Carolyn Collins reviews Upheaval: Disrupted lives in journalism edited by Andrew Dodd and Matthew Ricketson. UNSW Press, 368pp, rrp $39.99.
There was a time, and it doesn’t seem that long ago, when Saturday mornings used to start with the heavy thud of a small tree landing in my driveway. Back then newspapers were hefty in all the ways that counted. Built on seemingly bottomless gold reserves of classified advertising, deliverers needed biceps of steel to propel the weekend editions over suburban fences.
These days, newspapers can be delivered directly to mobile phones and ipads, no need to even get out of bed. Those of us who still prefer the tactile experience have sadly noted the declining bulk of their weekend reading material over the years; no danger of injuring a pet these days as it flutters rather than hurtles over the fence.
It’s not just the product itself that has slimmed down. The editors of a new book on the effect of the digital era on the Australian media landscape describe how the staff of the Age newspaper once occupied an entire building—now it fits on one floor. Sadly, it’s a story that’s been repeated in newsrooms across the nation. It’s estimated that as many as 5000 journalism jobs were lost in the past decade as news organisations scrambled to cut costs to survive.
But while the commercial reasons for the decline in the power and wealth of companies like Fairfax and News Corporation have been well documented, those who have experienced this disruption firsthand have mostly remained quiet. This is perhaps not so unusual; journalists generally prefer to tell other people’s stories, not their own.
In Upheaval: Disrupted lives in journalism, editors Andrew Dodd and Matthew Ricketson, both former journalists now working in academia, turn the spotlight on the story-tellers (and a sprinkling of subeditors, illustrators and photographers) who bore witness to this change. It is an important study which recognises that redundancies are not just numbers but people with lives, families, hopes, dreams, and financial obligations.
Dodd and Ricketson know their subject. They were part of a team of researchers which spent five years tracking the post-redundancy lives of 225 journalists through annual surveys, the results of which were published in 2018 as New Beats: Mass redundancies and career change in Australian journalism. Upheaval builds on this research, drawing on 57 oral history interviews with those who experienced redundancy between 2012 and 2016.
Some of the interviewees are well known, like David Marr, George Megalogenis and Amanda Meade, others less so. While there is the expected concentration on Sydney and Melbourne, the book also includes journalists who worked in newspapers in other states and regional areas. Their workplace experiences are remarkably similar as is their grief, sadness and anger over careers cut short and the decline of institutions they gave their hearts and souls to, often at the expense of personal lives.
The first part of the book is a somewhat nostalgic look back at the newsrooms of the past and the various paths that led to them, from cadetships to stints on country newspapers. As one interviewee notes, just because you liked writing or were good at English at school didn’t mean you were ‘right for journalism’. Winning a cadetship was akin to being ‘handed passports to another world’, with interviewees sharing the thrill of their first bylines, memorable stories and the fierce competition, including inside their own newsrooms, to come up with a ‘scoop’.
There are plenty of yarns, the type you can imagine old hands sharing at the bar after work, and laughs as interviewees recount the chaos, noise and colour of their former workplaces, and the many eccentric characters that worked in them. Interviewees spoke of the difficulty of covering traumatic events, dealing with criticism, and making mistakes. They also didn’t shy from talking about the dark side of the blokey newsroom culture: bullying, sexual harassment, heavy drinking and the impact of long hours on personal relationships.
While this book is focused on the digital upheaval, we are also reminded that newsrooms were always evolving. Cadets, once drawn from school leavers, in later years had to have university degrees. Computers replaced typewriters, and some never recovered from the shock. At his farewell party, one journalist took the ultimate revenge, destroying his desktop computer to the horror of his editor who didn’t realise the stunt had been staged.
Some agonised over whether to accept redundancy packages; others were blindsided, describing the humiliation of being marched out of their workplaces by security as co-workers avoided making eye contact. The book also explores what came next: coping with change, loss of identity, while reflecting on the future of the institutions they had left. Some found different jobs in the industry or forged new paths, others simply retired.
While the easier option would have been to tell the story through fewer narrators, the authors of this volume have given a masterclass in how to use oral history in a long form narrative. The result may read as though it were effortless, but I can attest that such an approach is not. Three longer profiles (Marr, Meade and Flip Prior) provide a deeper insight into the effect of the digital upheaval on individuals, and I suspect other interviews would have been equally as rich.
The book is aimed at a general audience and as such there is little theory or analysis of what these stories mean or how they fit into the broader picture of how work has changed in Australia, and indeed globally. Nor is there room for any explanation of how the interviewees were selected, or how collective memory and nostalgia might influence their narratives. These considerations are the bread and butter of oral historians but would no doubt have slowed the pace of the book.
Journalism was/is one hell of a job, one which can probably only be fully appreciated by those who did it. But there is much in the stories about the end of these perceived ‘jobs for life’ that will strike a chord among those who have experienced redundancies in other industries during the same period, for example, automotive manufacturing. For at its heart, Upheaval is a very human story. As Dodd notes, ‘What’s possibly surprising is that, despite their supposed toughness, journalists are just like everyone else.’