Few Australians have loitered so long at the brink of death as Kerry Packer, and perhaps none so ambivalently. Tens of millions of dollars were lavished on the campaign to prolong his life. He was saved first by timely defibrillation, then by a transplanted kidney, and finally by a constant cycle of surgery and steroids, trailed everywhere by the best minds in clinical care. But, heedless of the medical consequences, Packer was resolved to make no changes to his life whatsoever. The addiction to junk food remained unaltered by diabetes; the smoking continued unabated, despite six coronary angioplasties. "Light my cigarette, son," he famously told a prominent cardiologist. Upbraided for his lifestyle by a specialist at the Cornell Medical Center, he made his priorities perfectly clear: "All right, son, you've given me the fucking lecture ... Now are you going fucking fix me up or aren't you?"
No title in his print empire was closer to Packer's heart than the weekly Bulletin. And in its last two decades, no title seemed quite so shaded by its proprietor's personality. Tens of millions of dollars were allocated to the Bulletin's survival. There were constant transfusions of journalistic talent and executive expertise. There were regular relaunches and recalibrations. But the venerable masthead, dedicated to the week's news, geared to rapid response, found it hard to break the habits of a lifetime, and outlived its legendary master by barely two years.
On the morning the Bulletin finally closed, Thursday, 24 January 2008, editor-in-chief John Lehmann went for a haircut. There were bound to be television cameras; he might as well look his best. Lehmann was right. The news crews duly came, but they camped out the front of ACP Magazines, at 54 Park Street, Sydney, unaware that for four and a half years the Bulletin had been round the corner in Stockland House, at 175 Castlereagh Street. It was a happy accident allowing Bulletin employees to stroll mainly unmolested to their impromptu wake at Darling Harbour's Pier 26; it also attested the magazine's marginal position in the Australian media.
Newspapers the next day rushed to tell the story of the suits at CVC Capital Partners, who now control ACP Magazines through the 75% stake in PBL Media they secured last year, and who had now trampled the traditions of 128 years. "Welcome to the brave, but soulless, new world," said John Lyons (former Bulletin national-affairs editor) in the Australian. "It was the last bastion of the long view," said Tony Wright (former Bulletin national-affairs editor) in the Age. At word that the Bulletin was losing about $4 million a year, eyes moistened in memory of the dear departed. "Kerry would win or lose that [$4 million] in a weekend in Las Vegas or London," observes David Haselhurst, for 35 years the stock-tipper extraordinaire behind the magazine's ‘Speculator' column. "The money the carpetbaggers [CVC] were losing in the Bulletin was an eighth of what they had just paid themselves in executive bonuses," notes Patrick Cook, for 20 years the voice of its satirical ‘Not the News' page.
Squirming at the scrutiny, the venture capitalists proceeded with a hugger-mugger interment. The magazine's website was switched off within a day. Its name was swiftly removed from the downstairs listings of its building, while mail was soon being returned to senders with blunt stickers advising, "NO LONGER AT THIS ADDRESS ... BULLETIN CLOSED." On the day I visited, the door of the magazine's eerily silent office was still blazoned with its last cover, ‘Why We Love Australia'.
Yet there's no doubt that this passion of the Bulletin's was, towards its end, unrequited. Audited circulation had halved since the 1980s, its ageing subscribers were not being replaced and its newsstand visibility had dwindled. When one former senior staffer sought a souvenir of its last edition at Central railway station on 24 January, he searched a big newsagency high and low, to no avail; finally asking for help, he was directed to two copies hidden almost out of sight.
Schadenfreudeis always possible when one magazine reports the closure of another with which it is widely supposed to be in competition. That's not the case here: this writer enjoyed a happy decade as a contributor to the Bulletin and counts a number of former employees as friends. In studying the decline and fall, nonetheless, you can't help hearing the echo of its erstwhile proprietor's famous deathbed comment: "Am I still there? How fucking long is this going to take?"
The last 18 months of the Bulletin'sdeathbed vigil had been gruelling; there was a sense in some of its more panting covers of a publication running hard to stand still. There had been a constant cycle of farewells, 20 staff reading the signs and moving on. Most of the senior staff members were replaced by less seasoned reporters, where they were replaced at all.
Much of Lehmann's time had been devoted to doing more with less, sometimes with nothing at all, as when he invited politicians to contribute to the Bulletin during the election campaign. "Who can I get?" was the question by which he became known. Sometimes this had an unconscious comedy. "Who can I get to do a cartoon?" he said, emerging from his office one day, apparently oblivious to his having just let go his last two cartoonists.
In these austerities he was watched over by his publisher, Paul Myers, a short, bossy figure installed by PBL Media CEO Ian Law, who had previously run the RM Williams magazine, Outback. Myers might have fitted in a century earlier, when the Bulletin had rejoiced in its reputation as the ‘Bushman's Bible'; staff now referred to their cheese-paring publisher as ‘Small Pliers'. Some economies were noticeable, such as the replacement of Jana Wendt as ‘Lunch with' columnist by the lighter and less costly Juanita Phillips; some seemed niggardly, like canning the Chaser's droll headline news summary. Others became the stuff of legend. Book reviewers? Who needed them? "Why do we have to pay these people?" griped Lehmann one day. "Don't they like reading?" Myers stormed: "We've got 26 people on staff! Get one of them to do something!"
The Bulletin, nonetheless, had soldiered on, and continued to punch above its diminishing weight. Its ace Darwin correspondent, Paul Toohey, broke the story of Therese Rein's business interests; its dogged investigator Jennifer Sexton revealed the shady past of Paul Keating's business associate Bruce McDonald, and the bizarre mores of Rene Rivkin's inner circle. The magazine had unearthed one excellent young reporter, Katherine Fleming from Medical Observer, and manufactured another, Joey Catanzaro, promoted from manning the front desk to touring Iraq. By the end of last year there was the kind of euphoria that comes from having apparently cheated the hangman. Cook remembers that where the Christmas lunch of 2006 had been "thinly attended and resentful", that of 2007 had involved "a vast amount of enthusiasm, goodwill and yippee". So, despite all the grim tidings, it came as a shock when group publisher Phil Scott introduced ACP Magazines CEO Scott Lorson in the Bulletin office that Thursday morning.
Lorson arrived like a man bearing bad news - dark suit, navy blue shirt, scuffed loafers - and wasted no time sharing it. He herded staff into a tight group in front of him, as though they were soldiers on parade or children at a school assembly, and told them they had published their last issue, efforts to sell the magazine having failed. Phones in the office were ringing before he had finished his address: a press release announcing the closure was already in circulation. How long did it fucking take? In the end, about 20 minutes. In hindsight, probably closer to 20 years.
During his three vigorous years as editor-in-chief of the Bulletin, Lehmann's predecessor, Garry Linnell, toyed occasionally with the strapline ‘Setting Australia's Agenda Since 1880'. His news editor, Tim Blair, would laugh: "Are you sure you want to remind people of some of the agendas we've set?" After all, earlier straplines had included ‘Socialism In Our Time'; then ‘Australia for the Australians'; and, most infamously, ‘Australia for the White Man and China for the Chow'.
For much of its history, the Bulletin was chauvinistic to the point of isolationism, denouncing foreign wars and foreign capital with equal ardour; it was also unblinkingly anti-British, especially when the empire was in its view insufficiently racist. "There is nothing to lead us to believe," it editorialised a hundred years ago, "that [John] Bull, bloated with pride over the possession of over 300,000,000 nigger subjects, has a vestige of sympathy with, or comprehension of, the White Australia ideal." It was variously anti-Semitic and anti-communist; it was happy to yield Spain to Franco, and Italy to Mussolini; it advised appeasement of Hitler ("Far from being a megalomaniac," said the Bulletin, three weeks before the invasion of Poland, "Adolf Hitler is probably the most modest man in Germany") and counselled scorn for Churchill ("Mr Churchill is the Dangerous Dan McGrew of Imperial politics," said the magazine in January 1940, "and he is far more dangerous to us than to the enemy").
At its best and boldest, however, the Bulletin was more than a periodical. "It was Australia," said the writer-adventurer Randolph Bedford. DH Lawrence's alter ego, Richard Somers, exempted the Bulletin from his drear view of Australian culture in Kangaroo (1923): "He liked its straightforwardness and the kick in some of its tantrums. It beat no solemn drums. It had no deadly earnestness. It was just stoical and spitefully humorous." There were the writers: not just Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, but Steele Rudd, CJ Dennis, Joseph Furphy, John Shaw Neilson, Dorothea Mackellar, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Frank Dalby Davidson, Christopher Brennan, Ethel Turner, Barbara Baynton, Vance and Nettie Palmer. There were the artists and cartoonists: Hop (Livingston Hopkins), Phil May, Norman Lindsay, Fred Leist, Will Dyson and David Low. "Perhaps never in the history of world journalism has a paper stood nearer to the heart of a country than the Bulletin," thought Sidney Baker, who studied the publication intently for his classic The Australian Language (1946). "Perhaps never again will so much of the true nature of a country be caught up in the pages of a single journal."
Every journal has a lifespan, of course, and founder JF Archibald had no illusions about the Bulletin's, foretelling that his "clever youth" would inevitably "become a dull old man". His prophecy seemed to have been fulfilled 50 years ago, when the Bulletin's circulation was barely 27,000, having more than halved since World War II, burdening the Prior family, its owners since 1927, with heavy losses. It survival was a fluke. Frank Packer, publisher of the Daily Telegraph and impresario of Channel Nine, wanted to neutralise the Priors' Women's Mirror, a rival to his own Australian Women's Weekly. Packer was not quite sure what to do with the unprofitable, inert Bulletin, which came as part of the purchase, in October 1960. He rang Donald Horne, editor of his new fortnightly, the Observer. "I've bought the Bulletin," he said. "Which will we kill off? It or the Observer?" The Bulletin endured on Horne's whim: it was, if you like, the Lucky Publication.
The Bulletin scarcely deserved its good fortune. Horne found it "a clumsy souvenir of long ago", printed on inferior stock, sustained by infestive readers: "Of the dozen and a half jokes in each issue ... there was always an ‘Abo' joke, and often a reffo joke, although the reffos no longer had Yid noses, but the largest single category was jokes about the daftness of old women and the bodily curves of young women." Horne rewrote its manifesto, committing it to give "an informed picture of the life we lead in this country and its extraordinary diversity", and forbore the frenzied hostility of the response to his changes: at least one reader sent several used pieces of toilet paper.
Horne's two spells as editor, separated by the tenures of Peter Hastings and Peter Coleman, more than doubled the circulation. The editorships of Trevor Sykes and Trevor Kennedy doubled it again, seeing off challengers like Gordon Barton's Nation Review and John Fairfax's National Times. The by-lines were as bejewelledasBarry Humphries, Xavier Herbert, Hal Porter, Thomas Kenneally, David Williamson, Frank Moorhouse, Tim Winton and Gwen Harwood (who took her leave with piqued acrostics whose first letters spelt S-O-L-O-N-G-B-U-L-L-E-T-I-N and F-U-C-K-A-L-L-E-D-I-T-O-R-S). Few Australian journalists of note, meanwhile, did not serve at least a brief tour of duty at the magazine, including some with big plans. Wannabe Labor player Bob Carr never stopped networking: he used his position as state political roundsman to introduce the likes of Paul Keating, Graham Richardson and Barrie Unsworth to his proprietor. Aspiring conservative politician Tony Abbott was known for his iron discipline: after running at lunchtime, he would plant his head on a cleared desk, sleep for exactly ten minutes, and immediately resume work. Speaking at Malcolm Turnbull's thirtieth birthday, Kennedy jested that the prime ministership was a mere bauble: Turnbull would be satisfied only by world domination.
The Bulletin duly became part of the Packer inheritance that Kerry valued. If he no longer had the Telegraph at his disposal, like his old man, the Bulletin lent him perceived influence - almost as good, when it came to it, as the real thing. It was fun, too, a sort of knockabout intelligence unit. The scion got to muck about with a few of his father's old retainers, such as Alan Reid and David McNicholl, and to cultivate a few of his own, like Laurie Oakes, a peerless political seer, and David Haselhurst, whose tips for the ‘Speculator' column outstripped the All-Ordinaries index in 30 of 34 years, including nine years of triple-digit growth.
In the 1970s, in fact, Packer actually trusted Haselhurst to run two investment companies on his behalf, with discretion to place buy-orders up to $40,000. Some might have found the experience of punting their boss's money daunting. The insouciant Haselhurst spent it with abandon, on one occasion leading a plunge into Launceston Gas that inadvertently netted him scrip worth $60,000, the surplus third of which he laid off among Bulletin colleagues. It happened that Packer chose that day to whisk staff to Chinatown in four stretch limos, where he was confused by the lunchtime chatter. "Why is everyone talking about Launceston Gas?" the mogul demanded. "I've been meaning to tell you, Kerry," said Haselhurst hastily. "You're now the biggest shareholder there, and we're in it with you." Packer grinned at his minions: "Ah well, when Haselhurst takes me down the gurgler, at least you'll all be coming too." Haselhurst became such a favoured son that when his marriage broke down, Packer lent him $50,000 free of interest to buy a house in Darlinghurst.
Expensive to adequately resource, the Bulletin was never massively profitable. And when in the 1980s newspapers invaded the glossy-advertising market by expanding their weekend editions with colour supplements and news reviews, it again became financially marginal. It was even cramping the style of its sister publications. Fairfax, for example, was building a profitable franchise with its Business Review Weekly, but Packer dithered over gearing up the fortnightly Australian Business as a challenger, out of consideration for the Bulletin. For all his personal caprices, Packer was a proprietor who hastened slowly.
To shake the ACP tree, Packer hired Richard Walsh, the former wunderkind of Oz, POL and Nation Review who for the preceding 14 years had run Angus & Robertson. In Walsh's opinion, the magazine market had been changed irrevocably by the arrival of the American news magazines Time and Newsweek, reliant upon cover prices of almost give-away cheapness to build the circulation that would in turn impress advertisers. But where such businesses could amortise their costs worldwide, the Bulletin had only a slow-growing domestic base. The newspaper glossies Good Weekend and the Australian Magazine, moreover, also had an edge on the Bulletin, being spared the newsstand gauntlet by coming out free each Saturday, with a guaranteed circulation. Walsh spent a lot of time considering the Bulletin's predicament and came up with ... well, not much. "I couldn't work out how on Earth we were going to get out of it," says Walsh. "When you looked at it logically, there simply didn't seem any strong reason for the magazine to exist."
Above all was the inhibition of his proprietor's conservatism. Walsh's first idea was to eliminate some of the Bulletin's discretionary costs. He planned to merge the commercial, marketing and distribution structures of the Bulletin and BRW in a 50-50 joint venture with Fairfax, and sell the magazines as a subscription package. Initially interested, Packer cooled on the idea. "Kerry seemed to understand," says Walsh. "Then he decided he would rather lose money." Walsh next reconceived the Bulletin as a journal of "vigorous opinion", a weekly in the style of the Spectator or the New Statesman. He headhunted David Dale - the pithy ‘Stay in Touch' columnist of the Sydney Morning Herald who had written for Oz as a teenager at Randwick High School - and mandated him to perk the magazine up. With Fairfax in disarray after Warwick Fairfax's botched buyout, others were willing to follow, among them Patrick Cook, business columnist Glenda Korporaal and photographer Lorrie Graham.
Dale ran a very readable, very attractive magazine. Cheeky covers and an accent on the ‘back of the book' - its arts, books and entertainment coverage - substantiated a Carey McSpeddin advertising campaign boasting of the Bulletin'snew "brio". But Dale's style and ACP's ways remained oil and water. To Trevor Kennedy, now ACP's managing director, the Bulletin'smakeover was too clever, too cute, rather effete. "There's only one thing you need to save this magazine," he lectured. "Fucking good stories." It was the voice of the veteran newsman, at home with scoops, scorchers, bombshells and ball-tearers. Nor did Dale warm to ACP's testosterone- and profanity-laden culture, where success seemed to be based on "your capacity to fit the word ‘cunt' into the sentence more often than the next person". Enemies outside and inside the Bulletin were ready to exploit any misstep when Dale gave them opportunity.
In July 1988, Dale and his colleagues selected ‘The 100 Most Appalling People in Australia', an undergraduate but ecumenical exercise that lumped Paul Keating in with Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Manning Clark with Geoffrey Blainey, Patrick White with John Farnham, with a few Bulletin alumni - among them Phillip Adams and Malcolm Turnbull - for good measure. It also included several of Packer's "pick and stick" circle - Alan Jones, John Singleton, Graham Richardson - and news of their displeasure was firmly communicated to Dale. "Kerry didn't read the Bulletin," says Walsh. "But he knew people who did." For Packer, the cover resonated with his own impression of news-media negativism, and he inveighed against journalists to one of his loyal foot soldiers, Bruce Stannard, in the Bulletin in November 1989: "Unfortunately, many Australians want to pull down anyone who achieves. And journalists are no exceptions. They have become a law unto themselves."
Dale's attempt to reprise the cover as ‘The Great Australian Balance Sheet', with assets as well as liabilities, was never likely to endear him to his boss. Today the Bulletin of 20 March 1990 reads like a fairly mild survey of bien-pensant opinion, with a few disarming twists: John Howard was an asset ("demonstrates a loyalty to party and principle that makes it possible to believe that politics isn't all bad"), Joan Coxsedge a liability ("bores for Australia where possible"). At the time, it loomed rather larger. Most of the barbs were safe enough, like Susan Renouf ("Enouf! Enouf!"); but Singleton was given another touch up ("Good at playing to the lowest common denominator and making a virtue of the vulgar Australia"), while Jones received a rather low blow ("Created an eternal mystery by surviving a spot of bother with the police in London. His friends at home stood behind him").
Uneasy calm prevailed for a few days, and Dale's next issue was one of his most profitable, Toyota paying a premium to buy every single advertisement in the magazine: the sort of deal for which advertising departments break out champagne. It counted not, and the story of Dale's sacking haunts him rather as Sir Peregrine Worsthorne will forever be associated with the story of his sacking as Sunday Telegraph editor over perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast at Claridges. When Walsh resigned, rather than comply with Packer's request to sack Dale, Packer did the job himself. "I'm going to fire you," he told Dale. "Can I speak?" Dale asked. "You can speak," Packer replied. "But it'll do you no good."
Walsh has no doubt that Packer loved the Bulletin: "Kerry was pretty much a philistine, but he had his own pretensions. He would scoff, of course, at anything that smacked of high art. But he had a certain respect for Australian traditions, and he understood that his own dynasty was rooted in one of the golden periods for Australian culture, the period of Smiths Weekly and Australian Women's Weekly, Ross Campbell, Lennie Lower, Ken Slessor. In that sense he understood the idea of continuity." But Dale's dismissal was a warning to all his Bulletin successors - indeed, all editors at ACP - that in the impresario of 60 Minutes, Cleo and World Series Cricket now beat the heart of a true reactionary.
The 1990s were mainly fallow years for the Bulletin. Walsh, who was induced to return by Trevor Kennedy, promoted Lyndall Crisp as editor: the first woman to hold the job. But the young James Packer, who had come into the family business as a general manager reporting to Walsh, then advocated the installation of former 60 Minutes producer Gerald Stone as editor-in-chief. Stone filled the magazine with the flaccid clichés of television current affairs. Apathy prevailed. "Sure, progress brings about great social upheavals but it doesn't change human nature," Stone droned in the Bulletin's 6000th edition, in December 1995. "A good read is a good read." That the world was thoroughly over-endowed with such "good reads" did not seem to penetrate Park Street. The Bulletin had Laurie Oakes at one end, Patrick Cook at the other, and David Haselhurst making money in between. Otherwise the magazine stood for an awful lot of nothing in particular; yet the formula was not to be tampered with for almost a decade.
Again, the catalyst was an outsider, John Alexander, former editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald and Financial Review, a news executive with elbows as sharp as his instincts. Joining ACP as group publisher, he made the Bulletin a special project - partly, some felt, because he understood it as a short cut to an affinity with his proprietor. Running into Packer at Park Street was a possibility few relished. Not everyone was so poised as Jack Marx, then a senior writer at Picture and Ralph, who once found himself in a lift stuck between floors with the mogul and had the presence of mind to say, "I sure hope this lift starts moving soon. I don't know about you, but I've got work to do." But suddenly Packer was to be glimpsed in the Bulletin's office - a sight not seen for 20 years, and an auspicious one now.
Alexander gained Packer's fiat to assemble a hand-picked team of former Fairfax cronies: Max Walsh as editor-in-chief; Paul Bailey as editor; national-affairs editor John Lyons; business correspondents Alan Deans, Deborah Light and Peter Freeman; Melbourne-based feature writers Garry Linnell and Virginia Trioli. These heavy broadsheet hitters he complemented with a gifted magazine specialist. After spells running the Independent Monthly, Rolling Stone and HQ, Kathy Bail had the perfect CV and sensibility to take on the deputy editorship. On the day of her farewell lunch from HQ,at Tetsuya's, her mobile rang constantly with calls from Alexander, brimming with bonhomie.
Suddenly the Bulletin was the place to work, with big opportunities and salaries to match. One of Walsh's first recruits was Maxine McKew, who had been his co-host on the ABC's The Bottom Line, and who now received $3000 a pop for her weekly ‘Lunch with' column. A former staff member recalls being taken to lunch by Catharine Lumby, who insisted on picking up the bill because she earned more from her fortnightly column than as an associate professor. Contributors accustomed themselves to a $1 a word, and the coincidence of the relaunch with the irrational exuberance of the dotcom boom meant that there was plenty to go around. In truth, the magazine still occupied an insecure market niche, and was still spending money faster than it was making it. Former subeditor Jim Hope recalls, "When we did the first of our big issues, [chief subeditor] Col Klimo told me that Packer had given an assurance we would not go below 132 pages for at least six months. Within two months we had started shrinking again." But Alexander's close collaboration with Packer did the trick: in March 1999 he succeeded Colin Morrison as chief executive of ACP.
Alexander is cast these days in media circles as the dark prince of Packerdom. Certainly, it is hard to find much affection for him among refugees of the Bulletin. "If he decides you're worth knowing, he's all over you," says one. "If he takes a set against you, he's vindictive and spiteful." Says another: "You look at most key media figures in Australia and they've all created something. All Alexander has created is a career for himself." This is harsh. At the Bulletin, Alexander secured significant resources from a hard-to-please proprietor, and paid talent sometimes-exorbitant tribute. It is arguable, nonetheless, that he was as interested in what the Bulletin could do for him as vice versa. For when the Bulletin'sunresolved problems re-emerged later, he was a force neither so present nor so positive.
Under editors-in-chief Walsh and then Bailey, the Bulletin put on an impressively brave face. But the magazine remained a captive of the news cycle: when in doubt, it was always easiest to home in on the week's biggest issue. Such a configuration has advantages: a weekly news magazine can be choosy about what it throws resources at. Yet Australian news is seldom naturally national. As Rupert Murdoch has learned from his stewardship of the Australian, a lot of what Australians want to read is local and regional. This funnels the resources of anything with countrywide ambitions towards Canberra, business and sport: fields already amply covered by the metropolitan dailies.
Selling advertising was tough. How did you placate picky advertisers who wanted to know what might be the cover of the edition they supported? News, alas, is unpredictable. And exactly who were you reaching when you placed an ad in the Bulletin? The readership was now so fragmented that nobody was quite sure. "The magazine was always sold on the basis that it was read by the powerful, by the influential," says one senior executive. "When you drilled down, there were a lot more Cs [the second-tier demographic, after the much-sought-after ABs] there." The magazine was also eternally beset by its size. As other magazines worked towards creating ‘beautiful' and ‘inspirational' artefacts with edgier layout and higher-quality stock, the Bulletin looked increasingly inky and dowdy. The Bulletin probably put together the best subs desk in Australia - all full-time staff and all genuine wordsmiths - and had eye-catching artists and cartoonists. But its pages remained obsessively busy, jazzed up with entry points that sometimes had the effect of confusing readers about where to start. The executive with the most magazine experience, Bail, was attractively making over the ‘back of the book' when space came under pressure with the shrinkage of advertising, following the collapse of the tech boom in April 2001, and the last-minute confiscation and cancellation of pages became routine.
Structurally, the magazine seemed stuck in the past. Certainly, it was stuck on Wednesday. That was thanks to the strange archaism of the Bulletin'sselection of stories from the American Newsweek, an arrangement which dated to July 1984. When it was decided to renegotiate the deal, the original contract was found to be so ancient that it had been prepared on a typewriter. "Everything about the Bulletin seemed very old," says Newsweek'sassistant editor, Ron Javers. But there was no shifting the Bulletin's publication day without also shifting Newsweek's, and that was never going to happen.
As for the theoretically limitless vistas of cyberspace, the Bulletin took one step forward and two back. In August 2001, it launched an online edition on ninemsn, the Packers' joint venture with Microsoft. But it was just that: the Bulletin online, which probably cost the magazine more newsstand buyers than it gained. For reasons nobody at the magazine understood, moreover, the online edition was not searchable by Google News, and it was possible neither to blog nor to post pictures much bigger than a postage stamp. The Bulletin had access to one of Australia's mightiest pictorial archives - that of the old Daily Telegraph - but almost no means of using it.
Only one factor made the Bulletin model viable: Packer. His commitment never weakened, and even won him a certain admiration. It made him un homme sérieux in the Australian media, as his combustible father had never been. His indulgence, however, was a mixed blessing, for he seemed happier to brazen out losses than to take the chance of succeeding by another means. And in a sense, this rather suited his journalists. Journalists are vain. We will always want to believe that our writing can change the world; that if we break good stories and find the right words, then the market will flock to us as a matter of course. Week in, week out, the Bulletin was actually demonstrating that news, in commercial terms, was scarcely worth the trouble of breaking it. When Laurie Oakes divulged Gareth Evans' long-term affair with Cheryl Kernot in July 2002, for example, the Bulletin had no way of monopolising the story: such profit as accrued to anyone did so across all news outlets. Yet here was a proprietor who, albeit for reasons less to do with his munificence than with his own distaste for change, apparently subscribed to journalists' belief in the redemptive qualities of their craft. When Packer anointed Garry Linnell as editor-in-chief in December 2002, he issued him resoundingly simple instructions: "Son, just make 'em talk about it." What journalist would not feel their sap rise, given such a charter? The trouble was that the arrangement would never outlive Packer long. The leading indicator of the Bulletin's fortunes in its last years, then, was not its circulation, but Packer's vital signs.
Linnell and his editor, Bail, loved the Bulletin. When a portrait of JF Archibald was located on the executive floor at Park Street, Linnell commandeered it for his office; when readers reported that Archibald's grave at Waverley Cemetery had fallen into disrepair, Bail dedicated herself to its refurbishment. Pound-for-pound, they marshalled probably the most accomplished journalistic unit in Australia. News editor Tim Blair led a triple life as an acerbic columnist and Australia's savviest blogger. Business editor Alan Deans was a 30-year veteran of the trade from the Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Business. Features editor Susan Skelly, who had followed Bail from HQ, was a former chief sub at the Australian Women's Weekly under the legendary Dawn Swain. Together they brought out the most consistently fresh Bulletins since Dale, with a capacity for breaking news that made them compulsory reading in daily newsrooms. Jennifer Byrne prodded Anita Keating into discussing the dissolution of her marriage over lunch in April 2004; Tony Abbott acknowledged a lovechild to Julie-Anne Davies in March 2005; Eric Ellis and Preston Smith caught up with fugitive financier Abe Goldberg in November 2005; Paul Toohey owned the Schapelle Corby and Bali Nine stories; the survival of the Beaconsfield Miners, Brant Webb and Todd Russell, was recounted in exhaustive detail by Tony Wright. Bail, meanwhile, instigated the Bulletin's‘Summer Reading' issues, which brought together long pieces by well-known writers in an attractive perfect-bound package that lingered on newsstands for a month - a formula that was an instant hit. The office enjoyed an enviable esprit de corps. When staff members weren't busy making the Bulletin, they were busy talking about it. In the absence of a marketing budget, public-relations man Brian Johnson of Fingerprint Communications arranged scores of radio interviews every week, in which Linnell's reporters trumpeted their work.
In the Bulletin's 125th year, Linnell had the nerve to offer a $1.25-million reward to anyone who found a Tasmanian tiger. But when Packer died at the end of that year, it was the Bulletin itself that went from being merely an endangered species to one under threat of extinction. The staff's initial response to the passing of their patron was unforgettable. Without complaint, they returned in droves from summer holidays to assemble a comprehensive and colourful tribute issue, wrangled in three days mainly by chief subeditor Andrew Forbes. They received a suitably grateful email from the ACP group publisher.
From: Scott, Phil
Sent: Thursday, 29 December 2005 7:11 PM
To: ACP Bulletin Mag
Right now everyone is knackered. Give it a day or two and you will realise you have been part of publishing history this week. Sure, we'd all prefer to have been down at the beach but if we'd stayed there we'd have pondered on what The Bulletin should have done to commemorate KP's passing. You should all take great professional and personal pride in the job you've turned around in the last 72 hours. I know the family has been touched by what you have done. The fact everyone wanted to be here to turn this around, without a grumble, has been deeply appreciated. It's a bloody good read and a fitting tribute.
The edition sold out faster than it could be reprinted, scaling six-figure circulation heights not touched in 15 years. It was one of the Bulletin's finest hours, and its last certifiably great one. A little more than two years later, Scott would be introducing Lorson as the bearer of bad tidings.
Linnell had run a vibrant, headline-hunting Bulletin through three years bulging with big news - the Boxing Day tsunami, the War on Terror, a host of juicy government scandals -without making it essential reading; in fact, tightening circulation audits were eating away the means by which the magazine had previously plumped its numbers. It produced often-excellent journalism, but it was journalism of a sort not uncommon in newspapers. For it is a paradox of the profession that where 2000 words can sometimes be too many, 6000 on the same subject may not feel like quite enough. A thorough professional feature quoting all the relevant individuals on a current news story at the lesser length can never be much more than introductory; by contrast, the nutritious long-form journalism of the New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly is often inordinately satisfying. The Bulletin never confronted the implications of this paradox. "There was a real lack of imagination at the top of the company," says one former executive. "Nobody had the commitment necessary to honestly analyse the Bulletin'sproblems. Most of the people were out of newspapers who got stressed about news and had no interest in how it was presented. There was this endless bullshit about getting the exclusive, getting the Walkley, then you're a legend." The magazine's dilemmas, notes Tim Blair, were somehow as intractable as they were obvious: "The Australian Magazine and Good Weekend were coming out on Saturdays. We were coming out five days later, smaller, on poorer stock, with fewer resources. You were always having these conversations about the future direction of the Bulletin ... but you could never find a way out."
Only once in its last years did the Bulletin kick the jams way out - and then, in decidedly peculiar circumstances. In January 2006, with channels Seven and Nine at each other tooth and claw in the C7 action before the Federal Court, Today Tonight ran crude recapitulations of the One.Tel fiasco on consecutive nights, singling out James Packer. In his famous affidavit that added ‘bone' to the media vernacular, Nine's former news and current-affairs chief Mark Llewellyn told of a foam-flecked tirade from John Alexander demanding that collateral damage be inflicted on Seven's Kerry Stokes. According to Llewellyn, Alexander told him: "Nine has failed to go on the front foot previously with Seven and I am sick of that! ... Stokes is a terrible man, and a terrible businessman. Everyone who has come into contact with him knows he is an appalling human being." With his reluctance to comply, Llewellyn apparently marked his card at Nine.
Linnell was interested in a piece on Stokes on his own account, and business reporter Nick Tabakoff did not need to be press-ganged. "Nick heard that they were scouting around for someone to do a big story on Stokes," says a former staff member. "So he went to see Garry and put his hand up, but on condition it did not become a vendetta." It soon became a source of tension. Challenged by his business editor, Deans, Linnell argued with some force that Stokes was a figure of national significance about whom relatively little was known. In the event, the industrious Tabakoff worked for three months on a story that swelled to 15,000 words: from all accounts, a sprawling but fair-minded profile full of hitherto-unpublished information. The piece was then canned, ostensibly for legal reasons to do with the C7 action, although also after rumours that Alexander had complained it was "too soft". Bizarrely, a chunk was printed, mangled and manhandled out of context, in an article under the by-line of Tabakoff's successor, Rebecca Urban, formerly of the Age, in August 2007 - a stage by which events at the Bulletin were being dwarfed by events around it.
For with the death of the patriarch, the Packer empire came into play. The fourth Packer, after RC, Frank and Kerry, is the first without regard for print. His chosen route to the sunny uplands of gaming was the staged sale of majority control in PBL Media, incorporating ACP Magazines, Channel Nine and ninemsn, to the Asian arm of CVC Capital Partners, a 25-year-old Luxembourg-headquartered venture-capital firm. Chaos was breaking out. As part of the grab for talent being dispersed, Linnell was wooed as Nine's new news and current-affairs chief, only to arrive on the same day that 95 redundancies were announced. Without a boss, meanwhile, the Bulletin looked agonisingly without a future. From time to time over the next six months, a senior publishing executive would breeze into Stockland House and announce that there was no danger of the Bulletin closing, which had the same perversely opposite effect as a football club's president stressing his confidence in a coach.
Bail, not only hugely capable but hugely popular, was Linnell's obvious successor. But her relations with Alexander, now chairman of PBL Media, had chilled, for reasons on which nobody was clear: he would not even return her calls. She decided to pitch herself to PBL Media's CEO, Ian Law, formerly CEO of West Australian Newspapers. At a detailed presentation, she explained that the Bulletin needed an injection of style: it should free itself from the news cycle and aim to be an up-market monthly, using the ‘Summer Reading' issue as a model. With a smaller core staff and more contributors, it would be cheaper to run. With the kind of eye-catching design and premium-quality stock that would entice the luxury-goods advertisers that other magazines were tapping so successfully, it should have a better advertising profile. It was as coherent a plan for the Bulletin's resuscitation as had been put - and it fell on deaf ears. When the appointment committee of Alexander, Law, Scott and PBL Media director Chris Anderson made their choice, in July 2006, it turned out to be neither Bail, nor Matt Price, nor Bruce Guthrie, nor any of the other rumoured candidates.
When Scott came into Stockland House to announce that the new editor-in-chief was John Lehmann, there was dead silence. "Nobody could look at Kathy," says one former executive. "Of course, she never lost her sangfroid. But people were shattered." Others detected a latent misogyny at work. "It was horrible, just horrible," says another former staff member. "And so disappointing, because she so deserved to do it. And for women it was a particular blow, because it suggested that a boy was needed to do the job." When Scott left, Blair jumped up and started googling Lehmann's name. Who was this guy? He was little the wiser after the exercise. Blair was later irked when they met for a drink by Lehmann's airy assertions regarding global warming, not so much because of his views as because someone who purported to read the Bulletin closely should have known that Blair was an unapologetic sceptic about anthropogenic climate change.
As an act of courtesy to Lehmann, so that he had time to settle in, Blair, Deans and Skelly mapped out an issue on the Battle of Long Tan. They also shared their disappointment with Scott, and asked if he could do something to make it worth Bail's while to stay - a request at which Scott bridled. "It's my decision," he insisted of Lehmann. "And I'll stand or fall on it." But that wasn't the story that began spreading. Lehmann, it transpired, had come to Alexander's attention while a media writer for the Australian. There he had become involved in PBL's interminable politicking, being leaked an exclusive story about Nine CEO Sam Chisholm's attempt to oust John Lyons as executive producer of Sunday, an attempt thwarted by Alexander. Shortly before Lehmann departed the Australian, he had come into possession of the fabled Llewellyn affidavit. But where Crikey published the document - deeply embarrassing to Alexander - Lehmann refrained. He left the paper with the curse of his editor-in-chief, Chris Mitchell, ringing in his ears: "I wouldn't want to be the last editor of the Bulletin ..."
Fairly or unfairly, Lehmann was burdened with a reputation as a cat's paw of Alexander and Anderson. Blair became one of the first departures in a steady exodus that soon after included Bail. Into her role as editor slotted the chief sub, Forbes, although into her office moved the publisher, Myers. This was to be the new budget-Bulletin, living within slender means. In fact, the new regime made a positive start, responding with alacrity and special issues to the deaths of Steve Irwin and Peter Brock. Lehmann proved to be an irrepressible enthusiast with a well-developed news sense, honed by covering politics in Queensland and crime in New York. He still rallied a good staff. "There were no slow ants or time-servers at the Bulletin," notes David Haselhurst. "They ran a very lean ship." He also showed some chutzpah. When the Australian ran a powder-puff profile of the Rudds by Mitchell's wife, Christine Jackman, Lehmann had the temerity to reveal that Rudd was godfather to their first son - quite an act of cheek, given Mitchell's legendary capacity for enmity. The Bulletin belatedly got its online house in order under Rod Dalton, a former night editor from the Sydney Morning Herald: its ‘Bullring', a site dedicated to the election campaign, was informed and irreverent.
When the news did not provide an obvious direction, however, Lehmann struggled, displaying little aptitude for the Bulletin's non-news component. "We need more celebrities," he would complain. "That was part of my pitch." So it was that the magazine of Lawson and Paterson published an interminable extract from Geoffrey Cousins' business bodice-ripper The Butcherbird; then it ran an interview with the author; then it ran a (deftly non-committal) review. So it was that the magazine of May and Low was reduced to Patrick Cook's weekly cartoon for Oakes's column, but still published a flatulent column by Alexander's friend Leo Schofield. Anything more heterodox was a challenge. On one occasion, Skelly planned to take an extract and photographs from Kaavous Clayton's Abandoned Chairs, a delightfully dotty collection of images of discarded chairs in incongruous settings. Lehmann hated it. "We're just not on the same page here!" he barked. "I don't care about chairs!"
Perhaps it was hard to care about chairs when there was a publisher so apt to stress how many feet there were under desks. Myers acted like a census-taker, obsessed with staff numbers. A hundred years earlier, the Bulletin had 112 employees; with a workforce a quarter the size, Myers now considered it way too large. He offered himself as a travel writer, but his prose was execrable. Glee was universal when he left early in the new year. It was short-lived.
Phil Scott took four scenarios to the PBL Media board: sale or closure; business as usual; a radical slimming; a monthly. There was no taste for further cuts, nor was there a zeal for experimentation that might cost money. The bids solicited were circumspect. News Ltd had previously flirted with inserting the Bulletin in the midweek Australian, and did so again, but pulled back; Lachlan Murdoch probably came closest to putting his hand in his pocket, and might have proceeded had Illyria Holdings not joined the syndicate to take over Consolidated Media Holdings. Yet he would have been caught in the same cleft stick as the Packers. "The problem was that the Bulletin no longer had any editorial raison d'être," says one bidder. "If you reformatted the best content in the Weekend Australian, Age and Sydney Morning Herald in any given week, you'd end up with something that looked like the Bulletin. As for this revisionist bullshit about Kerry keeping it alive ..."
"They stuffed the place up," complained Kerry Packer of the work of his minions at Channel Nine, towards the end of his life. Mistaking money for faith, investment for imagination, he didn't do a bad job of the Bulletin, the billionaire with such an uncanny flair for sensing public taste in television steadily and obdurately losing his touch with print. Journalists with a sentimental attachment to a proprietor prepared to lose money have let him off lightly, partly because of their collusion in his faltering vision. The Bulletin served in concentrated form a news journalism that is now mass-produced - slick but very similar - with which the public is surfeited. What its failure tells journalists is that our old tricks are no longer so impressive. In the end it took a fucking long time - but it was always going to fucking happen.
Few Australians have loitered so long at the brink of death as Kerry Packer, and perhaps none so ambivalently. Tens of millions of dollars were lavished on the campaign to prolong his life. He was saved first by timely defibrillation, then by a transplanted kidney, and finally by a constant cycle of surgery and steroids, trailed everywhere by the best minds in clinical care. But, heedless of the medical consequences, Packer was resolved to make no changes to his life whatsoever. The addiction to junk food remained unaltered by diabetes; the smoking continued unabated, despite six coronary angioplasties. "Light my cigarette, son," he famously told a prominent cardiologist. Upbraided for his lifestyle by a specialist at the Cornell Medical Center, he made his priorities perfectly clear: "All right, son, you've given me the fucking lecture ... Now are you going fucking fix me up or aren...
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