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Goodbye New Matilda

Given the turmoil of the last 36 hours, I’m guessing more than a few of you will have missed the fact that today marks the passing of one of Australia’s pioneering new media ventures, New Matilda.

Six years ago, when it began, I was pretty dismissive of New Matilda. It wasn’t that I didn’t think there was a place for a left-of-centre online magazine, but the early issues always seemed depressingly worthy to me. Whether I’d make the same judgement now I don’t know; what I do know is that over the last couple of years the magazine has really come into its own. Certainly if one wanted a demonstration of the way in which new media now consistently outclasses the old in terms of analysis and commentary, you couldn’t find a better example than Ben Eltham, a writer whose pieces have been distinguished by their clarity, intelligence and grasp of detail for some time. I’d say something similar about Jason Wilson, whose astringent commentary on media and politics has grown steadily sharper over the last couple of years.

That’s not to say I think the magazine was perfect. Charles Firth’s epitaph, ‘Why I Never Liked New Matilda’, overplays its hand, but he’s right to home in on how old-fashioned its model seems in 2010. It’s simply not possible for a website focussed on news and commentary to be as static as New Matilda. The continuing success of Crikey! demonstrates that it’s still possible to make the idea of discrete issues work, but Crikey! comes out daily, not weekly, and in the last couple of years their site has become a highly effective aggregator of other people’s content.

The problem is money. As Margaret Simons pointed out in a sobering piece on Crikey!, when it comes to converting eyes into dollars and cents new media suffers from precisely the same problems as old media. New media’s advocates tend to sneer derisively about the business model of the newspapers being broke, but the fact is we don’t have one to replace it.

That’s not to say there aren’t models out there. In the US several independent news outlets have developed viable businesses, some through mixtures of subscription and advertising, others by employing more innovative schemes (you’ll find a good precis of the situation in the US in Michael Massing’s pieces ‘The News About the Internet’ and ‘A New Horizon for the News’, both of which appeared in The New York Review of Books last year). And locally Crikey! seems to go from strength to strength. But the brutal reality is that we still don’t know how to make online media pay well enough to underwrite either quality or quantity.

It’s a problem that’s exacerbated by Australia’s relatively small population. Independent media outfits in the US have access to a market of close to 300 million people, to say nothing of the many in other countries who take interest in American affairs. Independent media in Australia has access to less than 10% of that number. That means that while costs are likely to be similar, potential revenue from advertising and other sources is only ever going to be a fraction of that available to similar operations overseas.

One solution might be to give away the notion that writers and commentators should be paid. Obviously I have a vested interest in this question, but I think there are good reasons not to give away the notion that writers should be paid for their work. That’s not to say the traditional nexus between word count and fee needs to be maintained. Indeed I’d suggest that by its nature a lot of what goes on in new media is better suited to payment on retainer.

The question then is one of revenue, or more accurately, funding. Like literary magazines, independent media, both online and in print, is usually at least partly underwritten by institutional and private benefactors. But that sort of money only goes so far, and beyond that the same old questions begin to intrude.

New Matilda’s editor, Marni Cordell, is making brave noises about rebuilding the magazine’s financial model from the ground up. I hope she succeeds. In the meantime I’d just like to salute her and her team for their work over the past few years, and say they’ll be missed.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. bluerose #

    I very much admired Andrew Frost’s article (the arts fortnight ’08-’09) about Bienniale art shows, their costs and core audiences. Art is a more difficult subject to cover than politics, which can always be turned into an analogue of racing (handicapping, polls), and racing is one of Australia’s Sacred Forms.

    Maybe the new new new matilda might be able to (at least) aggregate good writing on the arts in Australia. I know: payment/pricing is the devil in the details.

    June 26, 2010
  2. Mary Garden #

    James, Crikey no longer has an apostrophe.

    However, there is a Crikey! magazine published by Australia Zoo.

    I don’t agree with your statement “new media now consistently outclasses the old in terms of analysis and commentary”. I presume you mean online only media. However, even though I prefer to read analysis and commentary in newspapers, in print, most newspaper articles are accessible online so are such online replications to be called new or old? I think labels such as new and old are no longer relevant.

    BTW I do enjoy your blog, which I visit regularly and often share some of the gems (pics, links, etc.) you include.

    July 2, 2010
    • But they still bang on about how much they hate being called, right?

      And I wasn’t suggesting there wasn’t still good commentary in newspapers, just that at the end of the day I think the Tim Dunlops and Bernard Keanes of the world are more reliable and substantial than the Dennis Shanahans (on the subject of which I was
      Interested to see The Oz has given Peter Brent a job, which is interesting given the vehemence with which they’ve denounced amateur psephs like him and Possum and their criticism of the way The Oz and shanahan interpret Newspoll data in the past – better to have them inside the tent pissing out, etc etc, I suppose).

      July 2, 2010
  3. Mary Garden #

    Don’t get your reply. Crikey simply dropped the apostrophe a few years ago, perhaps to distinguish themselves from the Australia Zoo publication.

    The Oz also includes Peter Hoysted’s Jack the Insider and George Megalogenis’s Meganomics. They certainly haven’t denounced Crikey’s ‘amateur psephs’; there has been dialogue between bloggers, with a sense of being collaborators rather than ideological enemies (across the so-called alternative/independent and mainsteam media divide). While the Fairfax papers have declined in quality in recent years, I think the Oz has remained relatively robust, an opinion I notice quite a few participants on Pair of Ragged Claws share. I enjoy the contrasting views and opinion aired in our national newspaper and on its blogs, which are very popular and interactive. The bloggers invite and actively particpate in the conversation, unlike j-bloggers of Fairfax, or even The Guardian or the NYT.

    July 3, 2010
  4. I think you’re correct in saying The Oz has been much more successful at developing blogs that expand the print version than Fairfax, and that those forums are pretty lively, but they’ve also expended quite a lot of energy criticising those in the new media who question their reading of Newspoll. There was even an editorial on the subject in the leadup to the 2007 election, and Shanahan wrote something a few months back bagging his critics. But obviously these two things can exist in tandem, and being sensitive to criticism isn’t the same as a more general hostility.

    And the .com/ thing is an old Crikey bugbear – back in the day they used to hate being called Still sad that the exclamation mark has gone though.

    July 3, 2010
  5. And I absolutely agree Stephen’s done great things at A Pair of Ragged Claws!

    July 3, 2010
  6. Mary Garden #

    I agree, A Pair of Ragged Claws is terrific.

    Overseas studies have found that mainstream media blogs lack interactivity – the blogger seldom responds, or they take a stand like Janet Albrechtsen which was ‘I’ve had my say [in her column], now it’s your turn’ which turns comment-threads into readers’ playgrounds or public platforms. Not a hallmark of a good blog, or even a blog.

    I enjoyed your post ‘Blogging and telling the truth’, and the conversation that developed. Have quoted from it for a paper recently submitted to an overseas journal.

    July 3, 2010
    • Oddly enough I was thinking about the whole author/comments thing just a few moments ago. I think a refusal to engage reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how the medium works, but I also know how time-consuming and distracting it can be, and how the conversation may well be playing out in comments while you’re tied up elsewhere (or, as happened to me recently, while you’re isolated by your internet connection going down). My general attitude is that I’m a host, and my job is to facilitate the discussion where necessary, which can mean being actively engaged or just letting the thing run, depending on how things are going (the fact I’m blessed with a host of articulate and generous commenters helps in that regard). But I also regard the post as a starting point, and one I’m happy to rethink/change my mind about as the discussion proceeds, and find the notion of declaring “I’ve had my say” pretty odd. But it’s definitely a difficult balance to get right.

      And thanks for the kind words re that post – I appreciate them.

      July 3, 2010
  7. Mary Garden #

    BTW re Crikey, I meant exclamation mark ! not apostrophe.

    July 3, 2010
  8. I assumed that was what you meant . . .

    July 3, 2010

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