Current Issue #488

Beer and Other Sins:
Last drinks at The Golden Wattle

Sia Duff

There was an impromptu wake of sorts happening at The Golden Wattle two days after The Adelaide Review broke the news of its imminent closure.

From 5pm onward people started to congregate around a table near the door, racking up jugs of beer and passing around glasses. All present were media people of some make or model. Represented were some current and former contributors of The Adelaide Review, but also past and present staff at Broadsheet, Channel 7 and Solstice Media’s InDaily and CityMag. All were in their prime, highly skilled and already world-weary.

Once a friendly professional rivalry might have kept them apart, but in the last year or so that had given way to a unifying sense of gloom. It was a feeling that couldn’t quite be described as sadness – more like a shared, exasperated sigh as they watched their industry come apart around them.

So on this warm night at the beginning of spring, they tried to forget for a while as they chatted and drank. Still the news of that week found its way into conversation whenever someone found a chance to ask Walter Marsh the only question that seemed to matter: how are you doing?

Truth is, it had been a hell of a week for the digital editor of The Adelaide Review. After six years writing for the paper, and two on its small full-time staff, Walter had worked to keep pushing the publication – with its long, colourful and occasionally inglorious history – forward as a local cultural touchstone in some turbulent times.

Earlier that week, The Adelaide Review’s routine Tuesday staff meeting began with an unusual silence, followed by some heavy news: the media company was closing, and the next edition would now be its last. The next day, Walter helped draft an online statement to tell the world the 36-year-old magazine was at an end.

This was not the first time the ground beneath the 29-year-old had collapsed. Before The Adelaide Review, Walter was the online editor at its parent company’s music magazine, Rip It Up. Until, after a similar meeting in June 2016, he wasn’t. Another statement, another outpouring of public shock, before the website went dark and its decades of print journalism were consigned to history – or, at least, the State Library’s archives.

The latest announcement, if Walter was honest, hadn’t come as much of a surprise. He’d spent the last few months covering the impact of the COVID crisis and its recovery in South Australia. He also knew that the publication’s owners, a Spanish-owned media and property group, would have been feeling the impact of the global crisis even if it had yet to fully trickle down to this corner of the kingdom.

“I mean, we’re a street press that distributes in cafes that couldn’t open to capacity, that relies on advertising from arts and hospitality industries that were forced to shut down – it has not been a normal six months,” he said. “It’s not quite a butterfly flapping its wings in Wuhan, but there are all these big factors at work and it would be a mistake to think we’d escape it unaffected.”

If there was anything to be said at all, it was what it meant for the industry. The five other remaining staff – a two-person sales team (Jana Patman and Samantha Tokay), digital manager (Jess Bayly), design director (Sabas Renteria), and publishing director and editor (Amanda Pepe) – would soon lose their jobs, just in time for a recession. There were also its freelance contributors – such as myself, copy editor Ilona Wallace, and Walter’s partner, Sia Duff, who has been the paper’s staff photographer since 2017 – and the printers, its distribution team.

For the arts, it would be devastating. Losing The Adelaide Review was to lose a critical piece of infrastructure, as if the last bridge over the Torrens vanished overnight.

Then there were all the plans for future features, and current affairs coverage that would no longer happen. In wine and ink there may be truth, but all that is worthless without the paper to print it on.

“There was an op-ed in InDaily noting that when the news broke we were closing, there was barely anyone around to report it,” Walter said. “Bleak, but true.”

“This has been the best media job I’ve had. But I worry about the people coming through. Not just journalism students graduating with HECS debts and no jobs, but anyone who wants to write or get their stories out there.

“All the people who I have interviewed, or we’ve commissioned other writers to cover… how will those stories get out if there just aren’t the column inches to go around?”

If those were big thoughts, most tried not to think about them for long. Under the golden light those at the table clinked their glasses, then asked themselves if that was allowed under current COVID measures. They drank and laughed and swapped stories well into the night.

By the next morning their heads would hurt and their voices would be cracked from the strain of yelling through the din, but they would wake knowing they had been part of something unique – that even when all felt bleak, they had gone down swinging.

Royce Kurmelovs

Royce Kurmelovs

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Royce Kurmelovs is an Australian freelance journalist and author of The Death of Holden (2016), Rogue Nation (2017) and Boom and Bust (2018).

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