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Meanjin: signal from noise?

MeanjinAfter the acrimony surrounding the absorption of Meanjin into MUP, and the departure of former editor Ian Britain, one could have been forgiven for thinking Sophie Cunningham had accepted a poisoned chalice when she took over as editor last year. I’m not sure anyone would think that now: despite a mildly controversial redesign the magazine seems to have gone from strength to strength under her editorship, a process which is clearly visible in the Winter issue (2/2008) which was launched at Sydney Writers’ Festival last week and features Ross Gibson’s quietly brilliant piece on William Dawes and Patyegarang, Katherine Wilson on the hoaxing of Keith Windschuttle and an interview with Christos Tsiolkas.

I’m obviously not an unbiased reader – I’ve known Sophie for a long time, and she’s published a couple of pieces by me in the new-look magazine – but what I find exciting about her version of Meanjin is its determination to drag the literary magazine into the 21st century. In doing that she’s obviously drawn inspiration from American magazines like McSweeney’s which have embraced the possibilities of advances in publishing technology to create magazines which reflect the omnivorousness of their interests in their physical form, and which are prepared to explore the possibilities opened up by zines and graphic forms such as comics. But she’s also clearly put a lot of effort into trying to reimagine the sort of writing one might find in a magazine such as Meanjin by including more life writing and memoir and commissioning pieces on television and broader questions about digital copyright and new media.

All of which brings us to the Meanjin blog, Spike, which has been going from strength to strength over recent weeks. Although News Ltd are about to launch some kind of new media venture under the stewardship of former Daily Telegraph Editor, David Penberthy, Australian media has handled the transition to digital strikingly badly. In contrast to newspapers such as The Guardian and The New York Times, which have devoted considerable time and energy to developing digital incarnations that embrace the possibilities of the medium by incorporating high-quality blogging and high levels of interactivity, the online versions of our newspapers are largely content to simply replicate their print versions online, albeit in a stripped back and dumbed down form.

This contrast is particularly acute in the context of the cultural pages of Australian newspapers and magazines, through which you can almost hear the tumbleweed blowing. Rather than using the cost pressures upon the print versions of these sections as an excuse to build more sophisticated online presences, Australian newspapers have been progressively scaling back their cultural content online.

Nor – although it must be said this is largely a matter of economics – have our literary magazines embraced the possibilities of digital publishing. There are some notable exceptions out in the blogosphere, where outfits like Larvatus Prodeo have found niches and occupied them with varying degrees of success. And in a slightly more formal context Inside Story is doing some good work, and The Monthly has set up its subscription-based Slow TV. But in general it’s fair to say that most of what’s out there is being done on the sniff of an oily rag by individual bloggers.

That alone would be reason to make Spike – which is already drawing on a pretty wide pool of contributors and producing the sort of steady stream of good material that makes individual bloggers like myself feel exhausted every time we look at it – stand out from the crowd. But what’s more interesting about it is the fact that rather than devoting their resources to reproducing the content from the print version of the magazine online, Meanjin has decided to create a separate entity which complements and extends the print version of the magazine by providing content specifically created for an online environment.

All of which makes the redesign of the physical magazine, and its preparedness to rethink how the medium might affect the message seem less about simply taking design cues from elsewhere and more about a really serious strategy to find a model which might contain good writing across a variety of media (a project that’s also visible in Sophie and the magazine’s enthusiastic and highly successful embrace of the possibilities of Twitter).

In and of itself the successful implementation of such a strategy would be interesting, but I suspect the current convulsions in the media landscape give it increasing urgency. As the newspapers stumble dinosaur-like towards their inevitable oblivion, the question of where the Australian cultural and literary conversation will occur is sharpening, and I’d have to say that at this point the forums aren’t exactly thick on the ground. I can name a slew of American sites such as The Second Pass, Salon, BookForum or The Millions, all of which offer access to writing about books and ideas of a very high standard, and which, to a greater or lesser degree, embrace the possibilities of the internet as a medium. By contrast, there are almost no Australian sites offering anything of the sort, nor – at least without considerable private or institutional backing – does it seem likely there will be any time soon.

I suspect some people will accuse me of cultural nationalism, but they’d be mistaken. All I’m saying is that it’s vital small countries, and in particular anglophone small countries with a long history as importers of culture, possess forums in which ideas and issues be discussed in context. Because without them we’ll be condemned to listening to other people’s conversations, without ever being able to have our own.

All of which makes the Meanjin experiment as important as it is interesting. Because while Meanjin isn’t going to be The Sydney Morning Herald of the future, I do think in it, and in Spike, it’s possible to see a model which suggests it is possible to mark out space for the Australian cultural conversation online without being either stuffy or parochial. And that’s something that really, really matters.

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  1. Sam Twyford-Moore #

    I’ve certainly been spending more time on Spike of late. The posts of interest are usually about wider concerns of the publishing industry; self-promotional Meanjin posts seem out of place, though it is somewhat comforting and reassuring that the in-jokey office uploads are daggy and unassuming (have Sophia and Jessica Au only recently discovered LOL Cats? Such a dated meme, but they seem to be only just clueing in to their potential). Spike certainly provides an alternative to single author literary blogs, such as this one and Angela Meyer’s Literary Minded, which can sometimes read like ‘The Literary Life as Lived By Angela Meyer’. Spike could, however, benefit from a clearer distinction between authors – Jessica Au’s sign-off JA helps, but there is a fair amount of detective work involved in figuring out who wrote what. Podcasts would be the next step. I’d love to hear Jessica or Sophie talking about the latest novel, short story or non-fiction piece. It’s long been an ambition of mine to set up a podcast similar to the Culture Gabfest at slate (http://www.slate.com/id/2217801/); all I need is a techno-savvy kid to help me out.

    May 28, 2009
  2. There are two things which annoy me about Spike. The banner down the bottom and the impossibility of navigating from one post to another. Apart from that, not a bad effort for beginners struggling to adapt.

    May 28, 2009
  3. Brain is creaking towards…GRANTA. (It is after dinner and I’m getting old.)
    I knew there was an online journal that Meanjin and Overland were starting to remind me of, just a tad.
    Spike is very fine, and it is great to see the Overland blog smoking as well.
    Always love anything Sophie puts online – she’s hardly a beginner, Paul.
    And I see TC has let them know about my only gripe, too, which is that banner.

    May 28, 2009
  4. And I agree, at present we can only dream of a BookForum – why is that?
    Or do we have the critical writers, and just not the drive to publish them all in one spot? It could be a sensational opportunity to continue to set high standards for criticism and reviewing of Australian writing. I think it’s too much to expect bloggers and booksellers to fill the widening gaps in book coverage in this country.
    A review aggregating site operating out of a blog (for example Matilda) can only work if newspapers put their reviews online (and not all of them do), and if literary journals also put them online.
    I have discussed this briefly with a publisher, and from his observations draw the conclusion that the question is who will do this, rather than when or how, and of course, money.

    May 28, 2009
  5. Thanks, James, for your very kind words.

    I’m aware of the navigation and design issues. Being worked upon. When we sort those issues the attribution of who has written what post will also be clearer. I want to do podcasts – it’s just an issue of time. Meanjin is less than 1.5 staff which sets limitations. The dagginess is ingrained – I’ve been a lolcat fan for some years. Jess could do without them.

    May 28, 2009
  6. Argh! The Overland blog! I’m incredibly embarrassed to have forgotten it when I was talking about lit mags which have managed the transition to digital well, not least because Overland was pushing into this space more than a decade ago with Overland Express. Bad James, no biscuit.

    May 28, 2009
  7. Yes I could definitely do without the LOLcats – Sophie has known about them for a long time but I’m a newbie (and happy with that).

    Thanks again James and others for liking and enjoying Spike, it’s great to know and certainly helps us push on with keeping up the content.

    I do agree that the Aust media has largely failed to handle the transition to online gracefully. The Guardian is a perfect of example of a fantastic paper supported by a great online presence. Websites like the Age etc. have a long way to go. I don’t know what their future plans are but they can’t afford to sit on their laurels if they hope to keep up.

    May 28, 2009
  8. Overland’s putting a lot online too, biscuits for them.

    And for you, James, for getting the ball rolling here.

    ABR on the other hand plays hide and seek with anything it puts up – up and down, like yoyos, their content. Abysmal.
    And of course staffing (and competence with web publishing) is an issue for any Australian magazine – none of them have bucks to throw around.

    May 28, 2009
  9. Oh, I thought that was quite a generous compliment, Genevieve seeing as how Sophie once called me ‘a disorganised workshopping poet’ thereby alienating the affections of one of the most successful, no staff, no budget, no big name magazine, literary bloggers in the country. Never mind, let’s all work together toward the success of Aus Lit in the new world.

    May 29, 2009
  10. Said namecalling did not occur in the context of this discussion, though, Paul.

    So perhaps best to leave it where it belongs if you want to stay on topic.

    May 29, 2009
  11. The Age books department has little control over what gets put online – that is my understanding anyway – I asked if a piece could be put online a while back and the editors encouraged me to take it further myself, which doesn’t say much for the online business model at Fairfax at this stage.

    May 29, 2009
  12. Surely disorganized poet is a tautology? Like insecure novelist?🙂

    And Gen, on the subject of an Australian Bookforum, if you look at the sites overseas, they’re either Bookforums, which are leveraging content out of a print version and then aggregating and providing some internet only content, or they’re places like The Second Pass, which are online only, but which clearly have the resources to commission material. In both cases though they’ve got backing of some sort (or, just possibly, are being funded off the back of a financially viable magazine, though in fact most of the mags overseas (Granta, Paris Review etc) are all propped up by private backers).

    The issue therefore, is really money, and that’s one thing Australian mags don’t have. Even something which is online only, and which does a lot of aggregating, has to be turning over a lot of new, and commissioned material, to create the sort of cultural gravity such a site needs, and to do that, it’s going to need money for contributors’ fees and to pay someone to edit or curate or whatever you want to call it. And that then raises the question of where that money is going to come from, particularly since all of the problems about generating income online are magnified once you’re in Australia (even if you’re picking up traffic from overseas).

    It’s possible, I suppose, that you could develop something which was essentially collective, and which pooled the resources of a group of bloggers, but group blogs often have a limited lifespan, and to do something like this right you need a core group of committed people, something that’s a really big ask when nobody’s getting paid. And, frankly, much as I think the collaborative and collective models you’re seeing evolve on the web have their strengths, I think you’re likely to end up with a better product with someone at the helm, keeping an eye on quality, making choices about what gets covered, and when, and generally articulating an editorial vision. That, after all, is precisely what blogs are all about, even if the only writer is also the editor.

    What’s really needed is for someone (OzCo, or a uni, or a private benefactor) to recognize the need for sites like this, and to be prepared to put up some money to get one (or more) going. Or for Overland or Meanjin or someone like them to really expand their online brief and start to build something like it.

    May 29, 2009
  13. James’ last comment hit on all the issues that have come up for us at Overland. The digital revolution raises a whole bunch of fascinating possibilities but at the moment all the online publication simply happens on top of everything else we do, with the same number of staff and the same amount of funding. Even putting up our print content online takes quite a bit of work (html creates a whole new world of pain for copyeditors); pieces especially commissioned for the web or published as online extras make a big hole in the contributors’ budget, as well as adding to the workload.
    The OL blog was indeed intended to harness the collective energies of a team as a way of compensating for everyone doing it in their spare time. As a result, it reflects everyone’s hobbies as much as anything else, and there’s more content from those of us who are web obsessives.
    I should also sat that the publication of all of Overland online is based on that Cory Doctorow theory about online exposure encouraging print sales. Which, I think, is probably true — but it depends fundamentally on the computer screen not providing a very pleasant reading experience. Once someone perfects a decent e-reader, well, everything will change dramatically.
    Which is simply another reflection of the general consensus in this thread: no-one’s really worked out a sustainable, longterm model for integrating print and digital formats for a literary project like a journal.
    Cheers,
    jeff sparrow

    May 29, 2009
  14. James, I think I have phrased that badly. How this is done is also important, of course. Here follow some pompous remarks…

    I really want to see standards for reviews as independent criticism maintained whether they are on or offline, and while I’m between two stools in a practical sense on the question of blog reviews, as I write them but also get invited to publish them elsewhere, I want formal reviewing practice to persist, and hope that whatever I do online tries to meet most of the standards I have noted in that practice.

    I certainly can’t maintain regular reviewing at that standard on my blog without some money from elsewhere – I subsidise my own reviewing at present, you might say, and no, that’s not a sustainable practice.

    Publishers like it because the book is getting some coverage, paid reviewers dislike it because if the book is very popular (and ONLY if it is popular, mind you) my review gets a lot of hits on Google. And sure, I am delighted that an author has quoted me at a writers’ festival – well, why wouldn’t I? it can’t be that bad if I’m getting that kind of response.

    So I can confidently guarantee that I’m not going to write half-arsed stuff for the blog as a hobby (though I am looking sideways as I speak at that review of Tom Cho’s book, and might tidy it up), while I agree that should I choose to do so, no one could stop me, and that’s not a terrific state of affairs. More on that elsewhere, another time.

    I also confess to some serious problems should book coverage end up only being online, as an unemployed librarian who is concerned about digital divide issues. But online coverage has to be better than the paucity of coverage in newspapers at present.

    I also think the whole thing could be improved at one fell swoop if just one of the papers turned itself into a Guardian clone. The reasons why that would not be a hard thing to do, and why it makes a lot of sense, may make their way into another piece of writing sometime. I do think that would make a hell of a difference.

    Rant over. As you were.

    May 29, 2009
  15. sorry, I mean, ‘more online coverage’. MORE.

    May 29, 2009
  16. Jeff, it is interesting too to see someone taking Cory’s example seriously. Based on his experience, it should work🙂

    May 29, 2009
  17. Haha. Good luck. You could try this. Build a genuine community based on respect, have fun and have something to say. All the rest of it is whistling nice tunes to each other. (Oh and being verbose is a bit of no-no.) Anyway, rage on, I say, you do give me the giggles trying to float battleships in a park pond.

    May 29, 2009
  18. Jeff – I really appreciate your input on this, not least you being so candid about the financial pressures that militate against really expanding your online presence (though as I’ve said, I think you’re doing a pretty fine job even within the strictures you describe).

    But I’m really interested to hear you say the Overland website is really about building the readership of the print version of the magazine. My first question would be do you think it’s working, because I would have assumed the Doctorow doctrine is probably more applicable to high-profile sci-fi writers in the US than small mags in Australia – it seems entirely possible to me that building a good online presence might well decrease readership, simply because for the website to really zing it will need to be using a lot of the best content out of the mag, and people will feel they can cherry-pick online and forget about the print magazine. And the immediacy and intelligence of a good blog like yours has a tendency to make print magazine look a bit staid, which can’t help either, can it?. Or am I being too cynical?

    Which brings me back, in a way, to my original post. Looking back at it, I suspect I was really conflating two points. One was a question about where the space for the Australian cultural conversation will be in a digital world, and just as importantly, how that space will be financed.

    The other was about the relationship between print publications and their online presences. And what interests me about the Meanjin blog (and indeed the Overland site) is the fact that Meanjin has clearly decided to use its print mag for what print is good at – poetry, fiction, long-form non-fiction – and then build an online presence which, while necessarily small for budgetary reasons, concentrates on being a thing in its own right, and publishing material written specifically for the online environment.

    This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not as obvious as it seems. Most publications are content to just slap their print content up on the web and think that constitutes success in an online environment, but it’s not, and particularly not in the case of a mag which publishes fiction and other forms not suited to online publication.

    Which of course just begs the question of what place fiction and other forms not suited to online publication have in a fully digital world (and indeed whether ereaders and tablets are merely interim technologies) but we won’t go there . . .

    May 30, 2009
  19. ‘Most publications are content to just slap their print content up on the web and think that constitutes success in an online environment, but it’s not, and particularly not in the case of a mag which publishes fiction and other forms not suited to online publication.’

    Not sure you’ve demonstrated why these forms are not suited to online publication, James. I don’t think Narrative Magazine would agree for starters.

    narrativemagazine.com

    Sorry, but I think you’re losing me there.

    May 30, 2009
  20. I might have been being a bit strident. It’s probably a little unfair to say print content can’t work online, because it still makes up the bulk of the material on sites like The Guardian. But that said, the sort fo writing and criticism that works on the page often doesn’t work on the screen. It’s not hyperlinked for starters, but more deeply, there’s a real difference between the open, digressive, and much freer modes of expression that flourish online and the more enclosed, authoritative kind of writing that works in print, as the contrast between good blogging and good print criticism tends to make clear. I wouldn’t want to push this point too hard, and the line is obviously a hazy one, but I think it’s pretty clear the medium has a really important role to play in shaping what sort of writng works in a particular environment.

    As for poetry, fiction and more literary non-fiction, I just don’t think they work online, sites like Narrative Writing notwithstanding (though I do think poetry works better than the other two, as the proliferation of excellent poetry sites demonstrates). I’d like to think I’m just stating a personal preference on this one, but I don’t think you need to look much further than the amount of energy that’s being poured into developing ereaders like the Kindle to see I’m not alone in feeling this way, since if people were happy to read books online there would be no need for such devices (I suppose the desire of publishers to control their intellectual property might also play a part in the push towards ereaders but the endless research to develop screens which mimic paper etc certainly suggests a belief there is a connection between the way we read certain types of writing and the technology we use to embody and distribute them).

    May 31, 2009
  21. Fair ’nuff!!
    the whole question of the physical constraints of online reading is another country, methinks, but you’re entitled to that opinion, James.

    If I can find it again I will send you a link about some research on the electronic reading preferences of physicians – it was funny at the time when we read about it at library school.

    June 1, 2009
  22. Hi James and all,
    Do we think the blog is working, if we defining working as increasing print sales? One problem we have with almost everything we do is that it’s hard to gather metrics, since there’s nothing really with which we could make a comparison. Since we launched the blog, we’ve seen a steady uptick in both sales and subs. Has that come directly from the site? Maybe. But then we’ve been trying a bunch of other stuff too (events programs, greater presence at festivals, redesign, etc). Plus we’d like to think we occasionally publish some decent articles.🙂
    I don’t think my argument’s a million miles from yours. As it stands, the online format doesn’t suit the traditional content of a literary magazine. No-one reads fiction online (in fact, the proper place to read fiction is in the bath, but that’s another story) and nor do most people read long essays on the screen. In that sense, there really isn’t any cost to making everything freely available on the webpage. In theory, people could print out the articles and read them at their leisure but in the real world no-one ever does that. Most punters will simply skim the online version and move on to something else. If they like what they read, well, when they see the mag in a shop, they’re more rather than less likely to pay the $14.95 so they can finish reading the article in a decent format.
    I agree that poetry’s a little bit different. But, to be honest, it’s probably only a marginal part of our sales.
    So, yes, it’s about using the two formats to complement each other, with each doing the thing that suits it best.
    That being said, there’s two caveats.
    Because a blog is so immediate and so much based on links, you can run one with bits of time stolen from here and there. That’s what we do — and I’m pretty sure it’s what Sophie and Jess do, too. But to really do justice to the medium, in the way that some of the big American blogs do, you’d have to be singleminded and you’d need dedicated funding, which we don’t have. So our blog’s always going to be amateurish. It’s not proofed, it’s full of typos and so on.
    The second thing — and you make this point at 8.10 above — is that this is all based on technology in transit and so in that way dodges the real questions that are coming. Once we have decent e-readers, so that screen reading becomes as pleasant as ink reading, well, all bets are off. I have no idea what we’ll do then. But then again, everyone seems equally clueless, so perhaps we’ll all go down together.🙂

    June 1, 2009
  23. Zoe #

    As an expat Aussie I find myself going more and more to Australian websites/blogs. There’s a lot more than there used to be – or perhaps I’m just finding it now.
    I agree, though, that there does seem to be a gaping hole for a focussed, well edited australian book site with daily updates (which means – as several people have pointed out- one where the contributors get paid a full salary and don’t do it in their own time)
    At the moment I have to click through quite a few different blogs to get my fix of Aussie writing. And sometimes the same reviews/blogs are on there for days…. The Age and The Oz are both guilty of this.
    A few people have mentioned The Guardian’s website. I agree that it’s brilliant, but it’s worth mentioning that the Guardian Media Group is owned by a trust, and doesn’t need to deliver profits to shareholders… the actual paper runs at a loss.

    http://www.gmgplc.co.uk/ScottTrust/tabid/127/Default.aspx

    June 4, 2009
  24. Thanks, Zoe, I had certainly forgotten that about The Guardian’s finances. It is a remarkable institution.

    You don’t happen to know the name of that amazing editor/journalist who set most of the online sections up there, do you? he died about three years ago.

    June 5, 2009
  25. Zoe #

    Genevieve was it Hugo Young? Just clicked on your blog link too… I’m going to have to disconnect the wireless router tomorrow morning….!

    June 5, 2009
  26. thanks, that sounds right – will research it further! thank you.

    June 5, 2009
  27. Hi James, and everyone,

    I’m not sure if Cordite (www.cordite.org.au) is an example of a mag that has managed the transition to digital *well* but we have at least made that transition over the past nine years and have learnt a lot from doing it.

    The most significant thing that happened when we went online after six print issues was we immediately lost all of our readers and many of our contributors. It was a real tabula rasa and it has taken a long time to reach the point where the quality of the poetry in the magazine is being recognised again. On the other hand, the Ozco have continued to support us in what we do which is encouraging.

    Maybe it’s the fact that poetry is a lot easier to read on screen than essays and fiction (as Jeff argues) but I suspect there is more to it than that – just whacking a whole bunch of content online doesn’t really impress me either – I would like to think lit magazines can do something more interesting with the inherent differences in the form – the possibility for collaboration and so on.

    It’s a small example, but when we recently launched an ‘interactive’ renga on the site it attracted over 1000 comments, and went on for two months. We expected it to last for a few days. I’m sorry to say but no print magazine is ever going to do that. It’s an example of a new kind of form – one that the people who write the op-ed pieces (you know, the one some newspapers trot out once a year or so on how blogging is changing the way we write) just don’t get.

    This is why we find it a bit pointless to maintain posts on a Cordite ‘blog’ thet way other mags have done – the whole fricking thing is a blog – the content system, the navigation, the links, the ability to comment on posts etc. This counts for poems, reviews, articles, everything – you’ll never find any of it in print!

    There is no transition to make.

    Jeff, while I agree that e-readers might be a game changer, I’m sure you’re also aware of how long people have been banging on about them too.

    I guess I just feel that a lot of the discussion (OMG Meanjin’s going online, OMG books are dead, OMG online mags are not professional, OMG you can’t make money out of poetry) is being conducted according to really old and tired rules and arguments. Not here, of course, but in other more dominant mediums and forms.

    Waiting for the killer app before we start actually doing anything interesting with the online medium we already have.

    IMHO, of course.

    June 9, 2009

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