Six Ways Sacked Hacks Can Keep Keyboarding

If airline pilots grounded by Covid-19 can retrain as header drivers to reap this year’s harvest, sacked political journalists can keep supplying readers’ needs through a little retraining.

How can jobless journos keep their by-lines busy? By filing copy on Gen Me stirrers who don’t sport ties and often wear next to nothing. Although they think left and right are traffic signals, they’re just as self-centred as politicians so only minor adjustments needed. When a camera light turns red, they automatically preen and pontificate.

Flashing LEDs also feature in the cabin controls of an Airbus A320 and a New Holland CR 9090. The driving principles are much the same for both super-costly high-tech monsters: Lift the nose when the wheels start moving, stay level, watch the fuel gauge and ensure the passengers/wheat gets unloaded safely.

And so it is when shifting from writing about policies to scribbling about pap. The language and ethics are somewhat misaligned, but the readership is huge, as the late Peter Bowers (1930-2010) discovered pre-Internet when he produced this whimsy: Where, oh where, have 35 odd socks gone?

The SMH national correspondent normally specialised in cerebral political theatre and his copy regularly rattled Canberra’s movers and shakers. But a slow news day throwaway on the domestic drama of misplaced hose garnered more response than anything he’d ever written on the shenanigans of our leaders across 57 years.

This reveals much about wordsmiths misjudging consumers’ tastes, our education system, the vapid nature of politics for Gen Z, or the mysterious appetites of washing machines. Maybe all four.

Michelle Obama was wrong for saying: ‘When they go low, we go high’. The truth is in reverse. Readership rises when the topic plunges.

Language is always critical. In reporting politics, terms like ‘coup’, ‘crisis’, ‘threat’, ‘quit’ and ‘breakdown’ draw stories to Page One. When covering the trite, eye-catchers should include: ‘Incredible’, ‘cute’, ‘wow’, ‘viral’ and ‘stunned’ (as in fans’ imagined reactions, not cattle in an abattoir).

Words are ammunition: Some calibres serve both camps, like ‘cheat’, ‘disloyal’ and ‘exposed’, though meanings differ.

A ‘wardrobe malfunction’ is not a sticking door on bedroom furniture, but a slipping bra-strap in a photoshoot. Apparently this is titillating. An event which ‘bombs’ doesn’t mean a terrorist attack but a fashion faux-pas, like wearing green at a capitalist’s wedding.

Here’s Six Tips For Shifting From The Weighty To The Weightless:

  • Every word in the heading must start with a capital so readers realise it’s a Must-Read.
  • Open with a low single-digit to lure clickers. Turn-offs start around seven.
  • About 250 words max. No polysyllables, references to classical texts or history pre-2019.
  • Topics should be limited to the doings of ‘celebrities’ and ‘influencers’. Paunchy millennials with shaved domes in uniform suits may think they fit, but in this age of compost their views are for landfill, not recycling.
  • Assume your readers care nothing about the values you cherish.
  • Don’t bother checking sources and verifying quotes. Just embellish PR handouts.

Now watch the dollars flow as principles flee, and fame rockets far beyond the Canberra Press Gallery. This is the New Normal Media – Trash For Cash. Which cynics might say is what political commentary does already.

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Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia.

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