The gap left by the Fairfax strike

August 31, 2008

In 1945, sociologist Bernard Berelson took advantage of a newspaper delivery strike in New York to do some research, later published as What ‘Missing The Newspaper’ Means.

With 500 Aussie journos on strike (see their website), I thought it might be instructive to revisit a few of Berelson’s observations, to see how they held up today.

The striking journos manifesto says:

Quality journalism matters. It is important that working journalists at Fairfax are able to keep Australians informed without fear of retribution from their corporate managers.

Berelson starts his study by cutting away at that cherished professional myth of ‘keeping people informed’.

[P]ractically everyone pays tribute to the value of newspaper as a source of “serious” information about and interpretation of the world of public affairs, although not everyone uses it in that way. During the interview our respondents were asked whether they thought “it is very important that people read the newspapers or not.”

Almost everyone answered with a strong “Yes,” and went on to specify that the importance of the newspaper lay in its informational and educational aspects. For most of the respondents, this specification referred to the newspaper as a source of news, narrowly defined, on public affairs.
However, not nearly so many people use the newspaper for this approved purpose…

But what did missing the paper mean emotionally?

“I am like a fish out of water . . . I am lost and nervous. I’m ashamed to admit it.”
“I feel awfully lost. I like the feeling of being in touch with the world at large.”
“If I don’t know what’s going on next door, it hurts me. It’s like being in jail not to have a paper.”
“You feel put out and isolated from the rest of the world.”
“It practically means isolation. We’re at a loss without our paper…”
“Something is missing in my life.”
“I am suffering! Seriously! I could not sleep, I missed it so…”
“I sat around in the subway, staring, feeling out of place.”

Berelson concluded:

This need for the newspaper is further documented by references to the ritualistic and near-compulsive character of newspaper reading. Many people read their newspapers at a particular time of the day as a secondary activity, while they are engaged in doing something else, such as eating, traveling to work, etc. Being deprived of the time-filler made the void especially noticeable…

Now check out the website of the Sydney Morning Herald, where journalists are striking over plans to cut 5% of editorial jobs. Sixty-plus years on, would you expect anything like the emotional reactions Berelson listed above? And looking at the site, can you even tell there’s a strike on?

Yes, there are many new ways to fill the void…

Previous post:

Next post: