Erik Jensen unpacks the rationale behind starting up The Saturday Paper. Cartoon, above, by Glen Le Lievre.
The first time I met Morry Schwartz he wore sandals and drank tea. These solitary facts stand out because never since have I seen him do either. The tea, for those interested, was Darjeeling.
I am doubtful Morry or I thought we would have agreed by the end of that afternoon to start a newspaper. January in Sydney is not a time for getting things done. But as we talked it became clear we had been thinking similar thoughts. We had the same simple view of how a newspaper might find vitality in a market buffeted by change. As it happened, Morry had a name already registered: The Saturday Paper.
I moved to Melbourne, where Morry publishes the Monthly and Quarterly Essay, and started drawing plans for the paper. This simple view we shared was that newspapers needed to redefine their purpose in relation to the internet. They should not be getting faster, but slower.
There is nothing controversial in saying that the internet stole from newspapers their classifieds. What I refused to believe – and still refuse to believe – is that the internet had stolen people’s attention spans or their seriousness. It had not stolen what people wanted from newspapers: depth, importance, trustworthiness. If anything, the internet’s frivolity and unreliability made people want these things more.
Certainly, there are things the internet does well. Print newspapers should have let these go: syndication, for which the internet is perfectly and cheaply built; rolling coverage; click-bait; stock reports; et cetera.
The first thing I did when we started working on the paper was to make a list of all these things and to decide we would not bother with them.
But there were things newspapers had stopped doing as they chased a hare-footed online audience, as they gave their newsrooms over to feeding the maw of digital inventory. They had stopped giving reporters time. This simple thing – time – would be our model. With time comes context and analysis and good writing. With time comes the chance to tell the whole story.
Early on in the planning – checking paper stock and combing microfiche and working with designers – I met with a member of the Herald Sun’s old senior management. He told me the tabloid had one main objective: to be coveted on building sites like a Kit Kat, until the first break of a morning. All else flowed from this.
Time is two parts of The Saturday Paper’s model. We live in an age of unprecedented knowledge and limited understanding. People do not have the time for comprehension, but they prize it. And so that is what we strove to give them: a paper that allowed them to carve out time for understanding; to get across the elements of a week, in a form that felt like a treat. A kind of worldly, familiar, highbrow Kit Kat, well written and entertaining, both complete in each story and yet, in its brevity of pages, essential in its content.
In our first editorial, we described The Saturday Paper thus: “And so here we are, this young paper with tenacious vision; a paper defiant of trends and conventional wisdom, trusting in a country that needs sophistication in place of sophistry, that yearns for calmer debate and better journalism. This is a newspaper for a country more serious than it is often credited with being. Its complexity will be hidden in its simple aspiration: to chronicle, unsparingly, the age in which we live.”
The leader continued: “Fundamentally, The Saturday Paper is about permission: Permission for a country to look at itself unselfconsciously; for writers to tell stories that are ignored elsewhere, in ways that challenge orthodoxy; permission to question authority and provoke debate, to round up an issue, to yap and growl and demand we be better. We promise to be a small but handsome mongrel, a blue heeler cross of the press.”
The paper has its critics. Most have conceived of a list of attributes that were never the paper’s aspirations, and decided they have not been met. Most made these criticisms before the paper’s third issue had been put to bed. Most are desiccated bores.
But the paper is working. It is ahead on all the targets we set for it.
I am proud to publish in it long pieces that would not otherwise find an audience in newspapers: Martin McKenzie-Murray’s intellectually fearless essay on paedophilia, the harrowing ordinariness of a letter from a mother trapped on Nauru, Luke Williams’ Walkley-nominated account of his descent into meth addiction. These are why we are read and why we are publishing.
Before I launched the paper, I thought I was a cynic. I had spent my adult life at The Sydney Morning Herald. Moreover, I had spent it sitting beside David Marr. But nothing like launching a newspaper will convince a person of their optimism.
Each page is joyously difficult. Each story, a multitude of struggles. But that is why any of us do it, at any newspaper in this country. Because it is important.
Erik Jensen is the founding editor of The Saturday Paper. He is the author of Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen. Twitter: @erikojensen
Glen Le Lievre contributes to The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun-Herald and The Age