Saturday, September 12, 2009

It's back! The National Times has risen from the ashes

Check it out here, officially from Monday, each day forever more.

David Marr has the backstory:

It was meant to stir, and stir it did. David Marr revisits The National Times - a masthead about to be reborn.

The body was not cold when we laid out page one. The state funeral was still days away. What we did would be condemned as disgraceful, despicable, gutter journalism and utter bad taste. It was also true. Over a big picture of the former premier of NSW waving a fat cigar we ran the headline: "Askin: Friend to Organised Crime."

This was late 1981. The National Times, conceived as a Sunday paper for grown-ups, was 10 years old, into its fourth editor, embarrassing the Fairfax family once again and administering another shock to the system. It had five years to go.

The paper's beat was spies, politics, prisons, rape, defence, politics, the US alliance, motoring, business, sex, politics, tax scams, education, health, the women's movement, the arts, crime and politics. The National Times pioneered a strange alliance between lifestyle and the gutter, between wine and crime. This was mocked and imitated.

We were short on columns, long on investigation. Long on writing, too: Evan Whitton's 26,000 word history of Australia's entanglement in the Vietnam War published as the last American forces fled Saigon in 1975 established the paper's reputation for intellectual courage. We gave wide open spaces to big issues.

Scepticism about power was the underlying attitude of the paper. There was much to be sceptical about. The National Times years spanned Billy McMahon to Bob Hawke, Edward Heath to Maggie Thatcher, Nixon to Reagan. It was the autumn of the Cold War. Power was heavily defended but social attitudes were loosening.

We weren't planning the overthrow of capitalism. We weren't hell-bent on radical change. The National Times was giving voice to a brand of scepticism growing in Australia for decades. The revolutionary thing was doing so from behind the conservative walls of fortress Fairfax.

The paper never made money. We soon outstripped the circulation of The Bulletin and Gordon Barton's larrikin Nation Review. But it was a good week - and Askin's death notice saw a very good week indeed - when we sold more than 110,000. We hoped we fought above our weight.

The paper never had the staff it needed. But by the sparse standards of today, we were awash. There were six or seven artists, our own photographer, a correspondent in Washington, a team in Canberra and lawyers to take us to the High Court. We didn't know what good times they were.

The paper could be obscure. We often asked readers to follow complex crime stories - say, bottom of the harbour or the so-called "Age tapes" - with only the help of the few careful suggestions our lawyers would allow. Getting the most out of the paper meant learning to crack the National Times code - like Goanna for Kerry Packer.

So much has changed, but this remains the same: The National Times was reporting an everyday world where corrupt politicians worked with crooked judges, bent cops, property developers, standover men, petty crooks and colourful business identities. In other words, we were reporting Australia.

This is not the place to drop names. But some great names worked for the paper: old-timers as well as newcomers. Most of us were in our 20s. Some have gone fishing; a few flourish in banking and business; one or two rose to dizzy heights at News Limited; several are teaching journalism; one set out to save the fauna and flora of the planet; one old editor may be facing prison; most of us are scattered through Fairfax, still at work.

Now the masthead is back from the dead. That this is powered by some folk memory of the old National Times is touching. Somehow, the paper is remembered and celebrated by people who never knew it, never bought a copy. In 1986, it disappeared into an ambitious broadsheet called The Times on Sunday. That closed a year later in the general wreckage of young Warwick Fairfax's impatient takeover of his family's empire.

From Monday the National Times begins a new life as a collection point for commentary and debate on the Fairfax website. Those who have carried a flame for the paper all these years will recognise a few names and faces. It isn't over.