Image for Mercury: The Fall ... and why it matters

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Graphs from Here

Graeme Wood, make Rupe an offer he can’t refuse …

And so Mercury - my home for 23 interesting years - is suffering a further decline in its circulation.

Who cares? We all should, I reckon.

As MEAA Award winner Bob Burton so eloquently says under the sub-header on this yarn: The Fall and Fall of The Mercury

Does the decline of Murdoch’s mastheads matter?

It would be easy to think that the financial decline of The Mercury and to a lesser extent The Sunday Tasmanian doesn’t much matter, but it does.

Newspapers – which have the greatest concentrations of journalists in the media landscape – overwhelmingly set the media agenda both in terms of the stories covered and how they are framed. Small newspapers follow the lead of the bigger mastheads and radio news bulletins routinely follow the lead from what is in newspapers.

As the circulation of The Mercury and the The Sunday Tasmanian have fallen in recent years, they have followed the familiar cost-cutting formula: cutting staff, reducing the number of pages and increasingly relying on cheap syndicated content from either wire services or nationally-produced News Corporation supplements. Marketing gimmicks to boost sales, such as free giveaway David Attenborough wildlife DVD’s, have proliferated.

Increasingly the front pages of The Mercury are dominated by up-beat photo stories. New development projects are routinely the subject of multi-page but one-dimensional spreads which are all too often illustrated with developer-supplied PR images. It is coverage best characterised as a credulous boosterism dressed up as journalism.

What hard news is locally produced is commonly relegated to further back in the paper and frequently comprises articles of the ‘he said, she said’ variety. The subtext is clear: hard news puts readers off and should only grace the front page in exceptional circumstances.

As The Mercury retreats further and further from hard news journalism – let alone stories that take more than a few hours to research and write – the question remains what, if anything, will fill the vacuum?

The ABC’s Tasmanian news capacity continues to diminish as the recently announced Abbott Government cuts take their toll.

The 7:30 Report (and its predecessors) which were once critical agenda setters in Tasmanian politics: a nightly half-hour bulletin which broke big stories and grilled politicians. When it was gutted to become a national Monday to Thursday 7:30 Report with occasional Tasmanian stories and a far tamer magazine-style Stateline edition on Friday night, local political journalism took a big hit. Now even Stateline is gone and with it the bulk of longer-form TV current affairs capacity in the state.

The trends affecting the News Corporation Australia’s Tasmanian publications are also eroding the capacity of Fairfax Media’s two local mastheads - the Advocate and The Examiner.

While the rise of the web has facilitated ready access to quality global news, the critical issue is whether the tide just keeps on receding when it comes to both the quantity and quality of local Tasmanian news that goes beyond happy-clapping boosterism.

While Tasmanian Times has an impact way beyond its size and budget, the gap between what is happening in Tasmania and what is reported is growing ever larger.

So true Bob Burton

There are two sub-sections of Mercury which I reckon are really good: Tasweekend under editor Amanda Ducker and Opinion/Letters under opinion editor Simon Bevilacqua.

Mind you I reckon TT also should get a little credit for giving first runs to a few of the Talking Point contributors ... from John Lawrence to Martyn Goddard and including Pat Synge and Peter Adams, among a few others …

Now for a little history way back to 1989 or thereabouts. Mercury is pondering whether to go from mini-broadsheet to tabloid. As an ‘exec’ I was the only one of Mercury senior chaps (I think they were all chaps) to resist the move to tabloid and the inevitability of News Ltd tabloidism with its trashy goss, celebrity-fascinations and happy-clappy boosterism. I favoured a mini-broadsheet - perhaps USA Today style ... with any tabloid shit restricted to a dedicated page called Tabloid.

There are ways of doing serious journalism ... why not, for example, pay for serious investigative journalism articles as main feature; and stripped down the side of Page 1 any tabloid shit of the editor’s choice. And I’m a fan of Newspaper of Record Journalism which is why the endless Polly Waffle is published in TT Media. Now that is one very onerous day-in-day-out task … but it is important IMHO to get the Pollies on the record.

[When we ran Suntas we took circulation from 49,000 to 60,000; by the strategy of investigative journalism combined with the motor of a range of columnists; even at one stage having a Poetry column (‘til it was spotted by Editor-in-Chief and exited!) Mind you, I would not want to be in charge now in this time of dead-tree meedja …].

My view then - and still - is that Mercury simply does not ‘get’ its community. This is an intelligent community ffs. It is located slap-bang in the middle of a little city with a university. It is not only a Mrs Stringbag or Three-Door-Frig community.

But the disconnect from that university (there is fault on all sides here I reckon ... because UTAS has become siloed to a degree from its community) is so palpable ... and the happy-clappy boosterism at the front of Mercury so bloody obvious.

Ah ... disconnect and happy clappyism. It’s everywhere ... it was so obvious all those years ago (2009) at a Walkley Foundation event on the Future of Media: Be quiet Lindsay. An excerpt …

Foolish, foolish man, that you should question the smooth rolling out of cliche and presentation over substance.

The slick PR of another Walkley debate knocked off in the colonies.

Beautifully presented with a lovely talking head from the Guardian; who was intelligent and engaged, and funny.

But utterly, finally, useless. You could not help but feel that here was the engagement of media management and union, to provide the same truth: We’re going to be alright aren’t we?

Bullshit.

You are in more trouble than you will ever realise.

And no nice sculpted, censored presentations will make the slightest bit of difference.

Media is in the middle of revolution. As far-reaching and profound as the invention of the printing press.

And there, fundamentally, viscerally, was the problem with last night’s seminar.

It was all too touchy feely, all-too familiar media-speak, superficial, bland rolling out of cliche: how often did we hear of brand recognition, of business model?

I’m sorry; I’m an MEAA former state VP; but I was embarrassed by this. This is not inquiry; this is media-management, union-barracked propaganda.

In other words ... an insiders’ club. How about a few outsiders for a change? TT has always tried to emphasize access to publication for any reader …

Insiders’ clubs are soooooo incestuous … as US journalism thinker Jay Rosen says: Why Political Coverage is broken.

Clubby, incestuous, in-house, siloed ... yet another form of happy-clappy in-house boosterism …

And now to the future ...

Which I hope will involve Wotif founder and Triabunna woodchip mill owner Graeme Wood.

I reckon Graeme should wait a year for a further decline in Davies Bros’ fortunes then make Rupe an offer he can’t refuse. (It once was a great little Petty Cash earner for News Ltd). At heart Rupe is a very ruthless businessman; and if I recall correctly Rupe was only after Reuters’ shares when he accidentally got Merc along with his takeover of the Herald and Weekly Times.

One further line of advice for Graeme: Turn Mercury back to intelligence … perhaps a version of Morry Schwartz’s The Saturday Paper … but with less ‘long’ of the long-form journalism …

Let’s see some proper investigative journalism taking on Tas Inc; not just boosterist puff pieces. Tassietimes provides raw data (and cops its share of legal threats, Forestry Tasmania, Andrew Wilkie MP and the tabled document ...) but it is a one-and-a-bit-man band and can only do so much …

And the final move … well, back to the spiritual home of the Mercury building in Macquarie St (if all the demons have been exorcised). You are mates I understand with now-owners Penny Clive and Bruce Neill (Mercury: A new creative hub breathes life into old Mercury building) …

Doesn’t that have a lovely resonance … ?

*Lindsay Tuffin worked for Rupe at Davies Bros’ Mercury for 23 years until 2009 (and is grateful that editors Ian McCausland and Garry Bailey were understanding of his desire to start (2002) and maintain TT; though he was asked to leave for ‘disployalty*’ on more than one occasion (not by them …)

*Would have been fascinating to have a debate over free speech, but …

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• John Hawkins in Comments: … I tabled my expose of Ta Ann through Andrew Wilkie in the Federal Parliament ... HERE ... not a squeak or a phone call from a Tasmanian newspaper but a front page attack story on Andrew in the Australian as the dogs came out to hound him. What actual service to the community do these three so-called newspapers provide? I suggest that it is not news ... but they are printed on paper.

• Mike Bolan in Comments: I distinctly recall a public meeting several years ago (HERE) about the problems being experienced by the Merc. I attended with a few others. We came as dissatisfied customers of news yet we were pretty much dismissed as not knowing enough about journalism or the media business. It really seemed that the Merc believed that the public needs journalists to explain what’s going on around them. As customers, we were pretty fed up with the media telling us what we needed to know, but for the Merc people there the public really didn’t have anything to tell them. News went the other way - media to public. We were the ones who needed their services, not the other way around.

• Karl Stevens in Comments: In my mind media like the Merc starts with some basic assumptions and then diligently filter the news to maintain those assumptions. Assumption 1 …

• Austin Sypkes in Comments: What a load of clap-trap, article and comments included. “The Merc is suffering declining print circulation because it doesn’t ‘get’ (how conveniently imprecise by the way) its audience.” Or maybe, given EVERY single rag in that list is losing print circulation, the cause might not be something peculiar to the Merc. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the disruption of business models and consumerism caused by the digital revolution. But that wouldn’t lay out the ground work for a good merc bashing exercise would it? “Oh but the Merc of yesteryear was so much more hard hitting, if I do say so myself.” Really? So why is it that Hobart council’s long running expenses scandal is only coming to light now? To top it off the suggestion is made to offload the merc to a guy who got rich with websites and has never run a paper before. Brilliant.