Tuesday, June 19, 2012

so long and thanks for all the chips

In the wake of Fairfax’s death knell announcement yesterday Catherine Deveney posted an article she wrote while a columnist for The Age in 2008. She wrote about the company’s short-sightedness for slashing hundreds of jobs and putting profits ahead of quality.

They didn’t publish it.

Since I have been writing for The Age I have been astonished and heartwarmed by the level of pride and passion that people have who work for this paper.  And the loyalty of the readers. Readers who are disappointed in the quality or content or feel let down by editorial direction are vocal, noisy and as wounded as a jilted lover.

I was quite shocked by my own reaction to the possible demise of The Age:  broadsheet or tabloid, online or printed, paywall or not – I really didn’t care. Why? Because like the jilted lover, since Fairfax started savaging staff numbers a few years ago, when Deveney first wrote the piece, my affair with The Age has been dying a slow death.

The Age has been home to some great journalists, cartoonists and columnists, and as Deveney says many have done so with pride and passion. But perhaps in recent years there’s been a bit of smugness as well. The paper has been loosing its edge. I’d include the sacking of Deveney in their strategy to play it safe. She’s loud, offensive and brash. This is how she got the job in the first place, and articles that got spiked like this one were no doubt part of the reason she lost it.

Instead of a once a week dose of the Dev, there’s a daily lashing of anti-Gillard vitriol from Michelle Grattan. I loved Grattan when she was the darling of the ABC, but in her new home I’m not sure if her opinions have morphed or she’s become a mouthpiece for her new employer. Whatever, her political column has become rather tedious in it’s predictability.

Then there’s another ABC gem turned Fairfax columnist, Annabel Crabb. I love her tweets, her work on The Drum is insightful but the columns in the Sunday Age are frippery, downplaying her innate intelligence.

I’ve never had the time to read a daily paper. To be honest, I hyperventilate at the trees killed, just to clutter my house unread. So that left the weekend papers, still panic-attack worthy for the reams of unopened paper, but a joy to chew over slowly with brunch. For almost two years this old habit has become a rarity. Time is not the issue, quality is.

So for the headlines and the odd article I, like many others, migrated to The Age online. I can’t compare the content to the print edition but the subediting is in a word – woeful. Some days on twitter reporting grammatical, or factual, errors in Fairfax are almost a meme. And those jilted Age lovers are mean when they’ve been done wrong.

My lack of emotion at considering Melbourne life without The Age as we know it may have a lot to do with not being born in this city. I didn’t grow up with the paper, it wasn’t a matter of making my allegiance to supposedly quality journalism, over it’s opponent The Hun (you’ve got to admit, if that was the only competition it set the bar pretty low). Like choosing a football team, Melbournians take sides for life. Even if they've backed a dud.

I feel great sorrow for the printers who will be loosing their livelihood, the sub editors and graphic designers who’ve already been showen the door and the journalists nervously waiting to find out if they’ll have a job. But like in any relationship that goes sour, Fairfax you took me for granted and I found love elsewhere. My news reading has become increasingly non-monogamous. Depending on my mood it ranges from The Conversation, Crikey and the ABC, to Al Jazeera and The Guardian. If I watch the news it’s SBS, when I listen more often than not it’s the BBC World Service. And then there are blogs. You never know, if our local paper becomes a shadow of its former self or lost in the Siberia of pay-per-view it may reinvigorate the political blogging scene. This excellent piece on the HSU in Wixxyleaks last month being a good example of kind of investigative journalism we weren't reading in our dailies.

News delivery has changed. Fairfax has lagged behind in this revolution. They now have to earn their place in the altered media landscape. Unfortunately if they think they can still play on loyalty and quality journalism, they may find they’ve left it a little too late.

Deveney was prophetic when she penned her closing paragraph all those years ago.

Sure, Fairfax owns this newspaper.  But it belongs to us.  The readers and the people who make this paper.  Cherish it and protect it because when you start dismantling things nut-by-nut, bolt-by-bolt, screw-by-screw it can be impossible to put it back together again.  Make your voices heard about how you want to digest your news, your culture, your sport and your commentary. Because if you don’t you may end up with a newspaper outsourced to India and delivered by text to your mobile phone.  And then how will you be able to cut a Leunig cartoon out and stick it on your fridge?

I have faith that Leunig will find a forum to be published for as long as he can wield his wit in ink. The Age however, with it’s subediting outsourced to cheaper shores, centralized content and hotly anticipated paywall, may not be so lucky.

Update 22.6.12: An article in Mumbrella on how the PR world is viewing the axing of journos and subbies at Fairfax (and now News Limited) as an opportunity to get more press releases for their clients published as articles. Tina Alldis, the bright young thing who penned the piece, gets a lashing in the comments for badly timed and ill toned piece. However as one commenter stated, "PRs getting into newspapers is one of the reasons they’ve lost the trust of their audiences…"

On the upside, the piece has shone a light on the grubby world of PR generated "journalism" and has been almost as successful as #qantasluxury in attracting the wrong kind of attention. Read Hootville's take on it  for a similar but slightly different view. Was Tina just voicing what both industries know already?

Of course, by the end of the day Tina's employers were in full damage control, with an apology at the end of the Mumbrella article. Though sorry for the offense caused by their employee, the agency still defended her as a 'consummate professional '. So I guess, unlike many on the  Fairfax and News Limited payroll, she's not destined to explore the exciting opportunities of the dole queue anytime soon.

Update 5.7.12: Classic Leunig c1999, the signposts have been there all along as to the direction of cutting edge journalism in this country. The irony being it was originally published in The Age.

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Fairfax in free fall: keep calm and occupy small street

High Street, Northcote. So much art on the streets right now. Don't miss it!

small works small spaces

Public Service Announcement: be on the lookout out for monsters of Northcote, if you spot one in the wild, report it

high views

My favourite piece: "Cook and his party encounter a family of plumed kangaroos" by Sharon West. Extra points to Brown & Bunting for their artistic integration of the diorama in their window display.

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Future Library Service

We interrupt this catalogue of grief with a foray into a different kind of underworld and a conversation with a stranger.

Entering the underpass from Flinders Street, two besuited 30-somethings rushed past, animated, slightly mocking, speaking sentences with capitals and exclamation marks.

“Did you see Her!”


“What was she Doing!?”

(More laughter)


I guessed that meant there was something happening in the vitrine.

And also guessed these guys weren’t art goers.

In the few seconds it took for me to descend and the hapless blokes to ascend, I knew I was in for a treat.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

In the beautiful curved corner display case, at the Platform Contemporary Art Space that doubles as a commuter underpass, sat a woman reading a book in a beautifully constructed installation.

Used books line a shelf, clear plastic toothbrushes twinkle like a deconstructed chandelier, a classic green library lamp glows warmly and modern construction materials lurk beneath a veneer of exquisite mock parquetry.

The Future Library Service is open and the librarian is in.

After a lovely chat with the artist, Sonja Hornung, the intent behind the piece opened before me. The accompanying website goes way beyond the usual artist statement. While The Future Library Service is a collection of 100 books about the future from the past, the intricately documented digital catalogue is also a joy to explore.

The cataloguing is a librarian’s wet dream, with extensive annotations and a numbering system that goes way beyond Dewey’s wildest expectations.

How does your call-number system work?

The books are physically ordered on the basis of how yellow their pages are, beginning with very white and moving through to very yellow. They are then allocated a call number beginning with the Dewey Decimal prefix 125. Formally, this number is now unassigned, but used to be assigned to books catalogued under “infinity”.

The books are also available for loan.

Don’t be intimidated. The exhibition is only on until the 29th June.  Pop in, this may be your last chance to borrow a book, with a stamp instead of a beep.

Explore the Future Library Service.

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