Cheeky Bastards


Tuesday, 12:20pm
Melbourne, Australia
“Buttula spruiks arrival of Spork at his new gig.” (Actual headline in last Thursday’s “The Australian” newspaper)


Reporting in from the fringes of the Outback…

… okay, I’m actually comfortably settled in an intriguing old hotel in Melbourne, nowhere near the Outback.

It still feels like I’m far from home, though.

Two weeks into this March Across Australia now, part of a bedraggled troupe of speakers, and I’m thrashed.  Don’t get me wrong — this is a great country, and we’ve been warmly embraced by the locals and shown amazingly-generous hospitality daily.

It’s just a long damn trip… made longer by that nasty plate of deep-fried snapper I had Saturday night at what looked like a decent little upscale restaurant downtown.  I forgot the old rule of traveling:  Never eat stuff that arrives with the eyeballs still staring at you.

I deserved the ensuing bout of immune-system-destroying dysphoria, I suppose.  Last December, in Dubai, a bunch of us sauntered down to the bad part of town to sample “native” fare the night before we spoke… and nothing happened.  We gobbled questionable curries and unidentifiable chunks of stew, and lived to tell the tale.

Afterward, we all looked at each other and said “What have we done?”

For most of my life, I’ve had little angels (or maybe just confused demons, I dunno) looking out for me… so I somehow managed to stay one step ahead of the Federales in Mexico, just-missed by the would-be hit-and-run jalopy in Hollywood, and usually slightily out of reach of the snarling bugs everywhere else yearning for a vacation in my intestines.  (To name a few examples out of many.)

So, this time I got caught.  It’s not Oz’s fault.  It’s all on me.

And, I’m recovering fairly quickly.  We have a couple of days to dig deeper into Melbourne’s wonders (my second time in the city), and then travel to Brisbane for the final leg of this preposterous journey.

Seems like Sydney was a month ago.

So, anyway, I’m just checking in to let you know that I believe I’ve found the answer to the long suicidal swan dive that American newspapers are taking.

And it’s very simple: Take lessons from the Aussie journalists.

The newspaper biz is thriving over here.  Each town supports at least one local rag, plus a national one.  The issues arrive each day with a thump — they are still huge, still happily sated with lots of ads, and (most important) still a rollicking good read.

That’s the key, as I see it.

It’s the writing.  At first, it felt like I was trying to interpret a completely different language — especially in the editorial sections.  But headlines like “Stone the Kroes, she’s Neelie gone” actually make sense once you get into the story and make the connections.  (These are names of politcians well-known to Aussies.)

More to the point… the actual journalism in the news sections performs the kind of two-step dance I remember from my teen years (when I was so in love with newspapers that I haunted journalism classes, and dreamed of being the next Herb Caen).  You really can cover the standard who/what/where/why/when/how… AND inject some vivid prose with a touch of opinion… thus delivering on the basics of good reporting, while not being boring.

American newspapers are among the most mind-numbing waste of trees in world (in my humble opinion).

They didn’t used to be so dull  Check out some archives — you can go back to Mark Twain’s day, up through WWII and into the 1970s, and find writing that pulls you in and packs a whallop.

Now?  We’re lucky to get a couple of decent columns from Maureen Dowd or PJ O’Rourke each year in the editorial section.  It’s hard to get through the news sections of the NY Times, the Wall St Journal, and the old once-venerated Washington Post without a nap anymore.  Dull, dull, dull.

It’s not like we’re not living though one of the more interesting times in history, either.

The Aussies show craft with their writing.  They are brash, bold and fearless about challenging conventional wisdom, and speaking their minds (usually after spending at least a little time getting their facts straight).

The US news media started veering sideways around two decades ago, and hit full stride in the wrong direction right when the Weblog was invented on the Internet.

And right now, blogs are slaughtering stateside “official” journos for fleshing out stories of interest, working from kitchen tables and home offices.

There are lots of culprits available for blame in this slo-mo hari kari pact.  I grew up with 3 decent newspapers working hard each day to outdo, humiliate and destroy each with better reporting, better writing, and a better experience.  (Count ’em: The LA Times, in it’s long-gone heyday, the dearly missed Herald Examiner, and the local Daily Report in Cucamonga).

Then, “efficiency” raised its ugly head, and savvy moguls realized they could outsource and deliver the “news” from central locations… and stop paying writers a living wage.  So, instead of a full staff in towns like Reno, where I live, we’ve got a skeleton crew slapping together prepackaged issues that have been designed to offend the least number of folks, while efficiently delivering a “product” to wrap around the advertising.

Yuck.  Same thing happened with radio.  There are just a handful of media comglomerates now (including the honking big Australian invader run by Murdock), for both radio and newspapers in the states… and they possess all the verve and personality you’d expect from a distant corporate board.  Zilch.

Oh, there are a couple of local writers kept on the dole to cover the rescues of tourists in kayak accidents, the wildfires, and the scandals in city hall too big to ignore.  But the “coverage” is thin and frightened, like mice peeking around the corner ready to bolt at the first sidelong glance from the pussycat.

Like GMs grisly demise, this did not have to happen.  The Web isn’t killing newspapers.  Newspapers are killing newspapers.  With sheer incompetence.

I see a silver lining, though.

Now that the best and the brightest of our scribes are no longer being seduced by Wall Street (cuz there aren’t many jobs left there)… and the shiny bright distraction of greed has dimmed a bit… there is an opportunity for more decent writers to re-engage with the noble profession of journalism again.

We need them, too.  Desperately.  This fragile little experiment in democracy can’t survive without the Fourth Estate kicking ass and taking names.

It may all still end up online, which is fine.  Or, more likely, some workable combination of online and offline presentation.

Maybe the new manifestation will be an actual “newsblog”.  The bloggers now working are limited in their ability to dig for stories from scratch — most (like Drudge) must operate solely from swiping the work of real professional journalists for the raw material.

Others (like mix it up a bit more… combining nicked stories from the newswires with additional reporting (sometimes) on top of the carping and critiques.  A few (like Politico), though blatantly slanted to one side or the other of the political spectrum, have actually broken major stories later picked up by the mainstream media.

It’s a mess out there right now.  With the not very good result of young people ignoring all actual news, and getting their worldview from places like YouTube (and their facts from the manipulatable Wikipedia).  I like all these alternative sources… but it’s pretty scary to think upcoming generations are relying on them.

Another advantage the Aussies have, of course, is that they’re sports-mad.  I believe Oz has a higher percentage of the population earning a living as a respected pro athlete than the US by a wide margin… and nearly every town has a pro team in one of the main sports.

And the best way to keep a sports nut happy is to print out detailed analysis, with lots of obscure stats, of each game… along with cheeky, opinionated, and fur-raising commentary.

(Ed Dale took us to a footie match, the home town Bulldogs against the Richmond thugs, and we had a blast.  I don’t understand why their version of the game hasn’t caught on the States.  It’s a controlled riot, easily as entertaining as any sports event I’ve ever witnessed.)

The folks who know how to write are dominating the conversations going on right now, in every part of your life.  They’re scripting the movie we’re all living out, and if you want to have a say, you’ll need to get your chops sharpened.

The Aussie audiences love my message of learning the easy path to becoming a writer.  They intuitively know the power of the pen (whether it’s delivered by email, video, webpage, or with newsprint) because the evidence is everywhere.

We’re losing that sense in the US.  The mainstream media will sell its soul for another ad dollar in revenue, and has no interest in the common good.  Newspapers, reduced to thin wrappers for the stuff that doesn’t do well on Craig’s List, are abandoning their responsibility to keep The Man on his toes.

This will change.

The new “elite” will be those in possession of good information… and they will be tempted (as always) to horde it and not let anyone else in on the tips.  Without good investigative reporting, they’ll get away with it, too.

Good reporting requires sacrifice and nerve and hard detective work.  The ranks of reporters are thin at the front lines, and they will welcome fresh help from smart, outraged, energized new writers.

Gonna be an interesting ride, at any rate.

In the meantime, dig harder for the truth when you can.  Don’t get lulled into a bored trance, just cuz we’re lacking local chutzpah in the news media.

As the Aussies show us, it’s still a noble — and very exciting — profession, when done right.

Stay cheeky,

John Carlton

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  • I totally liked this thread – thanks for sharing…

  • Rich says:

    I wonder if PJ O’Rourke reads this blog?

    He’d make a great guest columnist someday –

    I too enjoyed this post, another example of high quality and entertaining writing that keeps you engaged and makes you think, whether you agree with the overall sentiments or not.

    Rarely is such a piece found in Newspapers these days.

    • John Carlton says:

      Thanks, Rich. PJ is one of my favorite writers, and one of the very few current pro’s I know I’d get along with privately.
      It’d be a shock and a delight to ever hear from him…

  • DaveC says:

    Thanx very much for the Aussie report John.
    To get out of the house now and then I freelance for a local paper. Everything you’ve written about North American papers is true. I’ve sent the URL for your post today to the Editor and asked him to send it to his boss, the Publisher.

  • Kevin Rogers says:

    Great post, John.

    Here in St. Pete, across from the Salvador Dali museum is the Poynter Institute. Founded by Nelson Poynter, who was chairman of the St. Petersburg Times – one of the few remaining independent papers with a pulse. (They just picked up their second Pulitzer for feature writing this year)

    I’ve attended a few “town hall” style conversations with famous journalists at Poynter. William Raspberry and David Fanning were intriguing – Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts are terrible bores.

    I have to credit Poynter with trying to keep journalistic integrity alive in the face of the fact-free world of blog reporting. But, like you said, fear of offending advertisers now dictates editorial content at all major newspapers. This has been he case for years and it’s making reader’s soft.

    I once watched Norman Mailer motion to an open microphone and challenge the audience in the Chicago Public Library to, “bring it on. I’m not afraid of you.”

    He wanted tough questions. Debate. Conflict. Ya know, all the things that made the last breed of real journalists good at their jobs.

    But nothing. Not even in The Windy City. I felt a little rumble as Royko rolled in his grave.

    Thanks for the report, I’ll be checking out the Aussie rags.

    • John Carlton says:

      God bless Royko. And Cokie and her pals in the elite division should lie awake every night, shivering in shame for what they’ve done to American critical thought.
      I would kill to have been in that audience with Mailer, too — those guys are still around, in our generations… but they never got into WRITING, dammit, and thus got diverted from the game.
      I sense we’re picking up some steam, though…
      BTW: Melbourne is hosting a HUGE Dali exhibit here (starting the day after I leave, unfortunately)… part of a concentrated effort to help the old genius reclaim his place as a Great. (Scholars dismiss his advertising work — he did Vogue covers, and full page ads for department stores and colognes and stuff! — but it’s great fun to examine now.)
      Kevin, if you’ve never read Herb Caen (the long gone SF Chronicle columnist), you have a real treat coming. He only wrote a few books, but they’re worth tracking down… and sample a few of his columns, which I’m sure are somewhere online… true wit and verve and balls and total knowledge of the craft…

  • Hal Hoadley says:

    I was glad to see you put up a new post written in your own hand. Maybe the U.S. newspapers need to take a trip down under to get a feel for what good, interesting and entertaining wtiting is all about. It seems to me that the U.S. major newspapers all want to report on their own slant of what is happening now. The internet may have taken some of their thunder but good writing has excaped them. Can you ask P.J.O’rourke to write a post on your blog? I would love that.
    Thanks again John and “stay frosty”. Stolen rheteric from the master himself. Hope you don’t mind.

  • Mark L says:

    Hey John,
    Makes you long “the special” at the Red Hill Cafe in Cucamonga?
    At least we never got gastric outrage from the yellow and brown colored food.
    Well, maybe just a tad… but remember, our intestinal tracts were 35 years younger.
    Drink lotsa distilled water and have a vegemite sandwich or two, my friend.
    There was a period in the early 90’s when any and all were publishing their own ‘zines. The City Lights Bookstore used to be flooded with them.
    A good buddy published an infamous “alt-music” zine called “Dagger”. He did his own first-hand reporting and networked with bands like “Smog”
    down in the clubs in Haight Ashbury. Then he sat down and wrote the whole damn zine thing.
    Of course this has finally translated into blogging and you didn’t have to live at Kinko’s anymore.
    Local, we have a Murdock paper and a “New Times” for city/county politics and entertainment. That’s about it.
    The fall of the great San Francisco papers was a real tragedy. Superb journalists and real news hounds.
    I learned a ton about music, books and art from the Sunday LA Times. Even after I left LA, I had one delivered to Mayberry West on the Central Coast.
    Great post! Created a deep sense of loss for the golden age of the American Newpapers.
    Good on ya,

    • John Carlton says:

      Hey Mark. Haven’t had the guts (literally) to try vegemite. Stan did, and couldn’t find words to explain the sensation. Didn’t lure me in, though.
      You reminded me that I started several underground-type “papers” in high school. None ever lasted more than a few issues, cuz they were hard to produce and caused lots of trouble with The Man (I got kicked out once for what I wrote). I think written communication is in our blood as humans — it will struggle to surface, no matter what hampers the process (the Poles had newsletter under the Nazi boot, and Chinese bloggers stare down years of hard labor to get their stuff out).
      Unless we blow ourselves off the stage, I feel we’re on the cusp of a new age in writing here… and it’s exciting…
      You working on your book yet?

      • Rezbi says:

        Hey guys,
        I hear vegemite is a ‘delicacy’ amongst aussies… Trevor Crook says so 🙂

        My question is, does it taste anything like marmite?

        Have you heard of marmite?

  • Zahida says:

    Hi there, I had bought your product in March ’09, had called your office for a refund April ’09, had sent numerous emails to and NO ONE has responded. Please, please… can someone tell me how to send the product back for a refund??

    Thank you, Z’da

    • John Carlton says:

      Z’da, there is no way that you contacted my office and got no response. One person works with me on this — my longtime personal assistant Diane handles all of the problems and refund requests, and she takes the job personally. She is on these matters immediately and daily.
      It’s possible your email has been diverted into spam filters, or otherwise delayed reaching us. Unlikely, but possible. I just emailed Diane to double-check and see what — if anything — could be hampering your contact with us.
      Besides… to return materials, just RETURN them. There’s no secret process.

      • John Carlton says:

        UPDATE: I thought Z’da would have commented again by now, explaining what happened from her end.
        Since she hasn’t, I will fill in the void.
        Here’s the story: Z’da was contacted by my personal assistant, Diane, as soon as we received an actual email from her. Problem was, Z’da had been emailing to a misspelled address here — using “marketingregel” instead of “marketingrebel” (which she admits). There is a lesson here for anyone interested in communication.
        All is well. Everybody’s been taken care of, happily.
        We have outstanding customer service. Again — there are just a few people on the staff, and all are just one call away from me, personally.
        But there’s little we can do if we aren’t contacted in the first place.
        End of morality tale.

  • Allan Wikman says:

    Not “exciting.” Revealing. Sure, true of much of world political geography. Sixty years ago this month, college boy cum Teamsters Union laborer at NJ’s Monmouth Park, I won one of countless, boredom-beating, workaday, “3 strikes you’re out” trivia games only because a dozen years earlier my mom had sat me beneath the tulip tree and drilled me on factoids from a red, hardcover quiz book of biology, literature, geography, government, etc. questions. Charlie swore that no one had ever answered correctly. My answer to his question stimulated to windmill his spade from the clubhouse lawn over the track and onto the infield. Meantime, I’ve queried hundreds of folks, gotten the correct to “What’s the capital of Australia?” answer a half-dozen times.

  • Maggie Holley says:

    Hi John,

    Well..The only time I actually got sick like that was chicken in Lyon France..
    Hope you’re up & at ’em again and I loved your post on OZ ,as after living in the US for 13 years (till 2003)the only stuff I found I really wanted to read was The Onion!!
    Good Luck with BrisVegas & QLD ( Our version of Gods Waiting Room ) ..& I’m still waiting to know if I got VB od Carlton Draught?!

  • Leon says:

    I agree, good reporting requires a lot of sacrifice and the nerve and hard detective work. If i a may add, a lot of patience too!

  • Cinaea says:

    Thanks for sharing all your insight and wisdom with us John, and for your comments about Down Under’s media and journalistic processes.
    Your sense of humour and honest laid back approach to life seems to suit the Aussie character and it has been such a thrill having you here 🙂
    thanks heaps
    P.S. Are you taking any Carlton Draught back home with you?….a beer with your name on it is pretty cool 🙂

  • Allan Wikman says:

    Once a king always a king, but once a Knight’s enuf.
    Am dispatching this to a friend in “Margaret River” (now THERE’s a spot!) and an expatriate, GB to Oz to US, for the bounce.
    Professor Tobin (U/Iowa) was right: we need to read text six times just to retain sixty (yup, 60) percent of the ideas!!!! Wspecially if you can’t read.
    That’s twice. Even MORE riveting that the initial.

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