Culture, arts, politics: let’s have a little more of each

Originally written for Online Opinion magazine.

You may have seen the recent launch of Macquarie Press’s latest Canberra venture, a magazine called CAP (Culture, Arts, Politics). If you believed the hype surrounding it, you might have thought that this was going to be something like a fusion of the New Yorker, the London Review of Books and the Washington Post. You’d be sadly mistaken because Macquarie Press, under the editorial direction of Jorian Gardner, has managed to turn out little more than an undergraduate student newspaper, albeit on slightly more expensive paper.

Apart from the already troubled Canberra Times, Canberra is served by very few publications of substance. The City News, another magazine published by Macquarie Press, exists primarily to distribute advertisements for real estate agents, propped up by a few regular columnists, Gardner’s “Canberra Review” section, and advertorials about other real estate agents. Such a publication is not out of place in a big city (you could fill Lake Burley Griffin with the number of these magazines floating around Sydney or Melbourne), but when it’s the only real “news” alternative to the one daily newspaper, it isn’t enough.

We also endure our fair share of tourism “magazines”. They are useful for tourists and advertisers but of limited value to residents. (Around Canberra Magazine, for example, is a franchise run by a company called Around Australia, which publishes dozens of these things, including Around Eastern Gippsland Magazine and, somewhat over-zealously, Around Western Gippsland Magazine.) They carry no other content and, like City News, their primary focus is on advertising.

Into this vacuum, Macquarie Press has launched CAP, and in doing so has perpetuated the myth that Canberra is two cities in one – that the “government people” and the “others” live separate lives and don’t have much to connect them.

This is certainly the impression given by Gardner’s editorial, which dismisses the nation’s government as a “game” that “some of us play”. (Despite the fact that Gardner’s only other contribution to this issue of CAP is an interview with Chief Minister Jon Stanhope, and that he often publishes other lightweight political material in City News, he’d have us believe that he’s in some way above it all.)

Aside from the damage done to the serious business of government by referring to it as a “game” – which is an essay in itself – the launch of CAP represents a backward step for Canberra’s media. This is not to say that a new publication is of itself a bad thing. Generally speaking, the opposite is true; the more players, the better the game. But when the newest player has soaked up funds from an established publisher, whose pockets are deep (but not deep enough, one supposes, for more magazines) and whose advertising base is fairly well established, the opportunity for a more serious entrant to the market is limited.

In addition, although not surprisingly, CAP is brought to you by practically the very same team that produces the Canberra Review. They’ve been kind enough to be what they would probably describe as “edgier” to help you tell the two apart, but in such a diverse market as Canberra’s, the media needs to provide us with more variety, not less.

So, what do you get for your 17 A6-sized pages? (The magazine is 36 pages in total, but the rest are advertisements.) Apart from Gardner’s editorial, there’s a predictable piece by Triple J’s Miranda Tetlow about op-shops; a remarkably shallow profile of Jon Stanhope by Gardner; a detail of a painting by Stephanie Scroope that on A6 paper makes you look about for the nearest magnifying glass; a photo of a crack user outside the National Gallery; a literally nauseating extract from an essay titled “The Cultural Semen of Osama Bin Laden”; a poem about lunch-time sex (ooh, told you it was edgy); some bar reviews; and (here comes the edginess again) a helpful guide to “8 places you can catch a quickie in Civic”.

I’m really at a loss to pick the audience that CAP is targeting. People who want to read about politics probably don’t want to read the kind of profile that includes references to “the chicks’ vote”; people who read student newspapers aren’t going to be fascinated by a poem about sex. A photo captioned “you know your life is peachy when your crack pipe brings so much joy you don’t notice the birdshit dribbling down your nose. Bliss!” is probably going to mildly shock most readers, but is that really the point?

The Canberra Review (edited by Gardner, remember) wrote up CAP’s launch, and mentioned that “many [people] have commented on its interesting, eclectic, retro design”. I’m sure they have commented – what this advertorial omits is the nature of their comments. The write-up also says that CAP “features articles on art, local politics and culture. It has editorial opinion pieces, digital artwork, poetry and visual ‘comment’.”

Editorial pieces? Yes, if you count six sentences at the start and an extract from an essay already published elsewhere. Digital artwork? The cover is described as “digital mischief, “ so let’s let that one through to the keeper. Poetry? See “lunch-time sex”, above. Visual comment? I don’t even know what this means, but presumably photographing drug addicts counts as some kind of comment.

What disappoints me about this magazine is its wasted potential. It claims to fill the gap in Canberra’s cultural life left by Artlook magazine, but is in reality competing more with student magazines than higher-brow arts productions. Macquarie Press would do better to cede this ground to the earnest undergrads at ANU, and try its hand at finding genuinely good writers to cover everything that goes on in Canberra. After all, CAP’s editorial stakes Canberra’s claim to being an “exciting vibrant place. The town is teeming with new music, cutting-edge art, fresh fashion, thought-provoking performance and a whole swag of interesting people who bubble with alternative ideas”. The reader will never know if this is true, because CAP – at least in its first edition – fails to get anywhere near most of this.

If we’re going to sell Canberra as being vibrant and interesting, it’s going to take more than just saying “f**k” in an editorial. It’s going to require a serious attempt to break into Canberra’s already-dwindling media market, and it’s going to take more than just transplanting the editorial team from one publication into a second and expecting it to fly.

Culture, Arts, Politics is an enviable title for a publication in a national capital: what a disappointment it is to find that this magazine doesn’t live up to any part of its title.