July 28, 2017

Rivers of gold

Don Bentley was one edition behind the times, lost in a world of newsprint and ink.

The term “new media” was as foreign to him as the name they now gave the swaying trams in Melbourne. What was it? Urban mass transport? Light-rail? He didn’t care, and he didn’t care when people he knew in journalism, those who had embraced these new ideas, spoke of “dead tree media”.

Newspapers could never die, they were dependable and certain like the wonderful old No. 35 trams that still plied a central circuit of Melbourne, the ones of wood and yellow paintwork, of leather straps and a strange pumping sound at each stop.

These trams were meant as a tourist attraction, for free, but Bentley always let the more modern trams pass to ride them, even if they tended to be overcrowded with excited visitors to the city, and rattled and vibrated. They were comfortable to Bentley in more ways than one.

And the same with the newspaper. The broadsheet ones might have been a little inconvenient on the tram, passengers wrestling to fold them, nudging people in the next seat, but everyone nudged everyone else with a newspaper on the tram. And once the wrestling was over, the paper neatly folded in quarters at the page being sought, everyone was happy.

That’s the way it had always been and Bentley thought that’s the way it would stay. True the Age, the newspaper Bentley bought each day in Hobart, had transformed to a tabloid on weekdays – a format making it easier to read on bus, tram and train – but it still had the same content, and he could still revel in its broadsheet acres at weekends when, in truth, Bentley only found time to read it from end to end, from front to back.

Bentley was not entirely opposed to progress, and perhaps the tabloid format seemed better suited to those modern, gleaming plastic mass transport units which seemed to Bentley to have more standing room and narrower seats.

On his most recent trip to Melbourne Bentley had stayed further out of the city, to give easier access to Melbourne airport from where he was seeing his son off for university studies in Britain, so Bentley was forced to spend a little more time on trams than he would normally. There, amid the clank of the tram bell and the gentle whir of modern, efficient motor and the wheeze of gently applied brakes, he saw for the first time this electronic media revolution everyone had been talking about for years, or at least became aware of it.

Gazing down the aisle at travellers young and old, after finishing reading his Age, Bentley realised that he was the only person among the 40 or so passengers in his carriage with a newspaper.

Most had smart phones, and they were busily tapping messages into them (texting he believed it was called) or scanning minute screens with deft swoops of the fingers, turning over page after page of brightly coloured images with hardly a glance. It occurred to Bentley the “swoop” movement was a kind of finger displacement activity, like rolling cigarettes without smoking them, or packing tobacco into a pipe which Bentley remembered from an earlier edition of his past.

Those without mobile phones had iPads or laptop computers. On Bentley’s trams it appeared everyone was doing it, at least the young.  And when he looked out of the window at tram stops, they all seemed to be doing it there, too.

Not a newspaper to be seen, Bentley stood alone.  A man on a tram with a newspaper, either opened or folded and tucked under an armpit, standing alone amid flashing and pulsating of screens, small and large. If not a precise metaphor, it formed an appropriate image of  Bentley. Hadn’t that been the way his friends, his journalist colleagues, had viewed him for years, especially as it was only in recent months he had bothered to get a mobile phone, the cheapest one he could find which merely enabled him to speak and send messages. He didn’t need to Google on the run, or use an app to see where Saturn was in the sky.

The trip to Melbourne had had an added significance for Bentley, one which would not occur to him until he had got there, and had safely put his son on a plane to London.

Melbourne seemed for once strangely familiar. Bentley had never worked there, been part of its hustle and bustle. He had wanted to join the Age but had come too late to Australia from his native Britain and found jobs for locals, let alone foreigners, were vanishing by the day.  Instead he had had to settle for Hobart.

All the same there was something in the air in Melbourne, a tingling sense of déjà vu.  The lanes with coffee shops between Flinders Street station and the shopping district appeared cosy and welcoming, like the old trams; full of friendly faces and optimism. The winter was gone, and in the first week of September Melbourne was experiencing the first warm day of the new season, although the sky overhead was dull and grey.

To Bentley it was like a typical English day in September. Similar weather conditions, and mood, had converged at different ends of the world, blurring the northern autumn with the approach of spring in the southern hemisphere.

Bentley entered the Journal coffee shop, an establishment in a former library that contained biblio-remnants within its Victorian gothic walls. Coffee and cake was taken on stout wooden benches, under low, swaying light fittings that served as both sources of light and hanging bookcases with yellow strained-glass bookmark ends.  Bentley had been taken back to the Fleet Street of the 1960s, where he walked tight, cobbled lanes between main thoroughfares in search of old-style coffee houses that had survived from the days of Dr Samuel Johnson, for lunch and the study of Pitman shorthand.

All those years ago Bentley had been employed as a 17-year-old messenger boy for a public relations company, with dreams of finally working in those newspaper offices where he daily delivered press releases and shiny black-and-white photographs.

Television had arrived a decade previously, the new electronic wonder after the radio, but no one talked then of the total demise of newspapers, of dead-tree media, even if it was accepted that the evening newspapers, those most undercut by the evening television news, would be in for a rocky ride.

Sipping coffee, after a tram ride that sort of confirmed what Bentley’s colleagues had been saying all these years, Bentley could only be grateful he knew the passion of his life,  his true love, the newspaper, in her prime; voluptuous and beautiful.

In those early days, mingling with public relations men who had turned their backs on the newspaper industry for more generous salaries and weekends and public holidays free of shift work, Bentley had been excited to plug into the culture of the journalist. They may have joined the “dark side”, as Bentley would later learn newspaper journalists described the public relations business, but all the same Bentley enjoyed being exposed to this array of bizarre and unconventional people, with bizarre and unconventional stories, this strange clan, this tribe that practised the ritual that had at its heart the mystical, magical thing called “news”.

A newspaper, he was told then by an old timer, was like a box of chocolates or, at the top end of the scale, a Fortnum and Mason hamper. It contained all sorts of delights, which you explored layer by layer, item by item. The notion of the box of chocolates or hamper never left Bentley, and when people asked him to describe his craft, his trade and the product that it produced he would talk of the tabloid Daily Mirror being a box of Rose’s milk tray, or The Times being a hamper with caviar and champagne.

Now, on a modern tram, the No. 96, that ran on tracks that once formed the branch line from Flingers Street to St Kilda, a tram in a livery of black and yellow stripes called the “Bumble-Bee”, light-rail, Bentley at least could see the laptop, the iPad, the smartphone in the context of what had been the newspaper. Across from him, a young Asian woman had opened the lid of her laptop, a shiny thin box, and with the press of a button and the flick of a finger, had opened up a box of chocolates, the shiny wrappers lighting up her face.

The newspaper had been a package, containing not just news but everything a reader would need to navigate the day. There was not just hard news, but background stories and what people in the journalist trade called “think” or comment pieces. There were editorials, letters to the editor, and then features, and women’s pages and sport. There were TV guides, horse racing guides, and even guides for specific events so readers could plan ahead.

The thin black box on the Asian young lady’s lap had all these things and more.

It was silly of Bentley not to have realised this before, but it took a ride on the gleaming four-car Bumble-Bee for it finally to sink in.

Bentley had argued for the survival of newspapers, from the pointless point of view that they were too precious, especially for democracy, to fail. But even democracy, Bentley was to concede, needed a business plan.

Bentley had always held strong views about his beloved newspapers, in a field he had ploughed for half a century, save for a three-year period working in broadcasting for the BBC. A world of journalism without the smell of newsprint and ink and, in the very old days, the lead used in the typesetting process, was not to Bentley’s liking.

Bentley loved newspapers and it hurt him deeply when he saw the latest circulation figures of all newspapers registering staggering declines but he still refused to agree with what seemed a majority of people, including both readers and journalists, who said the newspaper was doomed.

The decline of newspapers had to be viewed in perspective. The newspapers of the past had produced “rivers of gold” –  as  the classified advertising content of the Age and Sydney Morning Herald was once described – and owners had grown fat on their profits.

The proprietors now expected the same profits in changing circumstances. Bentley was always amused to read in the business pages that companies had made a “loss” in the financial year, when in fact their profits were merely down on the previous year’s.

For newspapers to survive, and for owners not to panic, it might be a question of lowering expectations, settling for a lesser profit and trimming expenditures, and staff, to compensate.

One cost-cutting measure had been to outsource editing, and although this had been strongly resisted by the journalist fraternity – especially sub-editors losing well-paid jobs in newspapers – by some strange irony it had helped maintain standards of editing. The journalists now working for the company with the editing contract were by and large the very journalists who had taken redundancy payments. Many of them were now working from home, working hours that suited them for salaries which compared with those that had been paid by the newspapers, but without fringe benefits like paid holiday and sick leave.

Looking at the magic black boxes held by the passengers on the trams, Bentley tried to determine if any were reading the online editions of the city newspapers. Some were. And what were they reading? It might not be the TV guide – so easy to download or read from a  website – but the one devoted to racing seemed to be holdings its own, a turf guide which punters still preferred to take out of the newspaper, roll up and put it in their pockets to take to the Tote or to the races themselves.

The racing guide might still be helping a newspaper maintain its circulation, but how long before such information, perhaps under voice control, was applied to a mobile phone?

No, Bentley said to himself on the 96 tram, newspapers of the future should concentrate on their specific brand, their writing and writers, their comment and opinion and the voice they gave readers on the letters’ pages.

The internet now covered the popular landscape with sites devoted to showbiz news, and shock news, but there was still room for newspapers to take the high ground.

Three hundred years of newspaper tradition and heritage was too precious to be thrown away, cast aside – dare Bentley say it – like yesterday’s newspaper.

That tradition might not now include the variety of views that had once been the domain of newspapers, but there was still room for fine writing and the standards of journalism that came with years of training and scholarship.

Bentley had been excited initially by the advent of the internet, and the voice it gave citizens outside the diminishing number of newspapers. He had seen the internet as the new Grub Street, the area of backstreet printers in London that in the early 19th century spawned independent newspapers and pamphlets, and much fine literature, before mass circulation newspapers began to be centred on Fleet Street.

What hurt Bentley most when he considered the new journalism of the internet was its lack of emphasis on editing, on good grammar and respect for the English language, and its often slapdash attitude to accuracy. Bentley also had an issue with the length of internet stories. The economy of space on newspapers – the straitjacket presented by its layout – had forced journalists to say what they had to say in a clear and concise manner, but now an internet report could run on forever.

The internet sites also lacked accountability. This might be the age of the citizen journalist, but who set the standards for citizen journalism? Who decided what was fair comment, and what was a rant?  How were citizen journalists trained, and where were the mentors, the craggy avuncular figures who prowled newsrooms of old, teaching cadets about balance and the right of reply, and how to hold their drink.

It wasn’t perfect in the heyday of newspapers. Proprietors imposed their political views on their publications, reporters bent facts to improve a story, but there was still a measure of control, and most of all the readers demanded it. They demanded good grammar and they demanded accuracy, it was part of the brand. And the sheer variety of newspapers, along with the variety of news contained within their pages, ensured that, overall, they represented all shades of political views and opinions.

Bentley had started the day in pessimistic mood, riding the tram on a journey to the past. After a few stops, however, the sun broke through the cloudy, grey skies and Bentley realised he had not returned to the London of the 1960s to lament the past.  He was in Melbourne in the 21st century among people prepared to fight for their newspapers of old and all they represented. Indeed newspapers might rise again in the internet age through the anarchic political and economic freedoms represented by the new media.

The newspaper was here to stay, and a newsstand on Collins Street converted to a flower stall would not convince Bentley otherwise.

 

 

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