In the rush online, newspapers have deleted yesterday, today and tomorrow
By Robyn Annear
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Every morning, before daybreak, a clapped-out Holden labours up the street and an unseen hand lobs a missile at my front gate. Sometimes the thud breaks my sleep: wake up, it’s the news.
For years I gleaned the headlines from conversations over the counter at work. Often, along with their library cards, people would tender doleful (or else gleeful) execrations about that day’s news. It was enough for me to get the gist, or pretend to. But then a change of job cut me adrift from my conversational newsfeed. I had lost the radio-listening habit, lacked the routine for TV bulletins and wanted to steer clear of clickbait, so I turned to an older news source.
To be honest, it’s the paper I like, as much as the news. The ritual of unwrapping and smoothing out the curl, the crispness of each page on that first, purposeful reading over breakfast, and its crumpled familiarity by day’s end. The news itself, absorbed by browsing throughout the day, becomes familiar too.
‘Fogey Pays Homage to the Printed Page’ hardly counts as news. But consider this instead: ‘Newsroom Helmed by Vulcans’. In an exclusive, the Monthly can reveal that the shellac-haired, tin-eared brethren of Star Trek’s Mr Spock have infiltrated Fairfax Media’s editorial echelon. How else to explain the expunction from the Fairfax news lexicon of “yesterday”, “today” and “tomorrow”, words indispensable to communication here on Earth?
The real story is that Fairfax – the publisher of the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra Times, the Australian Financial Review, and a stable of local and regional papers – decreed in mid 2012 that journalists must no longer employ the temporal locators “yesterday”, “today” and “tomorrow” in their news reports but refer instead to the relevant day of the week. According to the Age’s online editor, Michael Schlechta, the change was vital as part of the move towards “a fully integrated print–digital newsroom”. When a news story appears on different platforms hours or even days apart, and is available for access across time zones and in perpetuity, terms like “today” quickly lose their meaning. But in print?
The effect over breakfast can be disorienting. I know that it’s Thursday: both the day and the date appear at the head of every page of newsprint spread before me. Yet one report speculates about a party-room meeting to be held “on Thursday”; another concerns a verdict handed down in the Supreme Court “on Wednesday”. On a Monday in April I read that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince George were due to touch down in Sydney “early on Monday”. You could feel the excitement mounting.
Perhaps it makes better sense on a digital platform. Let’s see. In Fairfax’s News Store archive, a report of an icy blast in Melbourne last month – “The temperature struggled to a top of 10.3 degrees around 11 am on Friday” – carries a dateline of 2 August 2014, which gives the reader no day of the week to steer by. Compare a weather story at theage.com.au dated 22 June 2012, before the Vulcans landed. “Melburnians shivered through much of yesterday,” the report begins, and it goes on to chart the meteorological prospects for “this morning”, “this afternoon”, “this evening” and “tomorrow”. That was some cold solstice.
Fairfax is not alone in its elimination of “today”. The Los Angeles Times, in February 2010, was among the first major newspapers to substitute the day of the week across all platforms, citing “the growing intersection of our online and print journalism”. Journalistic convention in the US already favoured the day of the week (“in Dallas, Friday”) in print, with “today” adopted in digital reporting to convey immediacy. By contrast, the UK press has a long tradition of “last night in Whitehall” reporting. The Guardian chose to continue that tradition in print – insisting that “‘today’ is highly desirable for newspaper reports, making them sound topical and helping set the day’s news agenda” – even when it changed, in February 2011, to using the day of the week in its digital formats.
True, the platform-neutral option favoured by Fairfax avoids the fiddliness of differentiating between print and digital text. But what’s lost? Not only does “today” anchor a news story and lend it immediacy but it also positions the story in relation to its reader. “Yesterday”, “today” and “tomorrow” call on context for their meaning. Like pronouns, they personalise language and give weight to perspective. That’s why, to my eye, there’s something crabbed and unnatural about reading in Monday’s newspaper – on a page clearly inked with Monday’s dateline – of an event having occurred “on Sunday”, let alone one that will take place “on Monday”. A limitation imposed by new technology has been allowed to spread back into print, undermining the suppleness and subjectivity of time and language.
But Fairfax’s renunciation of “today”, however irksome, is unlikely to drive me from the newspaper habit or, worse, to the Murdoch press. Besides, there’s a mild thrill in discovering a rogue “yesterday” in a page 4 caption.
Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.