The crumbling estate
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 25: After the Crisis
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Geoffrey Barker
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Geoffrey Barker's biography and other articles by this writer
Nearly fifty years ago I walked into the Dickensian editorial offices of The Age in Collins Street, Melbourne, to start a cadetship in journalism. Old men in green eyeshades sat around a horseshoe-shaped subeditors' table shuffling papers and grumbling. Rowdy correspondents, full of beer and arrogance, scuffled for the few broken typewriters available in the reporters' room.
The place was worn and grubby, the air full of shouts and curses and cigarette smoke. I was assigned the daily Shipping Movements list (Due Today, Due Tomorrow, Sailing Today, Sailing Tomorrow, In Port) and the Weather, Mails and Train Times. From that first morning I was captured by the idea of unearthing, explaining and commenting on the affairs of the day.
I soon advanced to reporting inquests in the Coroner's Court, where matters of life and death, public reputation and lethal crime were presided over by the bespectacled coroner, Harry Pascoe, SM, and where sadistic coppers in the morgue behind the court delighted in showing virgin reporters their chilled clientele stretched out naked on gurneys with labels tied to their toes. It was a humbling and horrifying start for an innocent working-class lad. But we somehow learned to care about the issues of the day and about the words we wrote to report them, and we shared a naive belief in the value of free and independent journalism in a democratic society.
A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO I retired from the Canberra bureau of the Australian Financial Review. I had no regrets – I had run a long and enjoyable race. I had been a reporter, feature writer, leader writer, news executive, political columnist, and a correspondent in Europe and the United States. I had managed to squeeze in a degree in philosophy in my spare time (which the old sweats insisted would ruin me as a journalist). I had covered the Cold War and hot wars in Northern Ireland and southern Africa, and the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the fall of the Soviet Union. I had been with Ronald Reagan in Berlin when he called on Mikhail Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall'. And I had spent my later years in Canberra, writing on defence and foreign policy for the Australian Financial Review. The paper has generously allowed me to continue to write a fortnightly column and other occasional pieces.
YET, DESPITE ALL MY positive experiences, I believe I am witnessing the long, slow death of Australian newspaper journalism. The craft is in decline; it is being tamed, shackled, diminished. I am conscious that old men tend to the view that things ain't what they used to be, that all around them is decay and destruction. That is not my opinion. There is much about Australian journalists and journalism that remains lively and creative, witty and informative; most Australian newspapers still do a creditable job and much of the new online journalism is effective, if handled with care.
But now-established trends are throttling the life, authority and influence out of newspapers. Circulations are falling, at best stalling; newspapers are shrinking or, in the US, going online; profits are disappearing as advertisers desert newspapers for other media. It is often said that these trends reflect changes in education and the wider sources of information now available on TV, radio and the internet, all of which are quicker and easier to consume than newspapers. But it is worth asking whether the declines in circulation and revenue result partly from decisions by companies' managers who, desperate to ensure newspapers' survival, have embraced a range of practices damaging to the craft of journalism.