Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Bully leaves the playground: The Death of The Bulletin

Australia’s oldest magazine "The Bulletin" has shut down today after 128 years. Australian Consolidated Press (ACP) magazines chief executive Scott Lorson issued a media release today saying that The Bulletin would cease publication immediately. Its final issue went on sale yesterday. In the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, The Bulletin was down to 57,000 readers down from circulation highs of over 100,000 in the mid 1990s. The news comes barely three days after Lachlan Murdoch and James Packer launched a bid for the PBL media empire which includes 25 per cent of ACP.

However with The Bulletin always being a pet project of James Packer’s late father Kerry, the decision to shut down the magazine is more likely to have been made by the other 75 per cent owning partners, Swiss private equity firm CVC Asia Pacific Ltd. Journalists union Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) blames the former Howard Government’s change to media laws that allowed Packer to sell out PBL to overseas interests. Union federal secretary Chris Warren said CVC Asia Pacific was only interested in short-term profits. "Instead of The Bulletin being owned by an Australian company, it's now controlled by overseas private equity," he said. "It's only interested in money and not really understanding I think the important role that many of the assets within that company play within the broader Australian culture."

There is no doubt the “Bully” has played a major role in Australian culture. According to founding editor Jules Francois Archibald (for whom the Archibald Prize is named), the Bulletin began with a rickety three-legged chair which upended him on his first meeting with fellow founder John Haynes in a Sydney newspaper office in 1879. The two men were determined to start a paper of their own. The Sydney Bulletin (named for the San Francisco Bulletin) first hit the newsstands on 31 January, 1880 with a circulation of 3,000. According to Sylvia Lawson its early years were an “astounding conflagration of cultural and journalistic energy”. She says its racist and xenophobic jokes were merely elements in a weekly cacophony of news, anecdotes, stories, ballads and pictures.

John William Traill became editor in 1883 and he really put the paper on its feet. After a shaky start its circulation grew to 80,000 in ten years. He promoted an anti-British line in the 1886 adventure in the Sudan and supported Parnell and the Irish home rule cause. It celebrated the centenary of white Australia in 1888 as “the day we were lagged”. But xenophobia was never far away and The Bulletin ran a hysterical campaign against Chinese immigration. The Bulletin was a major influence on the White Australia policy implemented by the first federal government in 1901.

The Bulletin played up to its nickname of the Bushman’s Bible. Its correspondents Henry Lawson (pictured right with Archibald) and A.B. Patterson engaged in a famous verse-duel on the bush, with Banjo singing its praises and Lawson reciting its glooms and hardships. But by Federation, the newspaper was past its early best. Archibald left the paper in 1906 and it moved further to the right editorially. The paper suffered a long and unloved decline. By mid century the readership had dwindling to near non-existence. It was saved from death by the purchase in 1960 by Frank Packer’s ACP. Packer’s masterstroke was to appoint Donald Horne as editor. Horne revitalised the Bulletin, excised its xenophobia and mysogyny and removed the controversial masthead which read ‘Australia For the White Man’.

Despite Horne’s energy and intellectual vigour the magazine continued to operate at a loss for many years. It was sustained only by Packer largesse and its tax write-off potential. However, in the 1980s The Bulletin was shifted to a more business-oriented audience and did well in the financial boom. Its circulation topped 120,000 and became a profitable title once more. But it suffered at the hands of the free magazine inserts in the weekend newspapers and again later at the hands of the Internet.

Various attempts to breathe new life into the magazine failed. Laurie Oakes has written a political column in The Bulletin for the past 24 years. He lamented the decision to shut it down, but said it was not a shock. "I know that it hasn't been profitable for a long time and I guess when you think about it, it's not surprising,” he said. “It doesn't make it any less upsetting.”

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