Melbourne’s media apocalypse: what to do with the newspapers

“Newspapers,” he said. “You could have done something with newspapers. We didn’t do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about indecent assault, and no Government was wise enough to stop us having them that way. But something might have been done with newspapers, if we’d been wise enough.” 

“I’m glad we haven’t got newspapers now,” she said. “It’s been much nicer without them.”

***

These words are from Nevil Shute’s mid-apocalyptic disaster novel, On the Beach. I say mid-apocalyptic, rather than post- or even pre-, because the majority of the book centres on people waiting for the the end to arrive. Like technology, new-release films and high fashion, the apocalypse comes late to Australia, in the form of radiation that seeps towards the Southern Hemisphere from a north already wiped out by atomic bombs.

On the Beach is a novel in which Melbourne simply waits to die.

And just as Shute is wrapping up his parochial, at times jaunty, but ultimately crushing experiment with the end of the earth, just as a husband, wife and infant stare euthanasia in the face to escape the death throes of radiation sickness, just as I weep into my glass of wine and bowl of curry at the senseless loss of it all, just as it’s all winding down … comes is this odd aside.

“You could have done something with newspapers,” says Lieutenant-Commander Peter Holmes.

A strange thing to say on your deathbed. Particularly to your naïve wife, who babbles about what to put in the garden next summer – a summer in which Melbourne will be inhabited only by mice, according to the CSIRO – and refuses to countenance her, or indeed anyone’s, impending doom.

But there it is. A simple regret, from a simple Navyman, in a simple Antipodean town on the edge of the Earth as humanity takes its final stagger and shuffles off its collective mortal coil. “You could have done something with newspapers.”

Since On the Beach was published in 1957, when the Doomsday Clock sat at two minutes to midnight, the threat of the planet being engulfed by a life-destroying nuclear winter is mercifully much diminished. In fact, an all-consuming dose of radioactivity is so low on priority for the timepiece of catastrophe, it’s begun to concern itself with climate change.

But it’s hard to escape the feeling that, particularly in Melbourne, the newspapers, just like the Shute’s ill-fated families, are waiting to die.

If Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood were here (which would admittedly be weird), he would tell me I’m mistaken in my concern. He recently gave a lecture with the snappy title, “If you ask me about the future of newspapers you have asked the wrong question.”

But as sales and circulation figures plummet like a Geiger counter moving south in On the Beach, it’s hard not to ask how long humanity will have to worry about ink-stained fingers as well as climate change and other harbingers of our imminent destruction. How long will the houses and units of Berwick, Falmouth and Williamstown wait for the thud of The Age, The Herald Sun or The Australian hitting their doorstep in the morning?

And as I read Shute’s criticism of news consumers’ appetites – “Pictures of beach girls and headlines about indecent assault” – I thought of last weekend’s front pages. The Age went with Warnie snogging Liz, The Australian carried the sad tale of an innocent “victim” of, well The Age. The beach girls and assaults could quite easily be there next week.

Shute’s characters deal with the coming of the end in various, painfully human ways. The American Commander with his polite, profound and largely uninteresting stoicism, sticks to the rule of law right up until his final act of patriotism. Peter Holmes’ wife continues to blather about garden seats, the trees in the garden and what she’ll do in the years that will never come. Young, sassy Moira Davidson give up her brandy-soaked sailing hijinks and a penchant for whipping her top off, instead taking up, most disappointingly, a typing course and a pining obsession for the American.

But one man, John Osborne, takes a radical approach to his final days. The unassuming CSIRO scientist knows what will happen to the residents of Melbourne: when the radiation will come, how it will infect people and how long they will have once it does. So the amateur enthusiast with a latent car obsession buys a Ferrari and enters the world’s last-ever Grand Prix, carving out a position on the track as his competitors tangle, crash and combust behind him. He wins. And then he dies as he had never lived before he knew the end was coming – at the wheel of the fast car he’s always dreamed of, suddenly becoming the man he wanted to be.

I think the end of newspapers is probably coming, and if circulation figures in the US and Europe are anything to go by, it will probably reach Australia a bit later than the rest of the world, along with Adam Sandler’s latest offering, no doubt.

But before the a-paper-lypse hits this Antipodean outpost, I hope one of our dailies steps up. I hope someone is smart enough to let the other players deal with cricket kisses, media spats, confected city violence and bikini girls. I hope someone gets behind the wheel of a Ferrari and goes out in style, doing what journalists have always dreamed of doing, unfettered by commercial concerns. I hope someone decides to rise above the rubbish and tackle the powerful and the corrupt. That someone decides to talk about big ideas without talking down to their readers. That someone chucks a story away if it’s not going to, even in some small way, change the world (or at least make it more interesting). Even if it means an outlet careens dangerously off-course, even if it ends in an explosion, in the twilight years of newspapers as we know them, it seems to me to be worth a try.

The dog days, the dying days, the doomsdays of Australian papers could then become the most exciting, and when it’s all over no one will have to say, “you could have done something with the newspapers.”

6 responses to “Melbourne’s media apocalypse: what to do with the newspapers

  1. There are days I think the only thing keeping newspapers going is accumulated momentum, and that’s winding down. We don’t really sell news. We sell ads for jobs, cars and houses. And Google ate that lunch a long time ago.

  2. Thanks Meg It is depressing, isn’t it, to see the media go down with a feeble whimper. Surely there is a space for a searching, complex media, rather than this vapid echo chamber we’re faced with now. Perhaps a benefactor is needed. I really want to read this book now.

    • I fear I have spoiled a bit of the ending for you! My apologies. I think the media is going to be okay, but honestly I don’t think the papers have that much longer. They should accept that and get creative.

  3. Only an ABC newspaper without advertising or editorial, just the news, can save us

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