Image for Death comes to the newspaper

The Imperfectionists,
Tom Rachman
Text publishing
$32.95

MUCH ink is being spilled lamenting the demise of the newspaper industry worldwide.

And too much of the commentary is coming from former journalists in the form of biography,  many of them trying to justifying a career spent in a dying art.

Tom Rachman gives us something different, the newspaper and its journalists warts and all. He strips away the myth and fable that so often accompanies newspaper history as told by print journalists retired or out of a job but at the same time Rachman still, perhaps unwittingly, manages to advance the notion that the written word presented as news on our breakfast tables each morning is too previous to lose.

At the start of the Rachman’s novel, an author with a terminal illness gives her view on life and death in simple terms. Life, she says in an interview with a newspaper obituary editor, is merely an illusion of continuity which we call memory. The personality is constantly dissolving. Each day we are reborn.

The words of the author, calm before death, could almost be a metaphor for the newspaper, this precious thing, fragile and vulnerable, that dissolves after each edition, and then is reborn next day.

The broadsheet newspaper that is central to The Imperfectionists is, too, inflicted by a terminal illness, not the cancer that stalks the author, but the general malaise of the newspaper industry, largely attributed in recent times to the internet, this insidious thing that has arrived as if from nowhere to eat away at newspaper profits, forcing in turn cutbacks and closures.

The Imperfectionists though, is not a paean to the glories of broadsheet journalism. Nor is it a book about newspaper economics or indeed the rise of the internet and the threat it poses to traditional media. This is a novel about journalists, those working for a fictitious international newspaper based in Rome, and the members of a wealthy family who makes it their business to keep their newspaper alive.

As the title of Tom Rachman’s novel suggests, the journalists are imperfect and flawed, not in their professionalism but in their sad and torn lives.
Dashing reporters past their shelf-life, newspaper executives on the road to ambition who took a wrong turn, the lonely looking for love, the disillusioned who discover too late in life that journalism is not for them.

Tom Rachman is a former journalist who clearly knows the business, both of the newspaper industry and the people who ply their own trade within the newsroom.

His eye is keen, his pencil sharp and he brings these often faceless people _ particularly those who work behind the scenes, such as sub-editors and section editors _ to life.

Rachman is scary. I feel I’ve known all the characters in his book during a long career in newspaper journalism, and what’s more I feel I know Rachman. He’s the smart-arse young reporter who sits near you, the one you know is going to get out of newspapers and make something of himself and not devote his life to cold coffee, deadlines, and headlines. (It’s reported the US publishing rights alone for this, Rachman’s first novel, went for somewhere between $US250,000 and $US500,000 after bids from eight publishers. The film rights have also been sold to Brad Pitt’s production company).

Those who do not manage to escape the newsroom - certainly on Rachman’s fictitious newspaper - lose something of themselves in the long, unsocial hours spent at the keyboard, and more tragically lose those who once loved them.

Newspapers, of course, are not just about editors and Rachman looks at reporters, too; those who get burned out by a life of adventure, and high-spending on expenses.

Rachman’s novel is brilliantly crafted, it could be the work of a layout sub-editor who puts everything in its place, so the eye and mind travels effortlessly through a jumble of stories.

Each subject, the journalists plus the publishing company’s chief financial officer and an avid reader whose life is entwined with that of the newspaper, is given a chapter. And the whole book is written within a framework of the history of the newspaper itself, the sections on the publishing company given a dateline that takes us through five dacades.

Not only will any journalist reading this book recognise past and present colleagues within its pages, but the challenges that have faced newspapers over the past few decades. The growing power of television, the move towards tabloidisation to claw back readers and advertising and then the arrival of the internet.

The owners of the Rome newspaper decided to ignore the internet and not have a website. As one of the senior executives says: ``The internet is to news, what car horns are to music.’‘

All the while the broadsheet and its brand of journalism - to embrace the world so that historians in future might view each edition as a snapshot of life on any given day -  struggles to survive.

Describing editor Kathleen Solson’s fight with the owners for more resources, Rachman writes: ``This was too critical a time in history - the war on terror, the rise of Asia, climate change - to be reporting about the fat folds of celebrities at the beach. `We can leave that to the internet,’ she said.’’