The Guardian’s Aussie offshoot has made a serious dent in the local media landscape during its first year.
Last year, Australia became the latest country targeted by The Guardian in a bid to become a global media powerhouse before the Scott Trust runs out. After bedding down the American operation and shoring up the balance sheet back home, the mother ship sent out one of its brightest, Kath Viner, to spear-head a new Australian operation.
Since then, Guardian Australia’s impact has been undeniable. On asylum seekers, federal politics and through its Snowden revelations, its scoops and investigations have set the national agenda. And in media-land, its hiring savvy has become legendary. It launched with Lenore Taylor and Katharine Murphy, previously some of Fairfax’s best political writers, and soon added the iconoclastic and celebrated former Fairfax journalist David Marr. Recently, Guardian Australia hired Walkley-winning cartoonist Andrew Marlton, a.k.a. First Dog on the Moon, previously with Crikey.
The hiring strategy, paired with The Guardian’s unique way of doing journalism, has worked. Unique browsers to the website have doubled since before launch, while revenues are well ahead of budget.
But there’s another undeniable thing about The Guardian, which is that it’s upset the already uncomfortable editors and studiously carved-out niches of many Australian publications. Guardian Australia operates without a paywall, but targets much the same wealthy audience with its journalism as many of the nation’s paywalled broadsheets. “I don’t think it’s ready to kill The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald, but its certainly not helping the circulation of those two august newspapers,” says RMIT media lecturer Alex Wake.
Speaking to Crikey recently,Guardian Australia managing director Ian McClelland described The Guardian as a “start-up”. But he also talked of the fantastic products and back-end systems The Guardian’s UK base provides to Guardian Australia. This points to the fact that even though Guardian Australia may have a limited budget, its costs are also lower than that of other small Australian media outlets. It also explains why The Guardian has been able to scale its growth so quickly from the four people it started with a year ago to the nearly 50 it employs today.
Jonathan Holmes, while applauding how The Guardian has added to the “general richness” of the Australian media landscape, alludes to this when asked his opinion on the British outlet’s first year.
“The Guardian proves there are still additional niches in Australian media, even in that online, left-of-centre position already occupied by outlets like Crikey and New Matilda,” he says. “The Guardian, with more resources than those other efforts, was able to move in and make a difference.
“What it’s done to the economics is another matter,” he says. “How much room there is for the Daily Mails, Guardians and other offshore outlets of the world, and what they do to the native species in Australia, is, in some ways, a little concerning.” But Holmes adds that the fact that a global media outlet is moving in, hiring local journalists and boosting their coverage of Australian issues is something to be grateful for overall.
Several of the media watchers contacted by Crikey commented on how refreshing it is to see a confident, left-leaning publication make such a big splash, especially given the broader conservatism of much of the Australian press. Former Age editor and Conversation executive director Andrew Jaspan says The Guardian has broadened Australia’s shallow media pool. “For a healthy media diet we need diversity of ownership, reporting, approaches, agendas and views,” he says. “The introduction of Guardian Australia has also been very timely as it’s expeditiously moved to fill the vacuum left by the flat-footed Fairfax.” By focussing strategically on politics, culture and sport, he says, they’ve made a big difference to the news agenda.
The Centre for Advancing Journalism’s Margaret Simons is a big fan of what Guardian Australia has done, but adds that “it is still not possible to call yourself a well-informed Australian and read only The Guardian”. The publication, for example, leaves state politics largely untouched, but has made a big impact where it has put its focus. “In federal politics, culture and opinion it has provided innovative and distinctly different reporting. There are plenty of gaps, as one would expect from such a small operation. But I understand The Guardian is growing.”
It’s impossible to say for sure, but Guardian Australia does appear to have helped liberalise a lot of the rigid editorial standards held in the Australian press, bringing them more into the internet age. For example, The Guardian’s confidence pursuing lists where they would add to the story has seen these and other web conventions popping up more and more often in the Fairfax press. And its pursuit of “open journalism” — where primary sources are published along with articles — has had a marked influence on the ABC, according to journalists there.
And it appears to have affected news values too. Its coverage of South-East Asian issues, particularly Papua New Guinea, for example, has led to increased reporting of these issues through the Australian media. With an explicitly more global outlook than much of the Australian press, it has helped overcome some of the Australian media’s enduring parochialism.
Readers have responded — Guardian Australia has found a strong and growing audience. This bodes well for Guardian Australia’s fortunes once the publication’s founding investment by millionaire Graeme Wood runs out. As founding editor Kath Viner said this morning, “Guardian Australia as a bright future.” One year on, it appears here to stay.