Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sunday Essay - Can the New England media survive? Yes, but only if it changes

The visit to Armidale gave me another chance to catch up on media changes, especially in my little local pond. I have written quite a bit about the changing media landscape. Think of this post as a further catch-up, one focused especially but not exclusively on the regional press.

We can summarise some of the changes in this way:
  • A progressive reduction in content in the print editions. 
  • An increased focus on the on-line editions
  • Increased use of content across mastheads
  • Increased use of podcasts and videos
  • Fewer long pieces, more short pieces, to fit the internet format.. 
Some of these changes are actually very good:
  • The use of audiovisual material including live broadcasts. The New Zealand Herald is a leader in this area, but all the New England press is doing it too. This means that the papers compete with TV in particular. 
  • While the increased use of shared content reduces the original content, it does allow the appointment of specialist reporters linked to one paper but providing content to several. The very recent appointment of  Nicholas.Fuller as the arts and culture reporter for the Armidale Express is an example. This is a completely new role. 
I am very conscious of all these changes, partly because I am a columnist with the Express, partly because I follow so many media outlets.

Let's start our discussion with the print editions of the papers. Under the traditional business model, the number of  pages is directly related to the volume of advertising. As advertising shrinks, so do the pages including news content. As the news content reduces with reduced paper size, the incentive to buy the paper falls. "I don't buy the Express" has been a popular if increasing call for a long time; "there is nothing in it." As print circulation declines, the scope for advertising supplements that used to be so profitable for the Rural Press group also declines.

Circulation declines are associated with reduced distribution. The paper becomes less available. It is many years since I saw a copy in the motels I stay in when visiting Armidale. The Express experience is not unique. The Melbourne Age, for example, has become very thin.

My column is included in the Express Extra published on a Wednesday with a claimed circulation of 18,000. It is delivered through Armidale and Uralla and inserted into the paid papers in Walcha and Guyra. "The content", Fairfax suggests, "is a mixture of hard and soft news stories, mostly feature style stories which don’t date, and interesting columnists." We columnists are indeed interesting! Actually, we are not bad.

Walking around Armidale, I haven't checked Uralla, the Extra appears to have become less readily available. Again, I haven't seen it in the motels.There does not appear to be a strong distribution focus even though it's free.

I know that people do still read the Express and especially the Extra.My columns appeal to a particular demographic, older locals. The 45 or so locals that I drew to my last talk all read the print edition of the Extra. That's why they came. They do not read the on-line edition.

And yet in terms of penetration, the Express is not pulling in the way it did.

There is an interesting test here. I have been writing for the paper for many years, week in, week out. Yet when I book into accommodation in Armidale nobody knows who I am! There is no name recognition. When I say that I write the column, I find that no-one reads the paper. I must admit to a mild feeling of pique!

While the decline in the circulation of print editions is a common pattern, it's not universal. The decline for some papers is slower, while a small number are actually increasing circulation. Those who are doing better have a clear focus on their market and on circulation. They have not given up!

Under former editors, my columns were not on-line. I was mildly miffed and asked the previous editor Lydia Roberts about that. She explained that she was concerned that if it was on-line it might affect the circulation of the Extra.That was flattering, of course, but also reflected the fact that a small number of people do actually collect the Extra just to read my column.

Editors change and my columns are now on-line. My print deadline is the Thursday for publication the following Wednesday. In fact, depending on available content, it now sometimes appears in the on-line edition of the paper on the Friday. Further, and again depending on available content, it may also be run in the on-line editions of other Fairfax Northern Tablelands papers and, it appears, other sometimes surprising mastheads as well. Sometimes it appears in those papers on-line but only the Extra print edition so far as the Express is concerned.  I do not object to this, but it raises a key question about marketing targeting.

I said earlier that I follow multiple media outlets. This includes all the Fairfax papers on the Tablelands as well as other papers such as the metro media. I have become very conscious of the extent to which they run common content and then tell me via twitter. At least two issues arise:
  • For the life of me, I can't see why they should uncritically run other other Fairfax press stuff such as the Canberra Times pieces on the shift of APVMA to Armidale that actually work against the area they  serve. Note I said uncritically. I really mean without thought. 
  • The commonality at least of on-line content blurs the distinctive nature of each paper. I think the papers (and this includes the metros) have lost sight of their market places and the communities they serve. They have lost the ability to differentiate. 
Let me try to illustrate. My focus is on the local press and especially the Express as a case study.

The first market served is those that live in the paper's catchment area. There are three channels here.

The first is the print edition. I have already indicated that I feel that the papers have lost sight of this channel. There is a real issue here that I have alluded to for papers serving an older demographic who are the most dedicated followers but who do not read on-line. One correspondent who was organising an event that spanned areas, put the problem this way. The only way I can get to older people interested in this event (a major family reunion) is through the print papers, but it's hard to get the papers to run stories. The apparent problem is that as the print editions shrink in size the amount of content that can be carried shrinks too, creating a rationing effect.    

The second channel is the e-editions, the subscriptions to the on-line version of the print paper in pdf  form. I get the Express in this form and it doesn't always work very well. .That is partly because I have an old box that doesn't always load. But it's also that I find the print edition more satisfying. In terms of the local market, each subscription to the e-edition substitutes for a print sale. However, the advertisements still reach the same audience. .

The third channel, really channels, is the paper websites and associated social media presences. This is the area of most dramatic change, but one where the papers have yet to work out how to monetise properly in part because of lack of clarity over audience and role. .

The main changes can be summarised this way:
  • With exceptions such as the Northern Daily Leader,  the print papers are generally bi weekly or weekly. However, in their internet editions many have effectively moved towards daily publications with constant updating of the websites.  
  • The sharing of content between websites is part of this. The structure of the websites now mimics the bigger papers, but for people like me who monitor a number of the papers the shared content is very obvious
  • The websites now carry more varied content including podcasts, video material and live broadcasts, material that cannot be provided through the print editions
  • In addition the websites, the papers also have Twtter, Facebook and, although this is poorly developed, YouTube channels. Again using the Armidale Express as an example, it has 2,417 followers on Twitters 8,246 followers on Facebook. 
  • It also has multipliers, reporters and columnists who have their own handles and sometimes Facebook pages. For example, in my case I post links to my columns on Twitter (264 followers), my public Facebook page (118 followers) and the Armidale Families Past and Present Facebook group (2060 members). Some of those tweets, posts get shared. 
  • The multiplier effects are quite considerable, Allowing for duplication between groups through shared membership, my rough estimate is that I reach at least 2,000 people each week who would not otherwise see the column. That's well over 10% of the print edition of the Armidale Express Extra. Not all read the column, but I think a fair number do.    .     . 
I now want to introduce a new variable, newspaper structure. When Rural Press took over the Tablelands and Slopes media, it broke up the previous linkages between local newspapers. It's solution to maiximising broader reach was via advertising supplements and multi-paper publications such as the extras. When Fairfax merged with Rural Press, it atomised the individual papers, reducing them to local markets. The broader unity was lost. Now economics dictates shared resources. Suddenly, the various Northern Tablelands/Slopes papers are again a broader entity, more so in fact. This opens new commercial possibilities that have yet to be realised. However, those possibilities can only be realised if they focus more on their markets, channels and advertisers.  .    .

Dealing with markets first.

The first market place is obviously the local, the traditional marketplace. However, each paper has a broader audience, those connected with the community who live beyond. Let me take the Armidale Express again as an example.For every person living in Armidale, there are at least five ex-Armidale people living elsewhere who are interested in the city. Some might be paid to subscribe to the print or e-edition. More would, in fact do, access a web site. They represent a largely untouched market.

Now for channels. Each channel is a marketplace in its own right. It needs a differentiated approach to determine just what the commercial value is. I don't think that happens at present.

There also needs to be a targeted approach to advertisers based around audience and channel. For example, if you are a local chain store, you really need the print edition. That is not necessarily true if you are a government agency who wants to get across a general information message. However, you might want to run or be persuaded to run an advertisement across a number of local mastheads in print and on-line or even just on-line. How might you do this?

Because each paper has its own market, because there is a regional market as well, there needs to be an integrated sales and marketing strategy. This seems to be impossible because so much is centralised across Fairfax, across Australian Community Media as a central platform. There is limited local or regional. . .

I am out of the time that I can spend on this post and will come back to this area later. Meantime, a small test for you. Say you want to run a small add on the Armidale Express on the web site about the 150th celebration of something. You can reach the local audience via the paper, but want to get to the broader expat audience. How might you do this?

Or say you are a Government agency who would like to run an ad on consultation for a regional development plan. You will put an ad in the print edition plus a story, but you want to run an ad on-line on six web sites. How might you do this? Note, by the way, that there appear to be no Government ads at all on the on-line sites.

I will extend this discussion later. For the moment, I leave you with the challenges.


Earlier this year, the Sydney Morning Herald introduced a new website.This has now extended to the Canberra Times.  Grant Newton in Welcome to The Canberra Times' new website provides the rationale for the changes.

I didn't like the SMH changes, but didn't know whether or not I was just being old-fashioned. I found the new website a bit clunky, slowing down my ability to find what I liked. My use of the site has dropped by more than half. The initial comments to the changes on the CT web site suggest that I am not alone. Because the changes are partially geared to mobile readers, I checked on my mobile. I'm not sure that it's an improvement.

My biggest problem is that I cannot see how they will monetise the sites beyond following down the paywall route.  A second problem is that a staff response in comments on the CT story suggests that they are going to roll them out out to all the Fairfax sites. If this is done as a universal without local and regional commercial models in place, then I think that it will destroy the chances of commercial viability for the New England media.  

Postscript 2 8 May 2018

Now that we have had a bit of experience with new SMH website, I realised that while I still visit to some degree, I no longer read it properly. It's too much like hard work, takes me too long to identify what I am interested in, there is too much visual crap. I am just one person and not a member of the demographic they are aiming for. Would be interested to know what other people think.

Friday, April 27, 2018

John French Sloan, the Ashcan School and the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition "Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950"

John Sloan (American 1871 - 1951), Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street, 1907 (detail). Oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 32 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Meyer P. Potamkin and Vivian O. Potamkin, 2000. 1964-116-5. 

My knowledge of US art is still very limited. I had never heard of John Sloan, the Group of Eight or the Ashcan school until my eye was caught by a piece in Artdaily Philadelphia Museum of Art opens "Modern Times: American Art 1910-1950".

Wikipedia (link above) summarises Sloan in this way:
John French Sloan (August 2, 1871 – September 7, 1951) was a twentieth-century painter and etcher and one of the founders of the Ashcan school of American art. He was also a member of the group known as The Eight. He is best known for his urban genre scenes and ability to capture the essence of neighborhood life in New York City, often observed through his Chelsea studio window. Sloan has been called "the premier artist of the Ashcan School who painted the inexhaustible energy and life of New York City during the first decades of the twentieth century" and an "early twentieth-century realist painter who embraced the principles of Socialism and placed his artistic talents at the service of those beliefs."
The Ashcan School is described as:
The Ashcan School, also called the Ash Can School, was an artistic movement in the United States during the early 20th century that is best known for works portraying scenes of daily life in New York, often in the city's poorer neighborhoods. The most famous artists working in this style included Robert Henri (1865–1929), George Luks (1867–1933), William Glackens (1870–1938), John Sloan (1871–1951), and Everett Shinn (1876–1953), some of whom had met studying together under the renowned realist Thomas Anshutz at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and others of whom met in the newspaper offices of Philadelphia where they worked as illustrators. The movement has been seen as emblematic of the spirit of political rebellion of the period.
The Artdaily describes the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950 as exploring the creative responses of American artists to the rapid pace of change that occurred in that country during the early decades of the twentieth century. It "examines the new and dynamic visual language that emerged during this period and had a dramatic impact on painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, architecture, and the decorative arts. These developments" were shaped by the dizzying transformations then occurring in every aspect of life, from the advent of the automobile and moving pictures to the rapid growth of American cities and the wrenching economic change brought on by the advent of the Great Depression after a decade of unprecedented prosperity."

According to Timothy Rub, the Museum’s George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer, "America’s embrace of modern life—its perils as well as its promise—in the early twentieth century was expressed most clearly in the arts. The work of this period still feels fresh and of the moment."

George Luks, Street Scene, 1905, Brooklyn Museum
I said earlier that my knowledge of American art was quite limited. That's actually true of my knowledge of American history and culture in general. I did study some American history,  have read various political works as well as fiction, have been exposed to multiple films and have been to the country three times.

While aspects of America are instantly familiar through exposure, it still strikes me as an alien culture, both simpler and far more complex than Australia. This is not a criticism, just a personal observation.

Back in the early 1980s when I was back at UNE as a postgrad student and on a general reading jag,  I read Stow Persons' book American minds; a history of ideas. This gave me a far better idea of both the simplicity and complexity of American life and thought than any other book that I have read because it was so wide ranging in its scope. The US is a much larger country than Australia in terms of population and resources. It is older and has a much bloodier history. In some ways it is multiple countries contained within borders reflecting settlement patterns and accident of history.

Yet when all this is said, there was something familiar in the art I looked at compared with Australia or indeed Europe at the same period.  I really would enjoy that exhibition.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Story of the Parthenon on the Hill.

On 19 February I give a preliminary report (First reflections on the opening of NERAM's permanent exhibition of the Hinton collection) on my visit to Armidale for the opening of NERAM's new Hinton exhibition.

I have now completed the footnotes etc for the public lecture I gave on Saturday 17 February as part of the opening celebrations and brought it on line on the history blog::Creating the Parthenon on the Hill; establishment and early life of the Armidale Teachers’ College.

The finalisation of lecture proved to be more time consuming than I expected. In addition to footnote checks and typo corrections, I then had to send multiple copies out. Still, its done and is now on-line as well.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Monday Forum - have we seen the death of progress?

I have continued deeply embedded in the past, not just the immediate past but the deep human past. Our views of the world are deeply embedded in the present in ways that we don't always recognise. In trying to illustrate part of this, I wrote in a recent paper:
We now come to another thread in New England history, the nature of environmental change. We do not know when people first arrived in New England. My present best guess based on dating patterns is between 30 and 32,000 years ago . The millennia since have seen many dramatic environmental changes. Sea levels have varied from perhaps 60 metres below current levels to 120 plus metres below to one to two metres above. Rainfall, wind and temperature patterns have varied greatly over this long period, with consequent changes to vegetation and animal life. Water courses have shifted, changed.  
There is a saga here of human adaptation, of survival and change. To understand this, to explore the deep New England past, requires us to drill down, to look at the detail of change. It also requires us to put aside sometimes deeply held preconceptions. The geographic and human patterns that existed in 1788 were not the same as those that existed 6,000 or 30,000 years before. The visual images we hold today provide no real guidance to that past.  
To illustrate this, take your picture of the Tablelands and strip away most of the current vegetation, replace it with tundra with periglacial conditions in spots. Or perhaps as an even more dramatic example, replace your images of the beaches, rivers, forests and estuaries of the entire North Coast with a more rugged coastline dropping sharply to a cold and more distant sea. 
To the Aborigines, the past was a living element within a moving present. They preserved memories of the past through stories that recorded past events, explained life and were attached to the world around them.

The British settlers took a very different view. To them, the present was a step towards a still to be defined future. They were not blind to uncertainty and risk, to the likelihood of failure. How could they not be? Infant mortality rates were falling, but most families still faced the probability that some of their children would die in infancy. They faced the risks of nature, of economic collapse, of death by misadventure. A browse among any of the older Australian graveyards will clearly reveal the number of and variety among those who dyed from misadventure. As another illustration, at the middle of the nineteenth century the chance of a mariner dying at sea was one in four.

Despite all the problems, there was a pervading belief in the possibility of progress, in the chance for individuals to redeem themselves, to establish establish futures for themselves and their families. This was in many ways an optimistic age. It took a particular form in the United States partially expressed in the concept of the self made man. There the idea that individual destiny rested with the individual carried with it the connotation that since success was open to all failure was the individuals fault. This gave a certain harshness to social policy that survives to this day.

The attitude in Britain and the evolving Empire was different. There in the midst of a general belief in progress was a recognition that progress was not inevitable for all, that individuals and society had a responsibility to those and their families who were disadvantaged to provide support. This recognition took many forms including cooperative action, the rise of unions, the development of Government policies intended to support families and ameliorate disadvantage. One Australian version of this was the Deakinite social contract.

I have opened a large subject here, but for this Monday Forum I pose three questions:
  • Has modern Australia and indeed the Western World lost the belief in the possibility of progress?
  • Has modern Australia and indeed the Western World lost sight of the inevitability of risk and individual failure replacing it instead with an approach focused on risk minimisation rather than advancement?
  • Has modern Australia and indeed the Western World lost the idea of the social contract, of the importance of cooperative and collaborative action, of Government social policies based on the combination of individual effort and social advancement so that all benefit?
As always, feel free to go in whatever direction you want regardless of the questions.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The fish rots from the head - the Financial Services Royal Commission

I wasn't a supporter of the proposed Australian banking Royal Commission or to give it its proper title the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. For the benefit of international readers, the Royal Commission came about following sustained pressure from a small group of backbenchers especially in the National Party concerned about irregularities and injustices in the Australian financial services sector.

I believed that there had been irregularities and injustices over a considerable period, I had experienced some myself, but felt that changes were finally being made and that a Royal Commission was too blunt an instrument to address the problem. Boy, was I wrong. Before going on, here are a few of the stories from the last few days:
You can find transcripts from the hearings here.

We have talked here before about problems in the banking and financial services sector. Just based on the evidence to this point, those problems would appear to be far deeper and more systemic than I had realised. kvd might say told you so!

I said systemic because there are clearly inter-related problems including:
  • problems with IT platforms
  • lags in recognising problems and then in responding especially where there are response costs or reduced income or a combination of the two
  • incentive scales and performance measures that, in combination with cross-selling arrangements, encourage behaviour that disadvantages customers
  • ethical problems at individual and organisation levels where the pursuit of the sale becomes dominant to the exclusion of everything else. I couldn't help thinking here of the old saying that a fish rots from the head.  . 
One thing I find especially sad is that the AMP,  arguably once Australia's most respected financial institution,. has become just another financial institution since demutualisation.

I think that one of the problems in all this is going to be the avoidance or at least minimisation of new layers that simply increase costs and reduce choice, especially for the smaller investor.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Reflections in my latest Armidale visit - a mix of travel, history, the town: a mixed bag

Just back from Armidale where I delivered a paper on Friday (13 April 2018) in the University of New England's humanities seminar series 'New England travels: journeys through space and time".The paper was described in this way in the blurb:
 This paper explores key themes across 30,000 years of the history of Australia's broad New England region, the Tablelands and surrounding valleys, showing how the interaction of geography and events has moulded life and culture from the arrival of the Aboriginal peoples to the end of the twentieth century. 
An historian and economist by profession, Jim Belshaw is writing a history of the broader new state New England from Aboriginal times to the end of the twentieth century. Jim, an alumnus of UNE, also writes the weekly history column for the Armidale Express.
It had been several years since I last spoke. These papers take a fair bit of effort in preparation and then there is the trip itself. I normally treat the trip part as a mix of professional, social and holiday, but this time it was harder work, partly because I was very tired when I drove out.

As always, I came back with things to do. This includes completing the footnotes so that I can provide copies to the people who have requested it. I will write up some elements in posts here and on the New England blogs; this post reflects on the trip. itself, sort of an aide memoir.

The Journey

I know the road very well after all this time. You can always tell Armidale locals because they know the shortest route. Going north it's up the Paciifc express way. This stretch is pretty boring, but its generally fast unless clogged by holiday traffic. 14k past Raymond Terrace you turn left onto Bucketts Way. This runs in a north westerly direction through Stroud, a historic AA (Australian Agricultural Company) town to Gloucester. . It's quite pretty country with lots to explore. .

At  Gloucester, you turn left onto Thunderbolt's Way following the Walcha signs. The road passes through the little town of Barrington where I usually stop for coffee at the little post office cum general store cum petrol station cum restaraunt. It's a good little earner. Coming back this time tired, that Barrington stop was very welcome. I sat on the verandah savouring my cappuccino writing up my trip notes.

Just past Barrington, the road turns hard right passing through the the headwaters of the Manning River. This is a pretty road that meanders up and down, constantly swinging back and forth over the ridges and along the streams.  Near the Bretti Nature Reserve, the road climbs quickly up the escarpment. This road did not exist when I was growing up. The New England Highway was the only route to Sydney. The road was cut through in 1961 but was not greatly used until tared. I didn't really start using it until after we moved to Sydney in 1996.

Driving habits have changed. I grew up driving on country roads, often dirt. While I do like to get from point A to point B quickly, I enjoy variety, don't mind curves and am philosophical about delays including being stuck behind timber jinkers and cattle trucks. Drivers trained on city roads and expressways find it more challenging. That road, a friend said! It's a very popular road with motorcyclists.

At the top of the mountain the little village of Nowendoc lies to the right just off Thunderbolt's Way. There is a little reserve with a hall and toilet.where I often  stop This is fugitive country country. Most recently, the hall was the centre for the ultimately successful police search for Malcolm Naden. Returning to the main road, New England Cheese can be found a little further on to the left.  I had one of their little freezer bags to return, but the gate was shut, so I drove on.

Often I find small adventures on this road (Sunday Essay - early morning on a New England roadCurious cows Walcha-Nowendoc Road). Again I had to stop for stock! I also spotted through the trees some homesteads that I had not noticed before.That was not wise, I wobbled dangerously. I didn't have time to stop, but you really have to if you are to investigate.You have to walk the ground.

Running north from Nowendoc you enter what is called the Three Falls Country where the head waters of three major coastal rivers - the Manning, the Hastings and the Macleay are co-located. Geoff Blomfield’s “Baal Belbora: the end of the dancing” explores the frontier wars in this country. This is also an area where a number of Aboriginal language groups overlap.

Coming into Walcha, I noticed that some new pieces had been added to the Walcha sculpture streetscape but did not have time to stop.From Walcha, the road continues  to Uralla.
Julia Griffin, Rain on the Uralla Road, one of my favourite paintings. Fortunately, this drive was dry. 
At Uralla, we leave Thunderbolt's Way, turning right to join the New England Highway for the last short stretch into Armidale.

Around Armidale

I was very glad to get to my motel to unwind. Accommodation had been a real issue, as it had been five years before when my delivery of a paper coincided with graduation. I described this a visit at the time in a photo essay. The beauty of Armidale & UNE. This time it was worse because the TAS (The Armidale School) junior (under 12) rugby carnival was on. .

This is the largest carnival of its type in the country. This year it brought together 44 teams from 21 schools and 16 clubs from across three states with 108 games of rugby. It also brought national coach Michael Cheika to town.

Reporting in advance of the carnival,  the Canberra Times' the Cauliflower Column  ( Folau fallout continues as Cheika) said in the context of the problems that have been facing Australian rugby::
The school will welcome an estimated 950 children from as far as Dalby, the Sunshine Coast, the Southern Highlands and even the Perth-based Western Spirit. It will be a rousing statement, particularly on the back of some flat participation numbers revealed in the 2017 Annual Report this week.
This must be the first positive story about Armidale to appear in that paper for quite some time!

I drove past the school grounds on my way home on Saturday just to look. It was a busy colorful  scene with the multiple parked buses, multiple little tents and games, Sadly I could not stop.

While many of the players themselves were accommodated in school boarding houses, the teams also came with officials and parents adding to accommodation pressures associated with graduation. All motels in the immediate area were booked out as were Armidale's 128+ Airbnbs some able to accommodate as many as six people plus the caravan park. There were also "luxury" tents (their phrase) at the showground, although these were too pricey for me in any case! I managed a motel room for the Thursday night and the last available Airbnb room for the Friday night, a simple room in a two bedroom flat. .

I don't know the final visitor numbers, but the town really was packed. The TAS rugby carnival alone brought in an estimated $1.6 million in visitor spend. I went for a walk on the Thursday night past all the motels with their no vacancy signs to buy some takeaway food. All the takeaway places had queues.

As I drove out to the university on Friday morning, I wondered how many people I might get, given graduation. In the end, there were about 45-50 people, A lot were older and from town attracted by the topic as well as my role as a public historian, but I did attract some staff as well including Martin Gibbs, professor of archaeology. Nicholas Fuller, the Armidale Express' newly appointed
arts and culture reporter, also came.
The questions were helpful in refining my views. Later over coffee in the staff room I was able to catch up with people including finding out out some of the latest research. Because I work so much outside the academy, I was a little nervous in talking. I form my own views, develop my own syntheses. I do expose this through the blogs and in the columns, but there is still a degree of caution when I come in contact with others with their own particular expertise. I think in practice I probably get more feedback and have greater freedom and more time for thought than those burdened by KPIs and growing teaching loads.  .

Part of my mission is to try to create interest in New England history. I found the conversations with Martin particularly because it gave my new ideas, but also helped me understand the problems he faces in attracting students to archaeology in general and New England studies in particular. There is also a growing problem in getting approvals to dig from Aboriginal communities, something others including John Mulvaney have talked about.  .

I will write more on this later, as well as the ideas that I picked up.I have already been sent two papers containing work that I had not seen before.

After the seminar I wandered around town a bit, sitting in Central Park for a bit to write up notes. It was quiet and beautiful.  One thing I noticed there and elsewhere were the number of older people just sitting. This is a feature of an aging population. Again, thoughts came to mind for later writing.

After lunch I went into the Express to do an interview with Nicholas Fuller. He also took photos of me standing next to the iron lacework outside the Armidale Folk Museum. We talked about his role, but also about the changes taking place in the newspaper world. I have written a little about this, but the discussion helped me extend my thinking

After seeing Nicholas I went out to see Bill Oates, head of the Heritage Centre. I then walked around the old Teachers' College building. This was managed by the University but was recently handled back to the State Government. I found this a profoundly depressing experience for reasons I won't go into here beyond mentioning that one side effect is the need to re-house or throw out archival records, books, newspapers previously stored at in the College building. The lack of periodic maintenance on the College building was clear to see. At a purely personal level, my intention to give key family papers to the archives may prove impossible.      

Again, I may write something more when I have had a chance to process it all.

After seeing Bill, I went into town to look at the display at the Council community consultation centre and then back to my room to have some food and continue writing up my notes. Driving back the next morning I was generally pleased with trip, if still depressed about what I had seen at the old Teachers' College. I wondered what might be done to rectify the position without coming to a firm views.  .      .

Monday, April 09, 2018

Monday Forum - was 1950s Australia still a cultural colony of England, repressed, puritanical and suspicious of foreigners?

Coetzee praised Murnane’s “chiseled sentences,” placing him among of the last generation of Australian writers to come to maturity when the country “was still a cultural colony of England, repressed, puritanical and suspicious of foreigners.” Mark Binelli 

I bristled at these words of J M Coetzee quoted by Mark Binelli in his New York Times Magazine piece Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town? (27 March 2018). I hadn't actually heard of Gerald Murnane until kvd referred to him in a comment on The internet: algorithms, bias and the censorship of information, pointing to both the Binelli piece and also this article by Murnane himself, The Still-Breathing Author (Sydney Review of Books, 6 February 2018).

I feel a little sheepish admitting my ignorance. He is clearly an important figure, although views about his writing expressed in the comments vary. kvd thinks, he is wonderful. Neil Whitfield took a different view: "I'm sure it is my fault not his, but every time I have tried to read Murnane I have given up! To me he is almost unreadable!" Responding to kvd, marcellous adopted a somewhat related position to Neil: "It's the content which I've found unreadable when assayed before - possibly because I'm not brought up Catholic with an enthusiasm for the turf (not that I'm saying you were/are). Incidentally, what you read as early love looks to me like slightly creepy laundry-line stalking"!

In my own defence, I do read all the time. However, I really gave up reading what one might describe as "serious fiction" several decades ago. That was partly a matter of time, more that I found that my own reactions to work considered to fall within the important category at considerable variance from those telling me that it was important and that I should consequently read it. Even today, I find Patrick White almost unreadable although here I have to make another attempt because he falls within my current field of historical interest.Still, my interest in Mr Murnane has been caught and I will read him because I can see connections with my other current interests.

I said at the start that I bristled at Coetze's words, that he (Murnane) was among the last of  generation of Australian writers to come to maturity when the country “was still a cultural colony of England, repressed, puritanical and suspicious of foreigners.”

Gerald Murnane was born on 25 February 1939. Others born around this time include Robert Hughes and Les Murray (1938), Clive James and Germaine Greer (1939), Mungo MacCallum (1941).and Martin Sharp and Bob Ellis (1942) to name just a few. All spent the first part of their childhood in war conditions, completing their education during the 1950s. They all were affected by, affected and were part of a process of cultural and social change that peaked in the 1970s. This was followed by dramatic economic changes in the 1980s and 1990s. These changes were not unique to Australia.

Two questions arise. Were they growing up at a time when Australia was still a cultural colony of England, repressed, puritanical and suspicious of foreigners? If so, what has changed?

I am a member of the Armidale Families Past and Present Facebook group. It's a closed group, you have to be approved as a member, that has grown rapidly to over 1,900 members. Over half the group and a  higher proportion of regular commenters/posters, it's a very active group, no longer live in Armidale. They are remembering their time there as children or younger adults. The posts are loaded with photos - school groups, work groups, activities, old scenes of Armidale, then and now individual shots.  The comment threads run and run stretching into the hundreds covering every aspect of life.

Commenters come from every walk of life with very different experiences. Even in a small city like Armidale there are many different groups and experiences, unified by the common city and overlapping links and experiences. .

Yabbying or Craybobbing near Armidale. Which term to use was the subject of the Great Craybob War!
One common thread is the memory of freedom as children or young adults, of doing sometimes silly things, of just roaming, along with a recognition that this is no longer possible today.

Recently, ABC Radio National had a program on why children don't walk or ride to school anymore. Various suggestions were made, but then a Queensland listener threw a spanner into the works. It was, the listener suggested, now illegal in that state to let children walk or ride to school on their own if they were under twelve.

Queensland police notice  
 The ABC investigated. You will find the results of the investigation here: What the law says about letting your child walk to school on their own.

In short, this is a genuine police notice issued at a particular time in a particular place for particular reasons. However, the legal position varies between jurisdictions and is by no means clear cut. But the bottom line is that you may break the law if you let your child walk or ride to school alone depending on the interpretation placed on the law. It all depends.

We have moved into territory that I have talked about before. In many ways, Australian society is indeed more repressed, puritanical and suspicious today than it was in the 1950s. There have been advances, but the overall pattern is clear and accelerating.

Are we more suspicious of foreigners than we were in the 1950s? The answer here is less clear cut, but I suspect that it is yes. It's just that the targets have changed to some degree. The 1950s saw the progressive ending of the White Australia policy. That policy was based on the idea of cultural homogeneity, of the need to protect workers and jobs from foreign competition. It changed because the world was changing resulting in a revolution that saw Australia open its doors to mass immigration first from Europe and then the world. The revolution was led by Government, but also broadly supported by a sometimes suspicious population..

And where are we today? We live in a world where the idea of cultural homogeneity, of the need to protect workers and jobs from foreign competition, is central to immigration policy in many countries. Australian Governments have held the line to some degree, but they have also made border protection a key ideal, feeding the idea that the country must protect its borders from the risk of people smugglers and unrestrained migration. One result has been a rise in xenophobia based more on religion than the old idea of ethnicity or race, although they do overlap.

And, finally, was Australia still a cultural colony of England at the time Mr Murnane was growing up? The answer here is partially yes but primarily no. However, wimping a little because of time, that is a topic for another post.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

The internet: algorithms, bias and the censorship of information

Today's post reflects my own confusions and indeed frustrations about the way that the internet is increasing telling me what it thinks I am interested in, preventing  me from finding what what I am actually interested in. It has become a form of censorship by algorithm.

Let me start with a few examples.

I have a particular interest in New Zealand. I used to go to the Google New Zealand site because its algorithms allowed me to pick up New Zealand pages that I might not otherwise find. That is no longer the case. When I go to tools to limit my search to New Zealand pages only, the site knows that I am from Australia; the only choice I am offered is Australian pages. And this on the New Zealand site. I can no longer find pages or items that I knew were there.

I follow BBC News among others to provide me with an alternative non-Australian view on events. I see a substantial number of Australian stories. I do not know whether or not my news is being tailored by my geographic location. I suspect so.

At the end of last year I spent some time looking at rental, house sales and AirBnb sites in Armidale. Within 48 hours, my Facebook feeds were running ads in all three areas. Are you still looking? I didn't actually object to this, but I was impressed by the speed with which my searches on other sites translated to Facebook.

I use Google image search all the time. That service has become less and less effective. There are fewer and fewer historical photos, more and more current crap, quite a bit of which has nothing to do with the topic. Part of the change is due to increased sensitivity about copyright, part to volume. The problem is compounded by the way in which other sites change and merge. Google closed Panoramio, a hugely valuable site. I downloaded some key photos before the site closed, but not all. Picture Australia, once a key photo site, was merged into Trove with consequent loss.

In a piece on his personal blog, paleoanthropologist John Hawks asked Is Facebook killing science news? I can see his point in that so many people seem to be getting their scientific views from Facebook feeds as opposed to more objective or analytical sources. However, I don't share it.

Facebook is not a news channel, rather a platform for personal opinion and personal sharing. This can create an echo chamber effect and disseminate the false, including some of the strangest conspiracy theories. However, in the end, it is up to people to decide what they read and don't read. They still have access to other sources.

In a way, John is caught on the horns of a dilemma of his own making. He is an effective user of social media, I really value his contribution here, but the platforms he uses so effectively can be used by others.

But that still leaves the problems I have identified, the way in which internet companies are increasingly tailoring their responses to what they think we are interested in compared to what we actually want, the way in which an increasingly crowded internet makes information search difficult, the way in which the combination of legal issues such as copyright interact with structural changes in content provision act to limit choice.

These are the issues we have to work around.

Postscript 4 April 2018

Gordon Smith kindly provided this answer to the conundrum how to access Good sites from other countries. It seems to work:
To find NZ content (for example): go to local Google search web page, click ”Settings” at foot of page (right hand side), select ”advanced search”, change ”region” to ”New Zealand” in drop-down menu. Add search terms at top of the same page. Click blue ”Advanced Search” button.
Alternatively, in the New Zealand case, this link also from Gordon should take you straight there. If you type in railways, for example, New Zealand railways should come up first.  

Postscript 2, 5 April 2018

Just to share with you a frustration from today that links to this discussion. I was writing my Armidale Express column. I wanted some stuff  on the dance summer schools held at UNE. These were quite important. I knew there was material previously available. I went to images first, and the only relevant image now available was on one of my earlier posts. This happens quite a bit.

Mmm. I went to that post because I knew it had some links. All those links were dead. The irony was that in the post I had refrained from copying material because I wanted people to read it in the original. Now I regret that.

I know that I have been blogging for twelve years, but I do struggle a bit with the idea that in a changing internet my blogs are becoming a source of record!. .