My maternal grandfather loved newspapers. When I visited the farm, he would have snippets ready to read aloud – items that had caught his eye or columns that made him laugh. Maybe that’s when the newsprint leaked into my veins. Pa Ern also indulged in the Readers Digest word quizzes and actively strove to improve the household vocabulary.
Fast forward several decades and I’m spending a day with Yr 8 students, explaining how a newspaper is put together. I cover where news stories come from, who crafts them and how they end up on the page. In her preface to these sessions their teacher says that many students have no real understanding of what a newspaper is. They don’t read newspapers and are clueless when it comes to locating traditional elements such as obituaries or editorials. The few families that still subscribe to papers often receive them electronically with the effect that they tend to be seen and consumed solely by adults. Given that I started out in newsrooms before we had Internet or email access and mobile phones were a misnomer, I feel like a complete fossil…
I’ve also been working tutoring a VCE English student. In Year 12 a substantial portion of the English mark is derived from ‘language analysis’ tasks. Students need to read a linked trio of media items (for example an opinion piece, a letter to the editor and a cartoon) and ascertain how language and imagery manipulates their thinking on an issue. Let me condemn myself to the age of the dinosaurs forever; if your principal source of ‘news’ is Facebook and your curiosity about current affairs is limited to who is snogging on Big Brother, you can take it as read that language analysis is going to be arduous.
Lastly, my wife and I have a business where we help children hone their literacy and numeracy skills. After their work is complete, students wait for their parents in a foyer area, surrounded by books. Many of them ignore our library or, if coaxed, pick up a book and flick through it without actually reading. I find that the only way to engage them in a story is to read it to them. I wonder if this happens in their homes.
And so to the graphic that kicked off this post, an Alan Kohler special from the 7pm ABC News recently. If we want young people engaged with the world and able to prosecute their opinions and causes, we need to turn this tragic chart around. Books and newspapers need to be back in front of our kids, crammed with stories that make them gasp, laugh and cry. Maybe we need to switch screens off for an hour a day, just to give tree books a chance.
A couple of nights ago, at an excellent National Year of Reading forum at Whitefriars College, a student asked me if journalism was dead. I answered that journalism will never die because humans will always want to know about the things affecting other people’s lives. However, I did concede that newspapers, where I started out in the media, are definitely in the intensive care ward.
If I’d had my wits about me I might have recalled the recent robust discussion on Gruen Planet about the future of newspapers. The ever-entertaining Gruen team pointed to an advertising campaign by Britain’s Guardian newspaper that highlights why we will always need journos, even if they’re not transmitting stories to us via newsprint on dead trees.
The Little Dragon and Little Monkey are on the front page of every Leader newspaper in Melbourne this week. Journos all too often have to use their own families as props and this is a classic example of the kids helping out their Mum.
The Little Monkey has very proudly shown the picture around at school. The Little Dragon was left on the verge of tears after some of his peers were less than complimentary. The schoolyard can be a brutal place.
Yes, I’m back on the mainland, still savouring the memories of sea air and mallee scrub that spell Kangaroo Island to my senses.
My research and fact-checking mission was largely successful and it’s amazing what a few days without email, Internet and mobile phones can do to reinvigorate the brain. Now that I’m back at my desk I have oodles of things to catch up on but here are a few quick musings on my last few days:
Research can be great fun. Skimming through old newspapers is an adventure in itself – even the classified advertisements are fascinating when they’re more than a century old. An old schoolhouse that reeks of possum piss can harbour untold treasures – as can a conversation with a local.
Research can be a double-edged sword. Discover too much good stuff and you risk adding unnecessary details/material and/or losing focus on your main storyline. I don’t want to drown readers in details that might only appeal to me.
Ask enough people the same question and you’ll accumulate many different answers, rather than a single, definitive one.
Your nearest and dearest can be your toughest critics. My wife has begun a read-through of my manuscript and already uncovered one major timeline problem – something that should have occurred to me but hadn’t. She also highlighted passages that “need work”. While I don’t always enjoy getting this feedback I value it immensely. Better to find out now than hear it from my agent or publisher!
Watching someone read the manuscript is akin to a director sitting in an audience screening of his own film. I hang on whether people will laugh or gasp or cry at the right moments … It’s probably quite annoying having me around!