My old man’s drunker than a barrel full of monkeys… Assessing @SatPaper

There’s nothing new about the state of the Australian media.  It’s been in trouble for decades and we haven’t developed the conversation enough to work out what to do about it.  Australian society splits very neatly into those who engage with political gossip and those who have better things to do with their lives.  The number of people willing to pay for their political gossip is dwindling.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric about journalism hasn’t kept pace.  Journalists still tell us that they play an essential role in democratic society but aren’t able to offer any evidence to back up these grand claims.  A media company went on strike and most people outside the gossip-mongers didn’t notice.  The media makes significant demands on society (in the way of privileged accesses, special immunities, and unregulated social power) but is increasingly unable to show a return for these demands.  Politics is covered like celebrity reality TV.  Policy analysis (when undertaken) is vapid and shallow.  Journalists are increasingly indistinguishable from advocates when it comes to their pet causes.

And so it’s left to a few wealthy individuals to bankroll the system for the rest of us.

(Not just Murdoch.)

One of the success stories of Australian journalism has been Black Inc. Owned by kagillionaire property tycoon, Morry Schwarz, it has produced the (on balance) excellent Quarterly Essay series, as well as The Monthy and, since March 2014, The Saturday Paper.  QE supports long form opinion and investigation, and two out of every three is worth reading.  Some of them have even played a significant role in advancing the state of debate on a topic, or at least catalysing new discussions about the topic.  The Monthly‘s primary success is being able to provide a quality soft-left publication that hasn’t had to chase the support of conspiracy theorists and wholly disaffected.  It fills a gap on the left that Quadrant used to fill on the right (before it went completely clown town).

The Saturday Paper, on the other hand, has not been as obviously successful.

Why publish a weekly newspaper?

On the one hand, you might want to establish a journal of record.  Here are the significant events that occurred this week, with the benefit of calm, dispassionate hindsight.  Here are the stories that you need to know from the previous week that you might have missed.  Here are the stories from the previous week that you need to know in order to engage fully with the week ahead.

The Saturday Paper hasn’t really gone down this path.  Instead, it has tried to present three or four original stories based on current affairs similar to the content that you would see on a daily news website.  The length is a bit longer (which is not always a positive feature), but the content is broadly similar.  It also has a preference for human interest stories.  Instead of just delivering a story about a government’s policy, we are usually subjected to seven paragraphs of some hard luck story about an individual person who is affected by the policy.

And then there’s Mike Seccombe.  I’m not entirely sure what Seccombe’s brief is, but he often appears on the front page offering some doggerel mishmash of opinion, factoid, and smug.  Whenever intelligent people discuss The Saturday Paper, it is a mark of good manners to disregard Seccombe.  Ah, Seccombe, c’est comme ca.

Seccombe aside, the model is struggling.  The Saturday Paper can’t compete with cutting edge news like the websites because of the publication lag.  Instead of pushing the conversation forward, it looks backwards and attempts to reheat the souffle.  ‘Remember when you were interested in this story earlier this week?  Here’s a little bit more to that story!’

And the price is going up.  $3 at launch soon became $3.50, and now $3.80.  When I can get practically identical news content for free online, this is getting steep.  When I can get a broader range of stories from The Sydney Morning Herald for cheaper, this is definitely too step.  I really wouldn’t pay a dollar per story.

Perhaps the news wouldn’t be such a problem if the support acts were of a higher quality.  While there have been some exceptional comment pieces or special features, by and large the commentary sections of The Saturday Paper are the worst of mayonnaise and white bread fare.  I didn’t need a new media platform to give a voice to the likes of Paul Bongiorno, Richard Ackland, and Peter ‘George Pell is the victim of a show trial‘ Craven.  Its music writer was the lead singer from the Hoodoo Gurus.  When Ackland went on leave, Bob Ellis filed on his behalf.  These are people firmly stuck in yesterday’s commentary cycle; nothing new to say.

I am firmly of the belief that opinion writing is actually more important to democratic process than straight factual writing.  A weekly newspaper provides a platform for opinion pieces that set the agenda for the next seven days of public discussion.  The Saturday Paper frequently drops the ball in this regard.  Often, it drops the ball in shockingly counterproductive ways.  Its pieces on feminism are always unreadably bad, and all too often the presentation of the key issues becomes the subject of debate.  A good example of this was when a comment piece discussed entrenched misogyny and sexual abuse within the comedy circuit.  Instead of pushing a discussion about why misogyny and abuse is rife within the comedy circuit, the discussion never got further than questioning whether it was ethical to present somebody else’s story of abuse as a personal reflection piece.

The Saturday Paper is also prone to giving a soapbox to cranks.  Of all our contemporary politicians, Cory Bernardi should be an easy target.  I was once told that extremist Muslim groups have started redefining traditional Islam in terms of its opposition to Western liberal ideas: ‘Capitalist Christianity does X, so we traditional Muslims do not-X.’  Cory Bernardi is the extremist hate preacher of conservatism.  ‘Progressive liberals advocate X, so the silent majority of conservatives want not-X.’  This guy is basic.  He is a flim flam show of nonsense and it should not be difficult at all to engage with him to show that his ideas are shadow puppetry.  Instead, The Saturday Paper ran a piece by known crank Kate Doak that was so riddled with errors that The Saturday Paper had to retract it.

Given that these pieces are routinely clumsy, there must be some systemic reason behind it.  What is The Saturday Paper trying to achieve when it publishes these pieces?  How does The Saturday Paper decide which voices it is going to broadcast?  And when The Saturday Paper so consistently screws this up, why doesn’t it change its approach?

Many weeks, all these sins are forgiven by the time I reach Andrew McConnell’s food column.  The writing is often more delicious than the food.  Sometimes I feel like it’s an elaborate joke (green bean salad with pesto), but it’s usually worth the read.

With The Saturday Paper passing its second birthday, it’s worth asking if it is still on an upwards trajectory.  We have an interest in making sure that it succeeds.  If it fails, it will make it all the harder for the next generation of new media entrepreneurs to convince investors that we can make weekly newspapers work.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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