28 January 2008

Roo burger

The Bulletin has been shut down. I’m gutted, mate. In the week it was to celebrate its 128th birthday, the staff was called together by its foreign owners, private equity firm PBL (does that rhyme with EMI?) and told to pack up their pencils. Magazines can’t survive on their historical laurels, but the Bulletin never tried to. (It celebrated its history, but not all of it: incredibly, up to the early 1960s, it had on its masthead the slogan “Australia for the White Man”.)

The magazine was as feisty in recent years as it had been when it began, or the in the 1970s and early 1980s when I read it a lot: brash but eloquent, intelligent and witty. Its columnists could be Aussie larrikins or sophisticates; it had a self-confidence we rarely managed to pull off. Sharp-eyed humorists such as Ross Campbell, Keith Dunstan (their man in Melbourne, nicknamed Batman), and Ron Saw. The latter wrote about all sort of things but his most unforgettable piece was about having a stroke in his 40s, and how he slowly recovered. They turned it into a book.

They had an excellent film reviewer, Sandra Hall, and columnist Phillip Adams who balanced the irresistible in-house snob David McNicol. The latter was an ACP grandee from the days of Frank Packer, and editor-in-chief of the whole organisation at one time. He had a waxed moustache, a bright red face and an indestructible liver, with the politics to match: he was an Aussie arch-Tory in the Menzies school, and could tell stories from Don Bradman to Dawn Fraser, anybody who shared his dinner table. The only one I ever met was the wonderfully named Dorian Wilde, who was briefly their gossip and food columnist: with a name like that, what else could he be?

The Bulletin was the Australian Time magazine, plus it had a long literary tradition going from Banjo Paterson to David Malouf. It still reflected that in summer specials; the final issue has pieces by Thomas Keneally and Frank Moorhouse, on “nationhood”. On Australian and Asian/Pacific politics, sport, cultural history, literature and the (high) arts, the Bulletin was unbeatable. It broke stories without ever needing to be a scandal sheet such as, for example, the wonderful but short-lived left-wing National Times.

But as we have witnessed with Time magazine, the need for a current-affairs weekly with strong literary and photographic values has been sorely tested since the arrival of CNN and the internet. Reinventing yourself is well-nigh impossible as the readership walks away, ages or literally dies. The Bulletin subscriptions department could surely have offered an insight into how things were going, as each week magazines would be returned, marked with: “Subscriber deceased. Please cancel.”

Because one area that the Bulletin never quite managed to get right was popular culture (for all that it gave birth to several generations of Australian cartoonists such as Petty or Oliphant, who went on to dominant newspaper cartooning internationally). The Bulletin could be stultifyingly serioso: that’s what happens when political journalists have the strongest editorial lobby. They think everyone is interested in what goes between Bowen and Molesworth streets. Not for nothing has Fairfax hired all those yoof bloggers for Stuff.

Magazines need to evolve with the zeitgeist to stay afloat. The New Yorker is better now than it was in 1980s, thanks to the sacreligious shake-up by Tina Brown which has evolved into the stable, intelligent editorship of David Remnick. Rolling Stone now makes more money than ever by kissing goodbye to its earnestness, and embracing fashion and bimbo acts. That’s what brings in the advertising, enables a magazine to survive, and journalists such as David Fricke and Rob Sheffield to keep their jobs. I may not like it, but I’m not its audience (and it is less embarrassing than the current NME). Jann Wenner knows he’s in the ruthless mass-market magazine business, and bimbos like Britney pay the bills and keep him in yachts.

It’s a shock to read that the Bulletin weekly circulation was around 55,000 on a subscriber base of 45,000: this in a country of 21 million. Which makes the Listener circulation of 69,300 in a population of 4 million respectable. Even with strong advertising, sending journalists around that massive country to break stories – and they did, right to the end – and supporting a gaggle of name columnists isn’t possible without a sugar daddy.

Until recently the Bulletin was kept alive by having a stroppy, wealthy owner, Kerry Packer. His firm ACP subsidised it to the tune of $AU 3 million a year, propping it up with the profits of the Australian Women’s Weekly and the tackier end of the magazine market. Once the Goanna croaked, his son James divested the firm of its media interests, preferring to gamble the family fortune on gambling. It’s a strange day that Rupert Murdoch is made to look good, but at least he has kept the (UK) Times and Sunday Times afloat. And it is Murdoch’s paper, the Australian, which has produced the most generous and informed coverage on why the Bulletin was so important, and why it failed.

But to feel the quality, check out the Bulletin’s glorious back pages: the rise of the Holden, Edna Everage, Bob Hawke, Bondi Beach, Ian Botham and Peter Garrett.


poneke said...

incredibly, up to the early 1960s, it had on its masthead the slogan “Australia for the White Man”

You have to remember that the White Australia Policy remained in force until Gough Whitlam abolished it after he won the 1973 election.

I was very sad to see the Bulletin close, and sobered by the prospect of what those same bean-counters will do when they look (again) at the editor-less Metro and North & South, which have much smaller circulations.

Chris Bourke said...

I didn't realise it was that late. My father used to say we had the same policy only it was unspoken, with an added provisio: white immigrants were welcome, as long as they were British. Australia let far more Europeans in, with the added cultural benefits that came with it (coffee, crime ...) Reading these old copies of Truth recently is a reminder of the hard time we gave the Dutch who came here in the 1950s.

poneke said...

In fact, Australia's Aborigines were only allowed to vote for the first time as recently as 1969, compared with 1869 for Maori in New Zealand. But you are right about our clandestine White New Zealand policy, which was more restrictive than Australia's by far. I covered all these issues, including the Dutch one, in a post on my blog just after Christmas.