Thursday, April 21, 2016
A few years back, at a staff function to celebrate those of us who'd hung around longer than could reasonably be expected, someone had the idea of presenting us not with a pen or a watch – I'd already had one of each – but with a framed copy of the front page of the paper on the day we started.
Sorry, but it was an uninspiring present that showed how far we've had to travel. It was grey in every sense. That was long before the Herald moved to colour printing, but not before our subeditors had abandoned their sacred duty to drain the colour out of every story before allowing it to be seen by the public.
The Herald stuck to "objective" reporting of the facts – "just the facts, ma'am" – and anything that remotely resembled an opinion – it was a beautiful sunny day, the prime minister seemed distracted, the accident was horrific – was verboten.
It was years before journalists attended university journalism courses, to be reminded that at its core the journalistic task involves subjective judgments: which events get reported and which don't; which facts get used and which don't; which stories get run and which "hit the spike"; which are reported at length and which in brief; which lead the front page and which go up the back somewhere.
It was because journalism was mere description of facts that readers didn't need to know the journalist's byline. They needed to be told only that a story had been written "by a Staff Correspondent" – that is, he (and occasionally she) had been trained by the Herald, and so could be trusted to get everything right.
Nothing of any great interest had happened the day before my first day on the job. The front page was nonetheless terribly busy, as editors crammed in as many stories as they could fit. To modern eyes the page was messy and uninviting.
That was only a few years before the Herald abandoned the unachievable struggle to be a "paper of record". Much better to focus on a smaller number of more interesting or important events – preferably ones other media didn't have – and do justice to them, illustrating them and laying them out on the page in a visually attractive way.
One thing that issue of the paper did have going for it, however: its price was 8 cents. Of course, in those days it didn't have lift-out sections on TV programs, food and restaurants, travel, health and fitness, and gig guides.
Apart from Column 8, still signed by Granny, there were few opinion columns in the paper of the mid-1970s. Comments or analysis sitting beside news reports were rare to non-existent. There were a few bylined feature articles, but for the most part opinion was restricted to unsigned editorials – or "leaders" – written on behalf of the editor.
It was only a little over two years before I was moved from economic reporting to opinion writing. At first my job was to write a leader a day, but by 1980 I was writing three columns a week. I'm still writing those columns, on the same days and the same parts of the paper.
Having checked with the Herald's historian, Gavin Souter, I think I'm safe in claiming to be the longest-serving columnist in the paper's 185 years.
This may tell you something about me, but mainly it says something about how the paper and the world in which it exists have changed. In relatively recent years the Herald – on paper and online –has become chock full of all manner of columns, comments and analyses.
Why? Partly because our marketplace has become ever more competitive. Journalists tend to focus hardest on competition from rival newspapers, but more intense competition has come from the electronic media, radio and television.
This competition started from the moment in the 1930s that radio networks began reporting their own news stories rather than reading out stories from the papers. Eventually radio began delivering news bulletins on the hour, but not before television channels made their nightly news bulletins the chief means by which Australians caught up with the news.
With so many of our readers already having heard the bare bones of so many of our news stories, is it any wonder newspapers had to change their news offering? We tried harder to find our own exclusive stories, provided greater detail and more background information, asked "the next question" – what happens now? how will the authorities react? – as well as adding more commentary and analysis, including the pure opinions of columnists and in-house experts.
For much of the past 185 years there were two things you could do after you got home from work, had dinner and wanted to relax: sing songs round the piano or read the paper. Then came radio and its serials and then the all engrossing idiot box.
On a wider level, therefore, newspapers have long faced greater competition from an ever-expanding array of ways to spend your leisure time. More reason to change our product.
The advent of the internet has added greatly to that array, as well as multiplying rival digital sources of news – not just from other cities and states, but from English-speaking news providers around the world.
By contrast, it's allowed the Herald and other papers to use their websites to get back into "breaking news" – news within minutes of it happening – for the first time since the 1930s.
These days, however, digital sources of breaking news are so plentiful and so freely available –literally – as to greatly diminish the commercial value of ordinary news. How are we to pay the wages of our journalists?
Online advertising is far cheaper than it is in newspapers and free-to-air television. What's more, online advertising is dominated by Google and Facebook, not the traditional news sources.
We need something more than ordinary news, some way of adding value to a product we can ask readers to pay for, preferably by subscription.
The material standard of living of people in the developed economies has risen many times since the Industrial Revolution. This remarkable achievement has been the result of two main factors: technological advance and ever-growing specialisation within occupations.
The inescapable consequence, however, has been to make the workings of our economy and many other aspects of our lives infinitely more complex than they were. There was a time when car owners did much of their own routine maintenance; today, many hardly dare lift the bonnet.
When I joined the Herald it still subscribed to the notion of the "universal journalist" – any Herald-trained journalist was capable of accurately reporting any story on any subject. I doubt if this was true then; it's become less true with every passing year.
Since I became economics editor in 1978, I've worked to ensure that all economic reporting is done by journalists with economic qualifications. Ideally, legal reporters have law degrees, science reporters have science degrees and so forth.
With the growing complexity of daily life has gone an ever-rising level of educational attainment in the workforce. The Herald has always had a better-paid and better-educated readership, but it's never been better educated than it is today.
This means a readership far keener to know how and why, not just who, what, where and when.
But not all "advances" have been for the better. Governments have become bigger, ministers' staffs have become bigger, politicians are far more adept at marketing, more focused on perceptions and appearances, and unceasing in their attempts to "manage" the media.
At the same time, the lobbying of government by business and myriad interest groups has proliferated. A small industry of "economic consultants" has grown up in Canberra just to produce modelling that purports to prove the rightness of lobbyists' claims.
If keeping governments and power-holders honest is one of the primary responsibilities of the quality press, never have its services been more sorely needed.
A more complex world requires more explanatory journalism from more specialised and qualified journalists. The blizzard of information assailing us requires more trusted guides to what's worth worrying about and what isn't.
A world of more active lobbying by powerful interest groups and more manipulative and secretive governments requires more investigative journalism, not just by dedicated investigation teams but also by more specialised journalists who do more than meekly report the claims of politicians and lobbyists.
This is what I've tried to contribute with my "comment and analysis" in my time at the Herald. It's needed far more today than when I started. I confidently predict the need will only grow.
It's why I hope to see the Herald meet the challenge of digital disruption, making whatever adaptations are needed to ensure it continues to serve readers and contribute to the nation's good governance.