Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Death of a newsroom stereotype

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BRISBANE -- Fat, gin-soaked and forever encased in cheap suits and soup-stained ties, the print journalist is being mummified and gently lowered into the tomb.

Last week the hurricane sweeping through global newsrooms roared into Australia, picking up discarded coffee cups and complacent journos and scattering them across the car park.

Australia's largest newspaper companies have revealed business plans, which, however one cuts, slices or dices them, spell doom for the traditional newspaper journalist.

Fairfax alone will axe 1,900 jobs, though not those of its most senior editors in Melbourne and Sydney, who on Monday saved the company the trouble and resigned.

News Limited will also undergo a massive restructure leading to a still-unspecified number of redundancies, but all this sound and fury doesn't mean Australian journalism is finished.

"Far from it,'' croon the executives who, armed their clipboards packed with positive market research, see information as the definitive sunrise industry of the 21st century.

Both Fairfax and News Limited, which employ the bulk of Australian print journalists, see a bright new dawn of possibilities in an increasingly literate and connected world.

But these sunny uplands will have little room for that paunchy, red-faced raconteur leaning heavily on the bar on a weekday afternoon, leering at nearby cleavage and affectionately patting a tattered notebook in his tattered pocket containing the scoop of the week.

That print media are full of clichés is no surprise given its practitioners have provided human clichés ever since Pulitzer and Hearst ushered in that cheerful, beer-soaked world of yellow journalism.

From the shambolic, drunken eloquence of Dutton Peabody, the newspaper editor in John Ford's classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, to the idealism and intrigue of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in All The President's Men, even Hollywood has given a nod to newsroom stereotypes and the romantic appeal of the printed press.

Australia took its cue from the English when it comes to journalistic tradition, and while there are thousands of sober, conservative, family-orientated print journalists, most of them have worked alongside one of the certified lunatics.

We called them "hacks.'' Articulate, widely read, acerbic and often alcoholic, thousands of these aberrants who verged on the unemployable in the mainstream world found themselves a welcome, and even well-remunerated, home in the chaos of a newsroom.

Deeply cynical, given to political conspiracy theories and dismissive of the fripperies of fashion, they provided us with a rumpled but occasionally robust line of defence against corruption in the democratic process.

Now the public has firmly turned its back on the hacks in what is becoming the greatest revolution in print since Johannes yelled "start the presses'' and the world marvelled at all those Gutenberg Bibles.

In the decade ahead, Australia's educated political class will demand quality news online and will probably end up paying for it.

That may allow hard-copy, quality papers to survive with a shrunken but exclusive readership, targeted by high-end advertisers and written by elite journalists who claim gym memberships rather than bar tabs as expenses.

The old hacks will be replaced by more focused content-providers churning out copy swiftly graded by the number of hits it generates on a website.

Yet while the hacks lie moulding in their mausoleums -- exotic exhibits from a distant past -- they may well pull on a cigarette and give us the last laugh -- one final cackling, emphysema-laden wheeze.

For across this world they've sprouted millions of progeny, right now hunched over a computer in the spare room, spitting venom at the "mainstream press'' and pursuing strange yet intriguing conspiracy theories.

Bloggers -- the hacks' unknowing but natural heirs.

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2012 A13

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