered a wish to outdo – and sometimes it did. More often, it instilled a defensive mentality, a desire simply to match, replicate or even copy. Omissions, I saw, were always somehow more ghastly than commissions were satisfying: news desks, I learned, tend to grow uneasy if their reporters write stories that don't look exactly like the oppositions'. I always imagined that this would change when I graduated to a task other than daily news. But it emerged when I did that, like our culture of complaint, the culture of conformity had become pathological. The only slight change was that features staff pored over foreign newspapers – which could, of course, be ripped off with impunity. The sight of an airfreight copy of the Sunday Times on an executive's desk was to be dreaded, tending as it did to prelude the question: "Do you think you can do one of these
Good journalists have many virtues. The best are adaptable, enthusiastic, intuitive. But we are not as individuals, with the possible exception of Stephen Glass, frightfully imaginative. We rove widely, flitting from story to story, ranging across states and subjects. Yet our work is ultimately reductive, fitting what we find into what we already know. After a while, news comes alike to us, to be simplified according to established formulae. Thus the immortal advice of the Daily Express's Desmond Hackett: "Get an idea and draw the facts toward it." Under the pressure of deadlines and headlines, we clutch for clichés like drunks for lamp-posts. And in the past 20 years, this native disposition has been harnessed to some powerful market forces. For most of that time, the daily print media has been a sunset industry: gently declining, but declining all the same. Most outlets are simply circling the wagons. If a metro daily in Australia did substantially improve circulation, it would be mimicked in a trice – but none has. And after a stealthy process of mutual imitation, a visible consanguinity has emerged between the popular press and what Kelvin MacKenzie rather wittily called the "unpopular press".
This makes a kind of sense. Just as politicians have spent 20 years seeking the sunny uplands of the "centre", so society's steady embourgeoisement implies a homogenising of culture with common aspirations, values, role models and figures of fascination (the new visible, mobile, lionised celebrity elite). And were it not for their distinct dimensions, the content of broadsheet and tabloid newspapers might be difficult to distinguish. Both are infatuated and saturated with money and glamour, even at its tawdriest. Both view Hollywood with uncritical awe. Both take cues from broadcast media and have been heavy investors in the bubble economy of reality television. Both go to pieces in the face of a foreign celebrity actually visiting Australia. Both have fallen into the habit of printing what my former colleague Jim Schembri calls "trumours": assertions published by one news outlet, probably extracted with the help of a fat cheque, quite possibly untrue or at least grossly distorted, but whose repetition is licensed by the use of the weasel word "reportedly". In time of scandal, broadsheets seek to reassert the vestigial illusion of difference with a disingenuous formula of presenting the news as a comment on the news: here is what the popular papers contain concerning Becks/ Nicole/Russ/Kylie, they seem to say, which we would never sully ourselves by reporting directly, and which we offer here with an air of ironic detachment, a loftily amused headline and some media studies musing of Catharine Lumby (whose recent ubiquity suggests that she sits by her phone dispensing soundbites). Even that distinction, though, has latterly been breaking down. Henry Porter, author of Lies, Damned Lies and Some Exclusives (1985, Coronet), has complained that all British editors seem to crave is "a handbook, a guide to the G-spot of middle England". We in Australia aren't even that sophisticated – we're waiting for them to find that guide so we can crib from it.
IT IS A HUNDRED years since Joseph Pulitzer's famous warning, now carved over the entrance of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism: "A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself." Today, the ratiocination runs in reverse: because we have a base people already, a cynical, mercenary, demagogic press is exactly what is required. "It might be argued that a public which becomes preoccupied with such issues is hedonistic and narcissistic, that its interests reflect the absence of an external threat to the nation, a commitment to trivia unworthy of a responsible society. But it is the business of any successful newspaper to reflect the world as it is, rather than attempt the impossible task of changing the values of a generation." Thus said the editor of the Daily Telegraph – not the Sydney tabloid, either, but the London broadsheet, by tradition the stuffiest newspaper in Christendom. This counsel of despair, of course, is also a thinly veiled abdication of responsibility. Acting as a tame spectator to the industry of celebrity can barely be said to "reflect the world as it is"; it is participation in illusion. Reflection is what inspired Caliban to rage; a newspaper should be capable of provoking the same. Such news, too, is not as chemically inert as is commonly assumed. Because newsroom resources are finite and investment once allocated is irrecoverable, every réchauffé ramble about Becks is space stolen from something else. And exaggeration and hyperbole in one place tend to set it off in others – even politics.
Politics has always had a theatrical dimension. But both broadsheets and tabloids have in recent times taken these to a further extreme, treating the business of government as a kind of Punch and Judy show, with polls as handy bludgeons. Events are interpreted not by reference to their causes or outcomes, but by the Government's "handling" of them. Refugees? Could be significant in marginal electorates. Third World War? Perhaps a bigger tax cut will be needed. As The Guardian's Polly Toynbee commented last year: "Journalism has become obsessed with the processes of government, but incurious about any complex problem that cannot be blamed upon some hapless minister ... The trouble is that a generation of young journalists now know nothing else, bred on the idea that attack is the only sign of journalistic integrity – all politicians are villains, all journalists their natural predators, or else toadies and lackeys." Yet this is not scepticism, for it is mixed with a perverse credulity about what governments choose to tell them. In Dark Victory (Allen & Unwin, 2003), for instance, David Marr and Marian Wilkinson mention one small but significant instance of a political deception that through sheer apathy went undetected. At the height of the Tampa crisis, both John Howard and Philip Ruddock suggested that the ship's captain had deliberately chosen to take a longer route to an Australian port (Christmas Island) rather than a Indonesian one (Merak). The authors put it succinctly: "This was simply not true, but from this press conference it was generally believed to be so." On some occasions, it is difficult to tell whether the press is merely cynical or altogether insensate. In last November's PEN lecture at the National Library, Phillip Adams offered a dispirited memoir of the rise and fall of the Opposition's Knowledge Nation policy document – which, if you recall, was accompanied by a not unconfusing but essentially irrelevant diagram adumbrated by Barry Jones:
...that impressive report was never discussed, never analysed, never given the seriousness it deserved. Why? Because everyone went off on a tangent on Barry's diagram ... And the media, who'd been jumping up and down demanding a policy from Labor, ignored the contents of Knowledge Nation and decided to play silly buggers with the diagram. Fine for cartoonists or for pundits pushing their own barrows – but appalling conduct for the press gallery and people claiming to be serious about the issues. Beazley was scared off in 10 seconds flat – and Knowledge Nation sank without trace. It was an act of intellectual philistinism that, quite clearly, demonstrated the need for Knowledge Nation rather than a nation of dills. I've no doubt there was much to criticise in the policy. What a pity that no one got round to it.
STILL MORE EXTREME is the world of newspaper commentary, which in recent years has been transformed: the once-peaceful grove of the leader page is now entirely overshadowed by the soaring plantation forest of signed columns. When I joined The Age, I remember only three columnists: the aforementioned Adams, irascible Michael Barnard, and unobjectionable, usually uninteresting Claude Forell. This was seen, though, as quite a lot, and the op-ed pages operated within a carefully defined cordon sanitaire to prevent their being mistaken for news. Columns, still quite novel, were considered a little risqué. Some newspapers eschewed them altogether. As recently as 1986, according to Stephen Glover in Secrets of the Press (Penguin, 1999), the page facing the leaders in the aforementioned Daily Telegraph carried news: Conrad Black's predecessor as proprietor, Lord Hartwell, thought columns "self-indulgent". As indeed they are. Opening a modern broadsheet reminds one irresistibly of Paul Pennyfeather's instruction to his class at Llanabba in Decline and Fall: "You will all write an essay on 'self-indulgence'. There will be a prize of half a crown for the longest essay irrespective of any possible merit."
The tradition of comment in the tabloid press, beyond the occasional leader advocating capital punishment or the return of flogging, is even briefer. "Cassandra", William Connor's mighty megaphone in the Daily Mirror,was exceptional. Hugh Cudlipp, the paper's presiding genius, recalled taking it over and finding a pundit called "The Man of a Thousand Secrets" on the payroll. He picked up the phone: "I've got a secret for you. You're fired." The first tabloid commandment was that thou shalt not burden the punter with opinion – save, occasionally, when an opinion happened to be one close to a proprietor's heart. How long ago that seems.
For, in the ceaseless proliferation of columns, it has been the popular press that has led the way. Facts are sacred and comment is free, runs the old journalistic saw – and what journo has ever been able to pass up a freebie? Because being a columnist is falling-off-a-log easy. Good reporting, requiring a willingness to immerse oneself in plural opinions, a talent for intelligent and sympathetic questioning and for fair and judicious simplification, is hard work. Competent commentary involves none of these things; it is like dressing in motley. In A Hind Let Loose, one of the most delightful of novels about journalism, the Manchester Guardian's Charles Montague makes comic merriment of the idea of a character who writes leaders of fiercely opposed opinion for rival newspapers. Not even that versatility is required today. Comment is increasingly strident and partisan, whether this be sound-alike leftists peddling petrified anti-Americanism, or the furious consensus on the right tilting at the straw man of political correctness, inveighing against a make-believe elite enemy and manning the barricades of the status quo. The issues themselves are of secondary significance to their utility in inflicting collateral damage on one's op-ed enemies.
All those salvos of manufactured outrage soaring over the public's heads, of course, can be a little hard on the hearing. The solution has been to make other parts of the newspaper softer, lighter, gentler and even less demanding. Thus the proliferation of another kind of columnist, the oh-so-wry observer of human nature, whose kind was once exquisitely described by James Thurber: "He is aware that billions of dollars are stolen every year by bankers and politicians, and that thousands of people are out of work, but these conditions do not worry him a tenth as much as the conviction that ... a piece he has been working on for two long days was done much better and probably more quickly by Robert Benchley in 1924." Since then, the type has gone forth and multiplied. Newspapers today dedicate inordinate amounts of space to a kind of desperate hilarity, from the stand-up comic reciting rote-learned gags about email and cats and the resident curmudgeon complaining about service in restaurants to the daiquiri-addled ditz with a shoe fetish and the girly singleton who calls herself a feminist yet hankers for the days when men opened doors for one. The world's best-known journalist? Not Woodward. Not Fisk. Step forward Carrie Bradshaw, whose weekly relationship column provides the overarching narrative to Sex and the City, famous for mots like: "I like my money where I can see it ... hanging in my closet." Boom-boom.
COLUMNISTS, TOO, ONCE a breed apart, are now part of a continuum of achieving notice. Stories, increasingly, are judged not by how they serve an event, but by how they serve the writer's career. In a wickedly funny memoir of working at The New York Times, Elizabeth Kolbert reminisced of the rivalry that pervaded every activity there: "My colleagues and I worried endlessly over our positions in the hierarchy and had worked out to several decimal places which assignments were to be coveted, based not only on their intrinsic merits but on their status. We rushed to get the early edition of the paper as soon as it appeared on Manhattan newsstands, which in those days was around 11pm. The pleasure of a really great story was usually mixed with envy, while the pleasure of a really awful one was pure and uncomplicated." There has always been competition in newsrooms but it now has a disturbingly self-seeking edge. The reporter who returns from an assignment with the considered advice that a story may be worth covering in future but is not worth writing yet is performing more of a service to publication and public than the one who creates a bogus conflict out of exaggeration and distortion – but there is no doubt about the one who will rise in the news desk's estimation. The emphasis of this ethos falls not on how well or badly a story serves an event, but how it serves one's career. Some journalists, Chris Masters has commented dryly, become "like jockeys who insist on riding nothing but the favourite. They approach every story calculating whether it might win them an award. They are not saying: 'How can I get to the bottom of this?' They are saying: 'How can I use this information to enhance my reputation?' " (If you become senior enough in a newspaper now, you don't even set foot in the newsroom: you become a 'contributor', filing from home. Of course, offering merely your work, and none of your influence, experience or example, 'contributor' is exactly what you are not.)
An emergent theory of media management sees the by-line as a sub-brand to the overall brand of the masthead. The relationship between journalist and publication now takes the form of a Faustian bargain: the journalist is allowed to develop his/her own reputation and visibility on the understanding that it enhances the value of his/her employer's media property. Notice how newspapers cover their industry's annual orgy of onanism, the Walkleys, proudly promoting their successful nominees. Good for us. Good for them. A great story these days is not a truly great story unless it is recognised, don't you know? Hurry up and fill out the entry form, will you?
TIT-FOR-TATISM LIKE THIS seems to have underlain journalism's most recent scandal: the rise and fall of Jack Kelley, star foreign correspondent of USA Today, revealed in March to have been a compulsive fantasist and plagiarist for the duration of his career. A report published by an independent investigatory commission depicts a spiral of deceit and self-deceit: the more Kelley lied, the better he became known, the more credit he reflected on USA Today, the more he was protected. Internal criticism was viewed as treason, on the grounds that by impugning him the critics damaged "the brand"; the newspaper's executives even used performance reviews to ensure silent obedience. This was not simply a case of a rogue journalist, but a rogue system. "Jack Kelley thrived as a dishonest journalist for a dozen years," says the report. "Every executive that served during the years he betrayed readers shares USA Today's embarrassment." Readers, indeed, are the very reason this pact for mutual parasitism between journalist and employer is so flawed. There are interests at stake other than the journalist's career and the media property's market value. So where does the public rank in the modern newspaper's priorities?
I still remember the very first time I heard the word "reader" dropped in a newspaper office; it was during my interview for a cadetship at The Age. All of 17, I was asked whether I had a view on how the newspaper could be improved. Momentarily at a loss, I suggested scrapping the section then called "Melbourne Living"; there never seemed anything worth reading in it. The panel – wise old heads – laughed indulgently. "You might think that," I was told, "but the readers like it" – so much, it turned out, that it wasn't so long before it had become two sections, "Home" and "Epicure". That was only the beginning. For 20 years, The Age has been dividing and combining so energetically that it sometimes resembles "The Daily Former Yugoslavia" – although it would be unfair to single it out because it is far from alone. Tabloids, too, have picked up the bug, subdividing like amoeba into chunks of health, food, travel, food, entertainment, food, more food and television, television, television. And I will wager that each and every initiative has been justified with a bromide about the "readers" liking it.
The inky density of hard news does, of course, benefit from leavening. As with so many features of the modern newspaper, the self-contained "lifestyle" supplement was pioneered by London's tabloid Daily Mirror. "Mirrorscope", a pull-out "paper-within-a-paper" lifestyle section, was conceived in the early 1960s. What's forgotten, ironically, is that Mirrorscope was a disaster; as Chris Horrie records in his new Mirror history,Tabloid Nation (Deutsch, 2003): "It was patronising and it irritated the readers, as though they were being told: 'This is the important bit – the rest, all the things you are actually interested in, is rubbish'." The Washington Post did better when it initiated its "Style" section in January 1969. It had until then, its famous editor Ben Bradlee recalls, been a weighty, rather ponderous paper: "There was no feature section really. No place for profiles of interesting people. No place for wit or humour. No place to look at social trends beyond the seasonal change of fashion. We covered television the way we covered congressional hearings, long on process, short on people, judgement and motive." It is the mix of features and fuzz in "Style" on which most such sections since have been unconsciously modelled.
By the 1990s, however, the section-making instinct had caught on to a degree that bordered on compulsion, and decisions were no longer being driven by the editorial departments of the newspaper, but by the boffins of advertising and marketing. A new executive layer established itself: the "publisher" blended corporate and creative responsibilities, which had previously mixed like oil and water. And a duality developed; like Plato's distinction between ideals and forms, there became readers and "readers". Real readers, of course, seldom know exactly what they want. Just as consumers struggle to articulate their future needs – their thinking tending simply to shinier, cheaper versions of what they already have – so readers imagine their media in terms of what already exists. What has emerged instead is the "reader", a product of marketing voodoo, onto whom is projected whatever is the latest vogueish social theory, and in which the faith is as obstinate as the faith in anything essentially phony tends to be.
It is easy enough to see how this happened. Journalists, frankly, have little contact with those who consume their work and are actually a little afraid of them – these mysterious, capricious folk, to be wooed with a mixture of gentle entreaties and outright bribes. They are, accordingly, acutely vulnerable to any clipboard-wielding charlatan who announces: "I know what the readers want!" Nature abhorring a vacuum, the place is soon filled with their received wisdom. The most startling feature of this genuflection to fad and fashion is that they are graven idols. Circulations are flat or falling. In pandering to "readers" who never existed, newspapers antagonised readers who did. But, of course, it was always a fake. When newspaper executives said "readers", they meant not readers but advertisers, whose loyalty was so much easier to win, whose needs were so much simpler to address, whose money was so much more congenial. The multiplication of sections has left the modern newspaper divided against itself – and it is getting worse. A recent wheeze at Fairfax has involved the consolidation of individual sections as stand-alone cost centres, their resources calibrated by the advertising revenue they can generate. The implications of this are obvious. Those sections whose content is most conducive to farming advertisements can expect to reap benefits in the form of bigger budgets, additional pages and staff. Those that fail will steadily atrophy and wither. The probable winners will be those dedicated to the extension of celebrity franchises. The likeliest losers will be the serious news and feature sections that embody, as Griffith REVIEW editor Julianne Schultz has written, the "journalism that enables the press to continue to claim a quasi-institutional status, unapologetically exercise influence and claim special privileges".
IN THE 1990S, the Balkanising of newspapersbegan infiltrating the news pages, too. A whole layer of management in the modern metropolitan daily is now dedicated to the production of "packages": slickly presented pages devoted to exploring a story or theme from every angle imaginable, whether this be a new tollway or a disgraced footballer. Never mind that many of these angles are so oblique as to add nothing to comprehension. In a straight fight, the priorities of the story will always lose out to the imperatives of presentation. The page must be made busy and cosmetically appealing: complex, studded with lists, digests, timelines, quotes in bold, reaction, reaction to the reaction, all of it superficially comprehensive and interconnected, like a Barry Jones diagram with pictures.
A torchbearer for this approach, and perhaps its ablest exponent, was Howell Raines while executive editor of The New York Times. In his watch, Raines perfected what was called the "flood the zone" strategy: smothering important stories with scores of reporters. In his recent 21,000-word mega culpa in The Atlantic, Raines contends that the newsroom's enhanced "competitive metabolism" was an antidote to "smug complacency"; he sought "a richer, deeper read and a more gratifying visual treat day after day". Raines's design had a certain epic grandeur. The New York Times during his regency was an architectural if not a journalistic triumph; the paper won prize after prize with monster specials such as "How Race is Lived in America". But they were secured at the cost of the newspaper's integrity. A kind of spurious activity for activity's sake developed. Journalists, famously, would write stories, then undertake "toe-touches": trips to specified destinations to give the impression that the reporters were filing from the field. For all the monomania of his autobiography, this is something Jayson Blair describes well. Over the period of a few months, Blair filed stories from 20 cities in six states – or claimed to have done so. And "flooding the zone" was honoured more often in the breach:
Howell wanted the paper to read as if the Times had been everywhere imaginable on any given day. National stories without datelines were frowned upon ... I had seen correspondents perform toe-touch and no-touch datelines, and watched some write stories hundreds of miles away from where they were supposed to have been. I had partaken in some element of these deceptions, ones that were wholeheartedly sanctioned by the newsroom in an effort to make the Times seem omnipresent.
No newspaper in Australia, thankfully, has been revealed as going to similar lengths, but the accent on the presentation of news grows broader every year. And it's a wonder we complain so bitterly about "spin" given that we tend to impart so much of our own. The urge to make the newspaper look attractive and impressive can hardly be deplored; the question, rather, is whether it has not become an end in itself, whether it is not corrupting the newspaper's principal purpose of reporting what happened. This is a demanding enough task at the best of times. Yet it seems, increasingly, a task we regard as beneath us, at least on its own. As The Age's veteran Canberra correspondent Michelle Grattan wrote recently: "Design is used to try to attract readers, especially the young, who want their newspapers to look more like magazines. It has become another tyranny on newspapers. The imperatives of design, sometimes in the hands of non-journalists, has complicated their construction and made deadlines more important than flexibility. They are often lacking in detail, and journalists lacking in expertise, just when it can be argued that many of the people who buy newspapers are likely to want more of it."
THERE IS A sound argument that newspapers should concern themselves with neither "readers" nor even readers. Early in my newspaper education, when I was seeking some guiding principles, I scarcely spent a better dollar than on a second-hand copy of the memoirs of the English journalist Claud Cockburn, with its timeless admonition: "An editor has no business to be worrying himself sick about what the public wants. He should be thinking about perfecting and producing what he wants and then making the public want it, too." David Astor, who as editor of the Observer from 1948 to 1975 virtually created the Sunday newspaper phenomenon in Britain, did so on the basis of no marketing intelligence at all. "I edit the Observer," he once explained to the Mirror's proprietor Cecil King, "for myself and my friends." Astor had a notion of what a newspaper could be and persuaded readers to share it.
Whether the prevailing print-media culture would be up to such a mark any longer, unfortunately, will probably remain a subject for speculation. Such an attitude depends on a breadth and independence of vision that the print media now positively discourages; we are now in the business of packaging slick, shiny similarity. And all the snappy presentation and artful crafting cannot quite obscure how spiritless, passionless, feeble and fainthearted the journalistic enterprise has become. It was always the jagged edges of journalism that made it interesting. We're now simply too polished for our own good. Former chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Authority David Flint recently made much of John Henningham's finding that most journalists responding to his poll professed to lean left on political and social issues, referring to it as the "revelation ... that your average journalist is not your average Australian." Quite why this was a revelation, or why the averageness of journalists was of such paramount importance, was unclear; I'd be in favour of journalists being as unaverage as possible. Flint might have been better advised to consider why a majority of journalists in the same survey classed themselves as professionals.
Journalism is in essence a very simple activity. It's a knack. The basics can be learned in weeks. One of its joys – or, at least, I used to think so – is that it takes all sorts. There are no real prerequisites for entry. You require no licence to practise. A degree, it is true, is now de rigueur, but it could be a degree in economics or science or law; and a degree in journalism doesn't get you a job as an economist or scientist or lawyer. Our real learning is informal. Our career planning is haphazard. Systems of supervision and accountability vary from place to place. Nor do we, as do most professionals, derive our livings directly from our clients – we are essentially indentured labour.
The mischievous might speculate that journalists enjoy being soi-disant professionals because it enriches their pretensions and empowers them to pay themselves more money. But this flies in the face of what they know about their industry, and has come at a cost to the qualities that make journalism so much fun: the freedom, the responsibility, the importance of curiosity, the insignificance of credentials, the pleasures of diversity, the strength from collaboration, the lofty ideals of public service, the feet-on-the-ground antipathy to bullshit. These are, of course, personal views, and can be dismissed as such. In some respects, too, as I've recorded here, journalism proved to have more limits than I had originally perceived. But the reasons I continue in the occupation remain the same as the reasons I started: because it does not share the rigidities, requirements and trappings of other jobs; because it offers something other than the desperate clambering after individual advancement, recognition and reward to be found elsewhere; because it's not something you go through the motions of for money.
The past 20 years in public life have been about the triumph of appearance, the evolution of subtle but sophisticated methods of making the prominent look better, smarter, richer, taller, more beautiful and more successful than they really are. We have not only abetted this process rather than policed it, we have participated in it: we've become an industry obsessed with how we present, and individuals preoccupied with how we appear. Trend spotters that we are, we should recognise the trends in our own craft before it is too late.