It was my birthday earlier in the week, not a happy anniversary if truth be told, despite the best wishes of many old friends whose jolly texts and cards and Facebook greetings focused on the bright side of an innings that, if life were a cricket match, would now see a shortish procession of wobbly tail-enders taking the crease. That mailbag of best wishes wasn’t what dimmed my candles, however; rather, it was that day’s edition of The Age, a newspaper which is always depressing for the leaden predictability of its un-subbed arrogance and incompetence but seemed even more so on the day my latest circuit of the sun came to an end.
It was the picture bylines that did it, made me think of rope, rafter and kicking a chair out from under. I wrote for the Sunday Age for more than a decade from America, filing a weekly column, and was never ashamed to do so. The paper was on the left, certainly, but a cadre of senior hands on the editorial tiller kept the sheets trimmed and stopped it swamping on the port beam, which is what senior hands are supposed to do. One of the news business’ little secrets is that papers, radio newsrooms, TV and all the rest are these days infested with newly credentialed youths, cheap to hire, whose post-adolescent passions and politics can cloud the collective judgement. When everyone on the editorial floor is fresh from uni, regards Tony Abbott as Satan’s understudy, believes with unquestioning sincerity that the planet has never been hotter and sees the evil of Rupert Murdoch’s horny claws in, well, everything, it is difficult not to think the entire rest of the world sees things in a likewise light.
That’s why editors make the big money, or did. They curb the kiddies’ worse impulses, put the brake of broader experience on the intoxicating innocence of youthful zeal. When, for example, an ardent warmist files a stenographic exercise asserting Australia has never, ever been hotter and quoting for its sources grant-fattened climate-change careerists, your seasoned editor demands that comment be sought from an authority without a barrow to push. An even sharper editor might be aware that the warmists in question had to withdraw a paper due to a slather of silly, basic oversights and errors and, therefore, every subsequent squirt of alarmist piffle needs be taken with a healthy dash of salt.
But those editors are all gone. At Fairfax Media, the teacher has left the room, sent packing to save money, and youngsters control the blackboard. Of this there can be no doubt. On page after page of my birthday Age, the picture bylines were a cavalcade of overgrown little leaguers, their eager and trusting faces evoking nothing so much as a book of testimonials to the virtues of Clearasil. If that suggests the absence of discipline and authority, what appeared yesterday on The Age’s home page confirmed it absolutely.
Other than asserting that the Prime Minister deserves a good snotting, what does it mean? There is no attribution, nothing to suggest the recommended blow is the opinion of someone worth quoting – you know, the opposition leader, for example, which would have made the call to fisticuffs news indeed. Could it be the voice of The Age itself? Because the paper’s homepage gave no hint as to who might be prescribing violence against the nation’s elected leader, it was impossible not take the headline item’s placement “above the fold”, where the big stories run, as anything other than an expression of two-fisted editorial endorsement. Is Fairfax now so bereft of adult supervision that the hive mind’s spotty drones enjoy free rein to display whatever nasty tosh appeals only to their hipster mates?
Apparently so, because clicking through to the story revealed that “Dear Tony, wipe that shit-eating grin off your punchable face” is the title of a noisy “song” by a rock group that goes by the name of the Smith Street Band. As their own web site reveals, the Smith Streeters have a lot of hair and tattoos, make a dreadful din and subscribe to what we can only conclude is the hatred of Abbott shared by all in The Age newsroom. Hence the prominence and implicit editorial endorsement given to what would otherwise be the atonal thrashings of unwashed layabouts.
No doubt Greg Hywood, Fairfax Media’s CEO, could explain how and why the paper has re-positioned itself to woo the youth market. Equally certain, were he to be asked, would be the hand-on-heart denial that his board is doing everything it can to make The Age such a hopeless case, such a lost cause and parody of the decent newspaper it once was, that the money-saving option of shuttering its ink-and-paper editions is the only choice. In a city of more than four million, The Age sells a mere half-a-truckload more than 100,000 daily copies, which is pitiful. Its up-market display advertisers have fled, and for good reason: if you are a Toorak Road merchant, do you want the Smith Street Band and its foul-mouthed admirers for customers?
The future is digital, as shareholders at Fairfax Media’s annual general meetings are inevitably assured, and if the company is to move with the times those online initiatives are vital. This may well be true, but as a game plan it is hard to reconcile with the limp web efforts of the Australian Financial Review whose remaining readers, one would imagine, are the well-heeled sorts former advertisers might like to reach. Even tougher to figure is that, where Fairfax Media has gone hard on the web, the result is Daily Life, where a coven of bristling and unpleasant women rant about the West’s “rape culture” and spot patriarchal conspiracy in everything from weight-loss programs to, yes, the wickedness of Tony Abbott. For variety, they share those warm moments when mother and daughter inspect each other’s vaginas, thereby foiling the phallocratic oppressors who deny “women control and enjoyment of their own bodies.” That we see few ads for vendors of mirrors in The Age should come as no surprise.
If Fairfax is pinning its hope of survival on youthful writers and readers, there is a downside which the paper’s editor, Andrew Holden, would surely have noticed yesterday, when the Department of Public Prosecutions announced that it would not be proceeding with charges in the matter of an Age reporter’s stolen voice recorder. Lost at a state Labor conference, it contained an off-the-record chat between the reporter and Ted Baillieu in which the ousted Premier was less than complimentary about party colleagues. Somehow — the denials are ubiquitous — the audio was circulated widely and The Age, which should not have been taping the conversation in the first place, demanded action and answers.
Well yesterday it got an answer, one that could not have been more blunt in its dismissal of The Age’s worth, influence and relevance: Yawn. Go away, Mr Holden. Your pitiful rag just isn’t worth taking seriously anymore. We won’t be proceeding so, as we said earlier, drop dead.
Can anyone old enough to remember the Age of old, when real editors were at the helm, imagine such a dismissive response being directed at, say, Graham Perkin?
But not to worry. Somewhere in a Melbourne tattoo parlour there might just be a hipster having himself illuminated with a picture of Tony Abbott stomping on refugee babies. No need to look any further for tomorrow’s front-page lead.
Birthdays can be depressing, and actuarially speaking I’m probably good for quite a few more rounds of those unwanted best wishes. The Age should be so lucky.
Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online
UPDATE: More at this from Tim Blair, who notes that the same band and its song is also being promoted by the ABC.