Hold the Print

Author Paul Mitchell

Author Paul Mitchell

Anyone fortunate enough to have had work published in Meanjin will testify to the thrill of knowing their writing has shared in a history that their writer heroes – in my case Helen Garner, Patrick White, Judith Wright and AD Hope – have also shared.

Now, in the wake of Sophie Cunningham’s resignation, the word is that Meanjin may become an online only journal. The scribes, notably Peter Craven in the Age, are concerned that its potential digital move will be another nail in the coffin of great writing.

But great writing is just that, whether online or in print. Why do we have this fear that if a journal migrates online it becomes ephemeral? Quality online journals are archived in the State Library, just like their print elder cousins. And haven’t we been told, in the wake of the Web 2.0 explosion, that we should watch carefully what we put online because it can never be erased? You can’t get any less ephemeral than that.

Born in 1940, Meanjin claims to print the best new writing in Australia. Whether or not that’s true, its place in Australian literary culture has never faltered. Ian Brittain’s themed editions through the noughties were informative omnibuses, and Sophie Cunningham’s grab bag, maverick approach has been equally exciting. If sales are down, which seems the likely reason for the proposed shift from print to online, it’s got nothing to do with the quality of the writing or editing.

What it’s got to do with is how we take in information now. I’m a writer, I work in front of a screen all day, and I’m a breakfast, toilet and bed reader. My preference is for print. But when quality journals shift from print to online, like Eureka Street with its weekly digests and daily updates, I start reading them differently. I know the same will happen with Meanjin. Because if I like a journal, I’m not going to desert it because it changes delivery format.

The intellectual gatekeepers, it seems, fear that online equals low quality. And low word counts. The big hurdle to getting scholarly approval to shift quality print journals online is the perception, often promoted by vacuous, non-reader tech heads, that people only want to read short copy online. Again, readers may have a preference for it, but if the writing is good then they will simply keep reading.

I edited a web journal in the ‘90s that went from half a dozen viewers to a worldwide audience of tens of thousands in three years. Updated monthly and addressing the nexus between spirituality and pop culture, Shoot the Messenger (link via Pandora) consistently published articles in excess of 1,500 words, one article on conspiracy theories went out to 5,000. And our online statistics (another boon for online publishing) showed us it was our most popular article ever, keeping me busy on radio spots for years afterwards.

In the age of Web 2.0, e-books, blogs, wikis and newfound author/audience interaction, Meanjin, with its generations of literary history behind it – and with Sophie Cunningham’s recent ‘online in print’ approach to editing – is perfectly positioned to reinvent itself.

The journal can still publish long, quality articles and stories, but the footnotes can take us directly to the sources. We can engage with the author online, we can debate the piece in a comments section, we can even add our own footnotes (videos, audio) to the articles, debating the author paragraph by paragraph, stimulating even further debate and discussion. And, at the end of the year, Meanjin could put out an annual print best-of that will make the perfect Christmas gift.

Web 2.0 allows a never-before seen fusion of quality writing and audience engagement. Meanjin 2.0, steeped in history and switched on to what’s possible, can not only be part of this movement but lead the literary cyberpack.

Portrait of Paul Mitchell

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