Monday, February 11, 2008

The Bulletin: Death of a Magazine

As a newsie, I used to carry the The Bulletin on my route every week. I never understood why it came out on Wednesday; even Women's Weekly came out at the beginning of the week, but therein lay some of the failed logic that evidenced the slow and eventually rapid death of The Bulletin. Most will never have heard of this "newspaper" but it was iconic in Australia. Read as ardently in the clubs of Melbourne as it was on the station in Walla Walla, it represented the voice of Australia - both good and quite bad.

As an isolationist, white Australia and republican voice, the newspaper, established in 1880, tried hard to be confrontational and controversial. At the same time, the "Bushman's Bible” published some of the best Australia had to offer from poets, writers and journalists. They included Henry Lawson (known by every Australian school child), Breaker Morant, Banjo Patterson (Waltzing Matilda) and Miles Franklin (now the name of the leading Australian literary prize).

During the early 20th century the newspaper moderated its' views but even when it was purchased by Sir Frank Packer in 1961, he had to remove the 'Australia for the white man' from the masthead. Packer and his son Kerry built a large, influential media empire that included newspapers, television and eventually gambling. The Bulletin was always a 'trophy' property within the empire ensuring the eventual demise.

Kerry Packer's directive to his serial editorial hires, was to "make 'em talk about it." It wasn't about making money and it wasn't - eventually - about transitioning to the Internet. When any business (in this case a publication) is protected from financial reality, what motivation exists for innovation and logical strategic planning? On the death of his father, James Packer inherited the business in December 2005 and he took the long view that his fortune lay in gambling. He sold the media business to private equity and in their review of operations they shut The Bulletin several weeks ago.

The Bulletin still garner's 50,000+ weekly readers and it is hard to believe someone couldn't make a go of it at this level. The Economist only gets 20,000 in Australia and has launched a (reputed) A$500K marketing program to convert old Bulletin readers. While it is a always sad to see a media 'institution' go under, in this case it was inevitable. There hasn't been too much interest in resurrecting the newspaper from any third party and perhaps the investment required to digitize their content and production processes is too much. The real crime is the loss Australia faces from both the voice of The Bulletin and the potential to farm the content for future generations. Had The Bulletin been owned by a commercial publisher during the mid-1990s then the future may have been quite different.

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