Farewell to the land of newspapers

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‘This is essentially the land of newspapers,” wrote journalist and flaneur Richard Twopeny in Townlife in Australia (1883). “Nearly everybody can read, and nearly everybody has the leisure to do so … the proportion of the population who can afford to purchase and subscribe to newspapers is ten times as large as in England; hence the number of sheets issued is comparatively much greater”.

In Victoria, alone, Twopeny observed, more than 200 newspapers were published: daily; weekly; bi-weekly. The tone of these papers was healthy, the news trustworthy, he wrote. “Reports are fairly given; telegrams are rarely invented; sensation is not sought after; criticisms, if not very deep, are at least impartial and written according to critic’s lights,” he said.

Twopeny identified Melbourne as the hub for Australia’s most clever journalists. He then critiqued the city’s five daily newspapers. The Argus received the most attention as “the type of the Australian press at the highest point it has yet attained” but he also mentioned The Age “a penny four-page sheet” that sold 50,000 copies a day and catered for “a far inferior class” to The Argus. The other morning paper was the Daily Telegraph, “a penny Conservative sheet which has never attained any large influence or circulation”.

Melbourne had two daily afternoon papers: The Herald (“which is supposed to represent the Catholic party”) and The World (“rather American in tone, but very readable”). I photographed The World last December for my artist newspaper Melbourne Sirius. It was a monster-measure broadsheet and the text was set almost to the margins so not a skerrick of precious newsprint would be wasted. The result was ugly and poorly proportioned. The masthead was so squashed that the globe (which rested on the back of a lone man) almost bled from the top of the front page (The World, 1881-1885).

Image below: Melbourne Sirius on the sheet-fed presses at Arena Printing, Fitzroy, 10 Feb 2014.

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Tim Hogan, the State Library of Victoria’s Australian Literature and History Librarian suggested I have a look at Twopeny’s work on newspapers and Hogan’s expertise has been one of the many pleasures of these past 12 months that I have spent in “the land of newspapers” as a 2013-14 creative fellow at the State Library. I have also enjoyed the help, enthusiasm and expertise of Chris Wade (my fellowship mentor), Sarah Ryan, Kevin Molloy, Des Cowley, Caroline Fraser, Bill Wise in dispatch and Matthew van Hasselt and Sarah Kelly of the media team. Gail Schmidt provided a warm welcome.

I can’t believe it’s over. I won’t have a personal librarian anymore. I won’t be able to go to the front of the queue outside the library and click myself in first (it was actually a bit worrying how much of a thrill this was). I won’t be able to swan around the Dome with a card around my neck that says: SCHOLAR. I have to give up my desk in Study Room 8.

This week, I’m clearing out my stuff from the office I’ve shared with Bernard Caleo and Alex McDermott. They are working on a graphic novel, Faust in Melbourne. I will miss being surrounded by Bernard’s drawings and Alex’s books. I can’t draw but I admire people who can. I have envied Bernard’s crayons and brushes, his stamps, the little round leather box of art things, the scribbled pictures and notes. I can report that Bernard used several photographs of Cate Blanchett as inspiration for his cute watercolour drawing of Melbourne’s ‘Madame Brussels’! Sorry to reveal your secrets Bernard.

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I have to leave newspapers alone. My fellowship is over and I am in the fortunate position of being funded by the Australia Council to work on a different sort of project. That is my work now.

Even so, I am surprised by how hard I am finding it to let go, how strongly I feel that newspapers are mine. For Melbourne Now, Sonia Leben and David Chesworth filmed a performance piece around the abandoned printing presses in the old Age building on Spencer Street while photographer Rosemary Laing’s project, ‘The Paper’, was exhibited at Tolarno Galleries. When I looked at both these excellent newspaper-related art projects, I felt a powerful “yes but” impulse bubbling up inside me.

My perspective is different because I have actually spent a lot of my adult life working in newspaper manufacturing.

I want to see newspaper people playing more of a part in the production of creative, documentary, historical and political work about newspapers. There is an urgent need for an oral history project to document the working lives of newspaper people whose jobs no longer exist (compositors, stereotypists, linotypists, paper boys and girls) or whose jobs won’t exist for much longer (newspaper subeditors, printers of broadsheet newspapers, newspaper ad reps).

I want to read more scholarship that recognises newspapers as objects that can be examined from a “literary perspective” rather than mere sources of historical data. The exemplar is Isabel Hofmeyr’s outstanding work Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading (Harvard Univesity Press, 2013).

This creative fellowship and the book that preceded it (Stop Press: the Last Days of Newspapers) have thrown up so many ideas for other projects, all of which feel pressing somehow. For instance, my research provided many examples of how rapidly print has been swallowed by the internet and how the library has to do things differently as a result.

In 2005, the most read newspaper at the library was The Trading Post. Demand was so high that copies were kept on site at Swanston Street (rather than offsite at Ballarat). The last printed Trading Post appeared on 25 March 2009.

In 2000, the library subscribed to between 20 and 30 overseas newspapers and all were delivered by air. Now it is six. These are: The Dom-Post (Wellington); The Press (Christchurch); the New Zealand Herald (Auckland); PNG Post Courier; and The Times Literary Supplement (because it is not available online). The most recent subscriptions to be cancelled are: Le Monde (France); Cape Times (South Africa); Asahi Shimbun (Japan, English-language); Asian Wall Street Journal; The Financial Times (London); The Wall Street Journal (New York).

The flipside is that registered library users have access to some pretty amazing online databases, such as PressDisplay (a 60-day archive of more than 400 newspapers from around the world).

As fewer people read printed newspapers, the library’s newspaper reading room has become smaller too. It now shares a space with genealogy. I did make a list of Melbourne’s surviving newspapers but I can’t find that bit of paper. You can get a feel for what is left by scanning the newspaper buckets in the reading room.

Meanwhile, businesses associated with newspapers and archiving are shrinking too. During my fellowship, I visited AMS Imaging in South Melbourne, one of the few remaining microfilm businesses in Australia.

Australian libraries still use analogue film as the preferred preservation format for printed newspapers and microfilming companies make three copies of each newspaper.

The “master film”, made on either Kodak or Illford high-contrast silver halide stock, is deposited at the National Library of Australia. A second copy, the “printing master”, is made on vesiclular (or thermal) film and this one is the archival copy held at each state library. The third copy, made on diazo stock, a mylar-based plastic film, is the copy that you and I might thread into the reader if we want to look up something in an old newspaper. (Contrary to popular belief, most old newspapers have not been digisited.)

The problem is, only one company in the world still makes thermal film and they have just increased the price by 300 per cent! The Kodak machines used to photograph newspapers aren’t manufactured anymore either but the South Melbourne business has “plenty of spare parts”. It also has a couple of typewriters (still needed to type labels on microfiche reels).

I could go on but I won’t. I have to stop!

Thanks to the State Library of Victoria, to the expert staff here and to the people, living and dead, who made all the lovely defunct newspapers I have worked with this past year. Special acknowledgment to typographer Stephen Banham. It was such a joy to work with Stephen and his colleague at Letterbox, Heather Walker.  

Images below: Weekend Truth (1974-1993); Winner (1914-1918); ink bin at Arena Printing, Fitzroy, 10 Feb 2014, the day Melbourne Sirius was printed.

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About rachelbuchanan2000

Journalist, historian, mum. 'Stop Press: the last days of newspapers' (Scribe, 2013). Creative fellow, State Library of Victoria. Project: 'The Melbourne Sirius' an artist newspaper (2014). First book, 'The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget' (Huia, 2009). New project, about doctors and doctorhood, is on the go now.
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