What’s a newspaper for in 2024?

Perhaps it’s by virtue of the types of pubs I visit, but these days whenever I see a newspaper out in the wild, it is inevitably turned to the form guide – an ever-present staple of the daily newspaper since the late 1800s.

But those days are soon to be gone. Tabcorp has decided to pull its racing form guide from three major Aussie papers: The Advertiser in Adelaide, NT News, and The Mercury in Hobart. These are the three largest newspapers in each of the capital cities they serve; each is also the only daily paper in their market. All are News Corp papers.

Last May, News Corp shut its dedicated racing paper, The Sportsman, which had been operating for 123 years. It was launched by John Norton, a colourful Australian who popularised tabloid journalism in our country, coined the term ‘wowser’, once fired a revolver at someone on a crowded Pitt Street, and hired Banjo Patterson as the paper’s editor in the 1920s because he was a good writer, I guess?

Norton’s dubious legacy aside, the removal of form guides from some of our country’s largest newspapers should be cause for concern. 

Sure, it makes perfect sense from multiple angles. The mechanics of betting on horses and dogs have long since moved to apps and websites; the ever-changing conditions of racing aren’t at all served by a daily form guide; and the entire industry is receding quickly from our culture, as societal attitudes around animal cruelty and gambling shift. 

As with all the other sections of the newspaper, the form guide has lived online for a while.

But you know who doesn’t live online? The people who shuffle to the pub at 11am to buy a Tooheys Old and to place a few well-considered bets on the ponies. They are the ones leaving those newspapers open to the form guide in pubs across the country, various squiggles and circles made with Keno pencils, Rorschach test beer stains covering the entire layout.

That’s who reads the form guide. That’s what a newspaper is for. Well, for some, anyway. Soon, that subset of print newspaper readers will be lost. The newspaper will lose yet another reason to exist in 2024.

I blame Craig Newmark. This guy.

I also blame the advent of radio in the 1920s, and paper rations during the war, and television, and satellites, and cable news channels, and the internet, and whoever idea the broadsheet paper size was — but mostly I blame Craig Newmark.

Newmark started an email list in 1995 and, in doing so, arguably contributed more to the demise of the newspaper than any other singular figure. Way to go, Newmark…

Newmark, in his defense, was just trying to use the still-nascent internet to share community events among a number of San Franciscan locals, in a bid to get more involved in the community he’d recently moved. He soon noticed people using the email list to advertise job vacancies and sell second-hand goods. Hell, some were even using it to organise romantic rendezvous, which was the most romantic way I could think to put that.

Within a year, craigslist.org was born, and the newspaper classified section as we know it was on permanent notice. 

By 2000, riding high on that post-Y2K-bug scare, craigslist had expanded out of San Francisco into nine other American cities, and the idea of paying for a classified ad was as laughable as paying for written news soon would be. 

By 2007, craigslist had robbed US newspapers of $5 billion (A$7.68b) in lost classified ads, according to analysis by Harvard Business School.

It wasn’t news content moving to a free online model that tore down newspapers — although news giants were painfully slow to move on that count, too — it was the loss of classified advertising. Subscriber costs were forced up, readership moved online, revenue bled, newspapers closed or were operated on a skeleton staff, and the entire product suffered. It happened in less than a decade. 

So, if a newspaper isn’t for news anymore, and it isn’t for classifieds – for buying and advertising cars, second-hand goods, services, small businesses, phone lines, tree-lopping, job vacancies – and it isn’t even for the racing form guide, then what is a newspaper for these days? 

These days, it’s a ritual. Or rather, it’s used as a central part of many different rituals.

The morning paper with the coffee. The weekend paper spread across the table, inserts and magazines haemorrhaging from them. The paper on the train home, because you feel like a character from Mad Men, plus it actually works to pass the time. The sports section. The crossword. Probably not the comics. The horoscopes. The form guide.

By removing form guides from three major Australian newspapers, especially ones in our smaller capitals, they are removing yet another reason to buy the newspaper. These newspapers can’t afford this, and I don’t mean financially. I mean, as a dying form, the newspaper cannot afford to lose another ritual attached to it.

Even if Tabcorp pull their advertising, News Corp should consider running form guides anyway.

As they say in the digital world, it may just make for good content. 

Enjoy your weekend.


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