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STOP PRESS: Publish pap and perish fast

STOP PRESS

Publish pap and perish fast


by Duncan Graham

I’ve cancelled our subscription to The Dominion Post.

If our household was a DHB this would have been recorded as a sentinel event, for all my life opening the paper has been the key to starting the day, as critical as pouring milk on muesli or spooning beans on toast.

The habit had been established long before I was born. I may have been conceived when the Sunday supplements had been exhausted. Earliest memories of breakfast had dad in pyjamas with the Daily Telegraph, coming home with The Evening Standard. Teenage years were Daily Express along with the Beatles.

I started work on The West Australian, later with the late National Times and Melbourne’s The Age. Newspapers have been integral to my life. I love them and breaking the ritual is like kicking out a child.

The woman who took my cancel order indifferently asked why. “The paper has got too thin - it’s no longer value for money.”

“Financial,” she replied, ticking the REASONS box.

No, not financial, though the monthly saving of $34.40 will help pay for 2.5 kilos of crumbly cheddar. The reasons are deeper and more complex.

I’ve turned a page and dumped the paper because I’m no longer interested in turning pages of trivia in search of a gem.

The Dom Post has some outstanding photographers, good writers and occasional scoops of substance – though not enough. It fills the space between the ads with minor overwritten crime and pads the rest with syndicated copy, travel and TV columns post telecast. The columnists scratching for scraps from the week’s news are predictable, seldom stretching themselves – or their readers.

The Dom is not alone. The NZ Herald stumbles down the same road, ignoring the NO EXIT signs. So do the papers in Oz.

Newspapers that no longer challenge their readers have lost the plot.

In the allegedly good old days nervous management continually reassured employees that papers would survive despite TV. Then they said the same thing about the Internet.

Workers whose careers depended on print conspired to maintain the myth even as afternoon mastheads folded, suburban throwaways contracted, and valuable staffers were seduced by the golden but shallow pleasures of PR. Local stories were killed to fit wire copy and great ideas spiked lest the ever-shrinking budget shrivelled further.

The waterboard questioning and acidic scepticism we used on duplicitous politicians and devious businesses were never applied to our own bosses as they assured us all was well – even when the signs of terminal sickness were so obvious.

At the end of our shifts we looked elsewhere while passing the piles of unsold papers; we excused our relatives, friends and neighbours who hadn’t seen our exclusives but were up to date on TV presenters’ lifestyles; we ignored commuters on busses and trains plugged into their compact I- pods, not battling to fold a broadsheet.

As the subs’ desk thinned we dismissed the typos, the garrotted syntax, duplicate stories, flawed research and missed links by falling back on the old cliché about the pressure of deadlines.

Like global warnings and rising sea levels we ignored the obvious.

In NZ the clearest signs came when Fairfax spent $700 million on Trade Me rather than the paper. When the directors realised that the print rivers of gold were running dry the message wasn’t classified.

Papers dumbed down, and the figures were blatantly distorted. Ill-defined readers, not audited sales. Valuable space taken up by contests, in-house ads and oversize photos of alleged stars supplied by agencies that also fixed the interviews, hagiographies essential.

And the people pushing these insults were our former colleagues now awash in cash and driving their own company cars, not squabbling over petrol vouchers and taxi chits.

It’s taken a long time and much personal distress to cancel our sub and admit we should have done so long ago when the younger generation first gave old media the flick. Instead of scrabbling for the flat plastic bag among the saturated agapanthus as horizontal rain rips through Cook Strait, I’ll stay inside and mouse across the world’s top news and comment sites. For the local stuff I’ll rely on Radio NZ to provide audio versions of the print news that it shamelessly pursues.

At a click I can by pass the hand-me-down fillers and infopap to seek what I really want to read.

I could rabbit on about recycling and conserving the forests, but such rationalising would be a misspeak, as Mrs Clinton would say.

There will be adjustments: Ensuring the coffee doesn’t muck-up the motherboard is going to take some care. The luxury of wrapping rubbish in the business pages will have to go. At least I can peep over the screen and smile at my beloved beheading her boiled eggs. How many relationships have been destroyed by a tabloid at the table?

It’s taken a long time to decide that the Dom Post divorce was necessary, made easier by occasional separations when the presses failed or the distributor stuffed up deliveries. Like business trips alone, that’s when you discover you can live without your partner.

A good read needs no fancy packaging, and when I click on the stories I want the screen usually shows nothing but text.

Newspapers everywhere seem to have forgotten that they are all about words. Imaginative layouts, great graphics and sparkling pix can lift the page, but they can’t resurrect prose that comes from dead minds employed by a miserly and frightened business that’s forgotten the driving principle of journalism – robust disclosure and insightful analysis.

*************

Duncan Graham is a former Australian Journalist now living in Wellington. See http://www.indonesianow.blogspot.com.

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