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Founding Editor of The Saturday Paper Erik Jensen on starting a print news publication from the ground up.
People have been trumpeting the inevitable death of the newspaper for over a decade, but, despite dire predictions and a pessimistic climate, three years ago The Saturday Paper landed on the scene, and has been going from strength to strength ever since.
Founding Editor Erik Jensen has been working in writing and editing since he was 16, with a background in music criticism, and experience writing for The Sydney Morning Herald. At 23 he started sketching out the structure for his ideal publication, and by 25 he’d launched The Saturday Paper. On a Friday afternoon, in the strange lull between having sent the paper off to print and seeing it hit the stands, Jensen talks to Writers Bloc about starting from scratch, challenging long-held assumptions, and the mystical idea of inbox zero.
Test What Readers Want Rather Than Simply Assuming
As its title suggests, The Saturday Paper comes out once a week, in both print and online. You have to pay to read it in full and it combines in-depth journalism and longer articles with the fleeting nature inherent to a news title. It occupies a very specific niche.
“Conventional wisdom would suggest that people would not want to pay for news online and they certainly wouldn’t want to pay for edition-based news” Jensen tells me as we sit in the bright meeting room near his office. “The happy fact with The Saturday Paper is that they do want to pay to get something, and they do only want it to come only once a week – and a lot of that is to do with how people engage with information.”
With the advent of the internet, the public perception of what readers wanted began to shift, and it was this which provided one of the major motivators for Jensen in starting his own title. “One of the big points I was trying to make was that assumptions that had calcified in newsrooms had perhaps sometimes been wrong” he explains. “It was very difficult inside an old newspaper to test those assumptions again – but with a new newspaper you could try and do something else.”
The ideas the title set out to test were “basically assumptions that had grown up in the wake of the internet and had sought to ascribe new motivations to readers” with the big one being that the mere convenience of online access had caused readers to become less serious. “I’ve never been seduced by that” says Jensen. “Just the fact that speed is a marker of the internet doesn’t mean that you don’t want to spend time there.”
Print vs. Online Isn’t The All-Out Scrum We Were Promised
While the internet continues to take on a larger role in modern life, the fact that so many print titles remain suggests that perhaps it isn’t a matter of one snatching the audience of another. Maybe the two can coexist – and perhaps even complement one another.
“We have a print title, but half our audience is there online” says Jensen. “And so as much as we are testing assumptions about news in print I think we’re really testing assumptions about news online as well.”
The Saturday Paper features the kind of journalism that works in both print and online – the strength of content means that people will want to read it without being lured there by clickbait. Then, for those who prefer having a physical copy, there are added benefits.
“For me it’s about all sorts of subtle hints to readers. It’s about habit as well. It’s about saying that there is actually something pleasant and meaningful and tactile about holding what you are reading in your hands. It’s the reason that e-books have not destroyed books despite the dire predictions that were there a decade ago when they first started to arrive.” Jensen explains.
There’s a certain joy in having a newspaper arrive at your door, and shaping your morning around it, something that is difficult to do with disparate articles on your newsfeed, no matter how compelling a read they are. Plus, it is frankly a terrible experience trying to do a cryptic crossword on your phone.
On why it was so important that the paper exist in print, Jensen adds “It’s also about wanting to say that our newspaper seeks to reach back into a tradition, seeks to reach back into a history of news and do various things to convey the fact that we are either updating that tradition or directly engaging with that tradition.”
Less Resources, More Scrutiny, Oh And You’re Going To Get Sued.
Even if the internet hasn’t killed print media, the landscape still looks vastly different to what it did in the past. “As with everything in this world I think the difference is the time and money. There were much bigger staffs at newspapers thirty years ago, there was much more money around and there were fewer demands because there was less to compete with.” Jensen reflects. “But that being said, I think the quality of journalism we have in the world now is better than it was then because the access to information is greater.”
The main impact of having a smaller team is that it is harder to stay on top of things. Jensen shows me his phone - in particular the angry ‘unread email’ flag.
“43 430” he says, with a stressed laugh. “That’s as bad as it’s ever been. But it’s only ever going to get worse. That’s the unfortunate fact.”
It’s hard to get to inbox zero when you’re balancing commissioning, editing and other, more daunting challenges. “Being involved in prolonged defamation actions for instance, can be incredibly exhausting and can induce great anxiety, even in instances where you know that your story is right” says Jensen, throwing the idea of getting sued into conversation like it’s the most normal thing in the world. And, in his case, it kind of is.
When asked if it happened a lot, he explains “I feel like I go through phases. Sometimes I’ll go through a stretch where no one is suing us and that always feels very good, and then sometimes I’ll go through a patch where I’ll have six writs running on my desk at once and I’m not.” He continues: “I don’t necessarily think one is entirely better than the other. I think if you’re doing the job that I hope our newspaper does, you’re naturally going to attract complaint from those people you seek to critique.”
Learn By Doing
Despite the fact that tomorrow’s issue has gone to print, The Saturday Paper office is neither the calm oasis of “a job well done” nor the frantic clump of desks and paper that film and television has sketched firmly in our minds. Even when an issue comes out, the print cycle of commission-edit-publish is never really over; it’s a spiral, not a circle.
After three years, Jensen feels he’s got a handle on this ordered chaos. “I think the first six months of the paper I lived just in terror, trying to hope that it would come out each week” he explains. “The more confident you get doing something, the more space you find in your head to do it better.”
“There’s also the realisation that took me some time to arrive at [is] that news is by its nature imperfect. I had thought that I was going to try and make a perfect newspaper, and it kind of made me into a mad person for a time. In the first issue for instance I think I re-wrote every piece that was in there. My job as an editor, really, is to help people make their work as good as it can be, and I think becoming better at editing is the act of realising that to be an editor is to destroy your own ego otherwise you do find yourself in this position where you are re-writing stories the way you would have written them.” He pauses before continuing: “and if you’re looking as I am for plurality of voices then to do that misses the point. I just realised over time that to make a better paper sometimes you have to hold it less tightly."
Banner and front page image: Frank Hamilton, Flickr
Elizabeth Flux is a freelance writer and the editor in chief of Writers Bloc. Her nonfiction work has been widely published and includes essays on film, pop culture, feminism and identity as well as interviews and feature articles. Her most recent fiction publication is a short story in The Legend of Monga Khan. She previously edited Voiceworks and On Dit, and in 2016 she attended the Hong Kong International Festival funded by the UNESCO City of Literature Travel Fund. Twitter @ElizabethFlux