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A third rising for New Matilda, but is there a path to sustainability?

New Matilda won’t be folding after all. But it needs more money to do what it does best. Crikey speaks to new owner, Chris Graham, about what he has planned.

Whenever New Matilda folds, as it did in 2010 and again last week, the obituaries outline its successes and failures. Its investigations were worthy, but its finances were a mess. And yet, history shows it’s never wise to pronounce New Matilda dead too quickly. It has, again, come back from the brink.

The man responsible for the publication’s latest lease on life is maverick journalist Chris Graham, who lost his previous job when Tracker magazine was shut down in controversial circumstances not yet fully explained. Graham officially doesn’t start till Monday, but it takes Crikey a while to track him down. He’s juggling a few things, you see, and anticipates having to do that for a while, as he’s unlikely to make a living wage from New Matilda in the short term. ”To be honest, it all happened quicker than I had planned,” he said.

Graham has spent most of his career in print but has been managing publications with online components since 2006, and has worked in video and radio journalism. He began his career as a copyboy in The Sydney Morning Herald, before he got a cadetship at a small magazine publisher in Sydney. The early years of his career were spent writing about, in his words, “babies and gardening”, before he moved to country newspapers. He was the founding editor of The National Indigenous Times in 2001, and in 2005 won a Walkley Award for the publication’s coverage of indigenous affairs. Recently, he was an associate producer on John Pilger’s Utopia.

It takes a broad skill set to run New Matilda. The publication’s model — a free website paid for by readers taking out voluntary memberships to support the writers — is rare in the Australian media, and has never really led to a thriving financial position. As owner and editor Marni Cordell acknowledged when shutting down the site earlier this month, she hasn’t paid herself since the start of this year, preferring to sink the money into her writers. This is all despite, Crikey understands, New Matilda’s subscription revenues being as strong as they’ve ever been.

Graham inherits a website with a devoted, left-leaning audience and a reputation for breaking significant stories on issues of national importance. It originally launched in 2004 with a $10 paywall. The paywall was then removed in 2007, with the website existing on sponsorship and advertising. Traffic boomed, but that advertising was, in 2010, insufficient, and Cordell announced the website was to shut down. A reader-initiated crowdfunding campaign saved it, until last week, when the website was, again, frozen. Faced with the loss of key staff to rival outlets, Cordell decided she could not continue.

I think small, independent media has a bright future — brighter than that of big media perhaps.”

She was, however, happy to pass the business on to whoever could do it justice. Graham put his hand up. “It’s suits what I do best,” he told Crikey yesterday. “New Matilda’s got a long tradition of investigative-style journalism and strong, supporting analysis. The model fits me, and it’s a publication I’ve long admired and supported. The audience suits me as well — it’s likely to share my views on things like the media, government, asylum seekers and indigenous affairs.”

In the role, Graham plans to boost coverage of Aboriginal affairs, as well as media criticism. “There’s a reason why journalists, in trust surveys, are ranked around used car salesmen,” he said. “The media’s generally very bad at introspection. I intend to start looking more closely at the media.”

But it’s always been the business model that’s New Matilda’s undoing. Graham likes the current model, describing it as philanthropic as opposed to commercial. “People subscribe to New Matilda when they don’t have to. I think there’s a lot to admire about that. But we have to convince a greater body of people to do that.”

It’s a bit of a catch-22. Great writing and great investigation prompts people to support New Matilda, Graham says, but doing more of that requires more money. The business has to grow commercially, and he’s looking at a greater level of advertising to do that. And though he loves the open model — where subscribing doesn’t get you anything more the knowledge you’re supporting something you care about — he doesn’t rule out a paywall. “Whether New Matilda goes behind a harsher paywall or not, I don’t know at this stage. I hope it doesn’t have to. But I’m certainly looking at increasing the advertising base. I don’t have a problem with advertising as long as it’s open and transparent.

I think small, independent media has a bright future — brighter than that of big media perhaps. It’s got such low costs, so can be very sustainable. You just have to wake people up and convince them of what you do. And the brilliance of online media is it really focusses people’s minds on the value of the editorial. It forces responsiveness to the needs and wishes of the readership, which is also a strength of small, independent journalism. If people like what you do, they’ll support you.”

*New Matilda’s former owner and editor Marni Cordell starts at Crikey on Monday. She had no input into this piece.

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    Patrick Welcome
    Posted Friday, 16 May 2014 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    How do you propose to get more people to subscribe to and read “New Matilda”

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