The survival of the fittest

Tom Joyner speaks to The Saturday Paper’s Erik Jensen.

saturday paper

Even over the phone, Erik Jensen has the weary air of a man whose crusade against print media’s slow decay has taken an early toll.

At 25, the hair of the editor of the newly launched The Saturday Paper may be slightly unkempt, but his words are handsomely articulate. Jensen exudes experience and intelligence that would otherwise belong to someone much older and probably more jaded. But then again, Jensen is no stranger to print – he began writing music reviews for the Sydney Morning Herald at 16, before joining its ranks as a reporter upon finishing school.

Speaking from his Melbourne office, Jensen laughs nervously when I bring up his age, a topic impossible to ignore in an industry mostly governed by men sometimes three times his senior. I ask him if it’s realistic to imagine his editorial team ever being as young as he is. “It’s not really a criterion on which I look in commissioning [someone],” he says. “A young person who writes well is just as an attractive proposition to an editor as an older person.”

It’s a genuine worry for those aspiring to work in his field, and Jensen has certainly set himself apart not only on his own merit, but also among the last of a dying breed in an ailing medium.

The Saturday Paper, a 32-page tabloid-sized edition published weekly and printed on a dense, white stock, leaps out on newsstands beside the dusty mastheads of the Herald and Daily Telegraph. Meticulously designed from front to back, its black, white and red colour scheme lends new meaning to the old joke.

Speaking of his accomplishments – among them a 2010 Walkley for Young Journalist of the Year and a 2009 UNAA Media Peace Award for an investigative piece on the exploitation of international students – Jensen is impatient, if humble. “I won one of those…” he hesitates, “what are they called?” An award momentarily escapes him.

It is rare for a publisher to appoint an editor so untested, even on top of Jensen’s lauded achievements, especially when such a seasoned vanguard of journalists and critics assemble beneath him, including the likes of David Marr, Martin Mackenzie-Murray, Hamish McDonald and Christos Tsiolkas, making up for a truly stellar billing. In sport, Jensen would be a wildcard, in politics a maverick, or in the arts, a rising star. But survival in print is a harder test than most, and Jensen has yet to prove himself.

Since departing from his post as summer editor of The Herald, Jensen has spent the last 18 months working closely with publisher Morry Schwartz. The two have been busy approaching advertisers and mustering a crack team of around 10 full-time staffers to produce their new edition. It’s no surprise that Jensen is about as sanguine and collected as his exhaustion might betray over the phone.

Jensen’s words echo rehearsal. “We’re launching a newspaper because we believe there is a significant market for people who want to read long-form journalism in print, and aren’t being satisfied elsewhere.”

But this proposed ‘market’ has drawn skepticism from
both conservative and progressive pundits. When an advertising pitch in the launch’s media-kit outlined the paper’s target demographic as being specifically a social elite, a “well-educated people living in the inner-suburbs,” it sparked online criticism. Targeting an audience between 35-49 years old, members are seen to be “image-conscious” and “socially-aware” with “a high disposable income”. Jensen dismisses my suggestion that this is problematic. “I certainly am not pitching a newspaper to that audience,” he tells me, “whether a person is rich or well-educated, or ill-educated doesn’t really bother me.”

Though, this is contentious in light of the paper’s launch distribution structure. For now at least, The Saturday Paper will only be sold in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, urban areas in which Jensen and Schwartz have an established readership with The Monthly and The Quarterly Essay (published by Schwartz’s company Black Inc.), where, arguably, their “environmentally-aware” ‘lighthouse consumers’ are to be found.

With only 30 per cent of the paper’s subscriber base residing outside of its three launch cities, and with limited newsroom resources, it seems ambitious that Jensen should claim The Saturday Paper will have a nationwide purview on par with that of News Limited’s national daily, The Australian – a paper whose criticism has been swift and vociferous since launch. “Well yeah,” Jensen hastens to add, “I don’t think you should confuse our distribution footprint with our editorial aspirations.”

But Jensen’s ambition, along with Schwartz’s, is precisely the expedient for the entire project to date, something that Fairfax, his old employer – “obviously a financially troubled company” – apparently failed to champion. Jensen takes the helm in the same week that Fairfax switches its weekend flagships to compact format.

Troy Bramston’s column in The Australian, which ran the Monday after the paper’s launch, was a typical effusion of flying spittle. “The Saturday Paper is likely to rival only one other weekly newspaper: Green Left Weekly,” wrote Bramston. Jensen is duly nonplussed. He does, however, appear uneasy when asked to explain how he plans to quell the already growing perception of political bias, and maintain balance between what is a largely ex-Fairfax cohort of contributors. “It is quite an active hope of ours that we remain an unbiased press, although of course I imagine our critics like Gerard Henderson and Troy Bramston will struggle to see through that,” he says.

Even so, posters and billboards plastered around the city on launch weekend featured heavy-set slogans. “Not the Daily Telegraph” and “A Newspaper but without the Murdoch” are punched in dark type on the side of a construction site on Parramatta Road near Leichhardt.

His defense of his decision to back print seems dogged, if not irritated, but Jensen concedes that for immediate news coverage The Saturday Paper can only hope to be “a complement to online media”, which an audience like his consumes fervently throughout the week. This perhaps goes to explain why he is working within a weekly print cycle rather than a daily one, although print cycles, he says, are “inherently arbitrary” – possibly part of the reason why online media has succeeded in the first instance. He seems unmoved by the prospect that almost all of the paper’s operational costs would be in printing and distribution.

Even if he doesn’t admit it openly, Jensen is well aware of print media’s seemingly marked time, but remains singular in his vision for The Saturday Paper: to provide quality long-form journalism for a discerning crowd of “Twitter users”; turning to its pages for greater depth of the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of any story that has already been chewed through what he calls the “incredible and unhelpful grind of a 24-hours news cycle ”.

For the paper, Jensen proclaims no great reach for in-depth international coverage, nor do his resources appear to allow for truly comprehensive nationwide reporting. But then again, this is not his focus.

On this, I ask Jensen how much of a semblance The Saturday Paper’s format shares with periodicals like Schwartz’s own The Monthly: its focus on long-form journalism, its eschewance of online-only content, its indignance of a 24-hour news cycle, its weekly print structure with a slim middle-class target demographic – would it be fair to say it is a magazine stuck inside a newspaper’s body?

“Because we’re tapped more heavily into the news cycle than what a magazine is, I think that warrants that we produce our paper every week.”

It remains to be seen if or how The Saturday Paper will develop. It is a project borne from a love for newspapers shared by both editor and publisher, but it’s almost as if it has to consciously be a paper for its premise to work. Jensen assures me he isn’t worried, but it will take some time. Against my better judgment I am inclined to believe him.