Sunday, July 17, 2005

In defence of the Herald Sun. There is a class system to newspapers. Oh I know - hold the presses - tabloids are trashy sensationalist papers for plebs, while 'quality media' are bourgeois organs. This was really hammered into us when I worked at the Crider, and I quickly worked out the hierarchy of sources. The national Murdoch broadsheet The Australian and the Fairfax broadsheets The Age and Sydney Morning Herald were to be used as serious sources, as was the Financial Review, while the Murdoch tabloids were solely used for wacky crime stories and celebrity gossip.

Some people I know go straight to The Australian and don't even bother with the Fairfax press, arguing that they're elitist and locked in a spastic, futile rivalry with the tabloids. (The tabloids, for their part, don't really bother reciprocating, except to report that their circulation is caning the broadsheets.) Then there are states where the only other newspaper is one of the patchier tabloids (eg Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia).

What annoys me is that people accept these as truisms and build real self/other relationships into media consumption. I don't like the Herald Sun being referred to as the 'Hun' or the 'Herald Scum'. I don't like hearing about the Courier-Snail, the Aged and the Worst Australian. I am really weary of "journalism studies" and "media theory". I think that they, along with "cultural policy", are the most tedious "new humanities". But compared to the mouthdrainingly dry, blokey and insular rants by the same boring commentators about politics and capitalism, the media section is actually the most interesting part of the Crider. (Actually, the second most interesting - my favourite part is the gossip and the corrections and cock-ups section at the end.)

Although it's entirely predictable, it really pisses me off that the Crider perpetuates these unimaginative class ideologies about newspapers and their readership, based solely on largely arbitrary criteria of 'journalistic quality', 'reliability', 'bias', 'editorial independence'. The Crider assesses newspapers from the perspective of an educated industry insider. There is so little analysis of what people might actually find interesting. And 'entertainment' (banish the thought!) is basically a synonym for 'populism', which in turn is a synonym for 'bad journalism'.

I am intelligent, hold a higher tertiary degree and work in the media industry. And I really enjoy reading the Herald Sun. It's not ironic. Instead of all the disparaging nicknames, I like to call it the Hezza, or the Hez for short, because I relate to it like you'd relate to a slightly unhinged but good-value mate. ("Oh man, Hez did the funniest thing today!")

I really look forward to reading it over lunch or coffee. I read it like a book, from cover to cover, except for the sports section, which I skip. I like the way many small articles and pictures are laid out on the page so that my eye can skip from one to another. I like its mix of big national and international stories, social and cultural issues, little local stories and trashy celebrity gossip. I like the puns and the funny headlines (I doff my hat to the sub who got a headline through on Easter Monday about how the creator of The Beverly Hillbillies had died: "Here's a story 'bout a man who's dead".)

I don't feel the need to respond intellectually, except to ask my friends, co-workers and nearby baristas how they stand on some social or moral issue that the Hez is debating. I don't offer considered or intelligent responses to Andrew Bolt's spastic rants. I usually just check if he's ranting on a topic that interests me (humanities academics and popular culture), and read it with amusement.

Many people would also know that the bogan babies are my favourite part of the paper. Now, back in the days when I was all up in arms about the media representation of the bogan, I used to torture myself about this. I was all, "look at how I discursively constitute the bogan through interpellating it - how can I self-reflexively analyse my own speaking position?" Now I just enjoy my reaction to the bogan babies - a delicious horror at what could motivate someone to call their child something so baroquely creative. (By 'baroque', I mean something that repeats a motif with so many increasingly intricate variations that it becomes something distinct from the original form: Brianna becomes Breeana becomes Breyhanna becomes Breehannah becames Briehannah becomes Briieyhanah...)

As far as The Age goes, I don't enjoy reading the hard copy, and read the website instead. Even then, I have an MO: I look at the most interesting stories on the front page, and then navigate to other stories that catch my eye in the sidebar. Sometimes I open up particular sections and read through the latest stories there. I always check out the most viewed and most emailed articles - oh my god, there's that 'populism' thing again! On the weekend, I prefer the Fairfax papers to The Australian. I read the arts and culture supplements, especially my favourite intellectual journal, the Sunday Life.

I just wish that people would analyse actual modes of consuming media rather than focusing on these straw men of 'quality' and 'independence'. I really think it's possible to write entertaining things intelligently, and I think entertainment is something to be curious about, not despairing at the stupidity of the masses or trying to take a detached anthropological view of media 'events'. But I don't think it's enough to be celebratory, either. From the little I've had to do with the field of "media studies", I would like research to recognise the techniques and the affective possibilities of consuming newspapers.

And oh, okay, it has really been killing me that my new job doesn't get the Hez in - they only have The Age. I have actually been contemplating buying the thing so I can still read it at lunch.

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