‘You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.’
William Randolph Hearst
For three years I lived in Perth, Western Australia; for three years I discovered that, despite my best efforts to the contrary, if one wished to read a paper, one had better order a rather strong coffee to wash the taste of Murdoch from one’s mouth. These days, it is much harder to track precisely where the empire’s assets are hidden; the whole structure is a strewn waste, intelligible only to the patent hoarders and notaries whose sole work is to conceal the true nature of the company.
Thankfully, News Limited publishes one fine broadsheet, The Australian, available nationally. However, the idea that I might only be ever able to read The Australian in perpetuity was offensive to my gentility, so I decided to broaden my horizons. Living in Melbourne, a small reading selection had never been a problem, but now that I was on the other side of the world, I was bound to see a great deal less representation on the news-stand. Financial Review publishes nationally, but does not always find its way onto cafe tables. So does Guardian Weekly; but it is expensive, and niche, because most people do not move offline with it. Far too late in my tenure I discovered The Saturday Paper, after being a long time fan of The Monthly. It was the second opinion I had been looking for.
But the point of broader concern my whole time in that city was the fact that I even had to go looking. One cannot triangulate much with a single point of focus. It was always my firm belief that such a thing was true, and my seance over the Ghan line proved it, to the extent that one can feel a certain thing to be true. As I am part of a certain generation, being one of those who read from the page, I am still at odds with reading from a screen. So whilst I am a long time New York Times subscriber, it is not something I can safely say constitutes my finest reading experience. I put up with it, but I’d rather hold the paper. Suffice to say my first trip to New York will be magical for the least interesting reason, but to each their own.
Let’s not second the truth – the media is powerful, no matter how many stories one hears of lay-offs and budget cuts. Without a dedicated curatorial effort, the noise of the internet, while vast, would fail to have any meaningful effect. People would retreat into their enclaves and bunkhouses, and the liquid networks of inter-dependency would crumble in a matter of weeks. It would be the equivalent of feudal territorial bargaining, played out on the information stage. In much the same way that those networks would stop making sense without curatorial effort, so too would the network of media information fail to be critical and stringent without competition and difference.
One can see it in the real world. One needs only to look at the media of Japan, whose English language mouthpiece reads more like a newsletter for the Utopia. Their national media fares little better. Or the media of any state with any repression whatever – where journalism will either not exist, or be so useless as to might as well not exist. And although being histrionic about dictatorial methods is not really particularly useful to a conversation whose subject is Australia, it is important to remember what happens in the absence of normality.
At the present, Australia only really has two competing masthead publishers. Yes, there is a great deal of competition online, as will be mentioned below. But in every capital city, your options belong to Murdoch or Fairfax. Murdoch tends to do slightly better in print, with some tens of thousands more across the board, but the in the case of their national papers – the aforementioned Australian and Financial Review – the former outshines the latter considerably. During the week the Fin does little over half of the business, and on the weekend, one sixth; which better resembles The Saturday Paper, a publication whose outlook could charitably be described as niche.
For those who do not feel the need to dig into a thick slab of paper, the online options are a great deal more vast, but infinitely more problematic. A quick analysis on the sort of links that people choose to post on Facebook could best be described as non-sources. The Daily Mail, too, which runs an Australian operation, also doesn’t factor in to total print readership. Its reach is gigantic, and its scope is slight enough that one could breathe nearby and have every particle of oxygen miss the substance of the publication.
But the xenophobic, homophobic, plainly insultingly sexist pages of the Mail still retain their impact. Reading them, one is reminded that, yes, the operation is able to continue for a reason, and the reason is that staggering numbers of people actually read it. Several are even capable of reading, which is the most surprising aspect of that thought.
And the Australian bureau of the Huffington Post, NYT, Guardian, and the splinter content websites like Buzzfeed, Pedestrian and Mammamia have made it easier than ever before to access content that is dense and thorough, in the case of the former, and concise and palatable, in the case of the latter. The apocalypse is not yet at our doorstep (even though you may colour me infinitely worried), and the walls will not come crashing down tomorrow. Yes, the shysters are hard at work, and creating more risible content than ever. But good people are reporting the news, and some of them are even adding to the national conversation in a rather dignified manner.
A quick and easy glance at the pages of a website cannot ever match the incisive, slow accretion that is possible to affect with a newspaper or other physical publication. The internet is infinitely distracting, with tangential thoughts living in the form of new tabs and increasingly rapid, endorphin boosting content. With a paper, your thoughts cannot go anywhere; you must answer them, calmly, within the space of your mind. Tangents have room to breathe, the ontological implications of an article may wander, be scattered, and then resolved in the calm and the peace you have created. The digital world has done phenomenal things for the spread of information. It has also done terrible, irreversible things. It has made people less stringent, less meditative, and less patient. People are receiving more information than ever before, and they even have parallel access to the world’s greatest encyclopedia while they do it – the internet is an astonishing place.
But the algorithm will box you in. The lies and the targeted deceit will soften your mind into an agreeable mush to feed the content machine. Without a paper to cling to, even if it is side by side with website use, little meaningful good will come of the news.
I am reminded of Perth, and the print options that were so limited to me. I remembered when I started clamoring to read from the page, despite having the same internet as always, with the great vast array of content that entails. If anything, I was reading as much as ever; more than ever, probably. But things did not become grounded, thoughtful, things did not start making sense again until I took the physical publication in my hand and made a ritual of reading from it. I have The Saturday Paper to thank for restoring part of my sanity, and for making it easier to read The Australian, with a little Financial on the side. If the choices were not so limited in the first place, it might not have been a problem.
An ecosystem of readability is much like any other. If it is not cultivated under the right conditions, things begin to suffer. It is like your mind. If you only ever think quickly, you will forget to think slowly. If we let print waste away, we’ll never think again.
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