American journalism is much better than that served up in Australia and this detailed examination of Crikey’s affairs by Ken Layne for Online Journalism Review demonstrates just how thorough the Septic Tank hacks are.

(Witness this article from Melbourne’s Herald Sun about my recent visit to Australia and the future of online publishing Down Under. I’m quoted as being a loyal reader of Crikey’s wicked media critic, Dr. Stupid. But the Herald Sun’s management doesn’t allow any mentions of Crikey.com.au, so the reference is rendered meaningless.)

Yet there are some crucial differences between Mayne’s approach to Web journalism and the fedora-wearing Drudge. For one, Mayne isn’t satisfied with a simple hat to promote the image of his Crikey site – he’s been known to wear a seven-foot-tall foam suit molded after Crikey’s logo, a screaming exclamation mark. A custom green foam suit that cost $5,000 Australian.

And that’s the critical distinction: Mayne doesn’t have to dress up like a reporter, because he is a reporter. At age 31, the Melbourne resident has already worked as an editor and writer for Australia’s top papers, served as a press officer in the state of Victoria’s government, and has been awarded Australia’s version of the Pulitzer, the Walkley.

The judges had this to say: “At a time when there is increasing outside pressure trying to control the press, this provided a very good service to readers. The approach is provocative but a legitimate technique in eliciting news. What Mayne started should be taken up by others.”

That prize was for a 16-part series in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, following his adventures as a loudmouth shareholder in 50 of the country’s biggest companies. He spoke about the strange series in a speech recently given in Queensland:

“I spent about $130,000 [Australian] of my own money and bought in to about 50 companies and went along as a journalist, but also as a shareholder, just to see what it was like to ask a few questions and put some people on the spot. Now the Telegraph is probably the hardest-hitting paper in the country. Col Allan, the editor at the time, is probably the roughest and most aggressive tabloid editor. He is the only editor in the country who I think would have agreed to such a fairly bold plan for a mainstream newspaper to do.” Allan only objected to Mayne buying stock in the companies owned by “the two richest blokes in Sydney.”

Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer are the richest men of Australia, and considerable newsprint is wasted on whether they’re feuding or not. But at the time of Mayne’s shareholder scheme, their empires had a truce. As Murdoch owns the Telegraph, the Packers were outraged when a Murdochite started digging around their business. Mayne says there were “all sorts of heavy phone calls saying, ‘Why the hell are you sending your reporter along to upset our annual meeting when we have just done this deal and we are cooperating at the moment?'”

It should be noted that Mayne later broke the news to the world that Allan was fond of urinating in the sink of his Telegraph office. During meetings. Many publications reprinted this tale when Allan was named editor of the New York Post.

Mayne is a rare journalistic beast, an insider-turned-renegade who doesn’t hide behind his online publication – he wants to show up at the press conference or shareholders’ meeting and shout embarrassing questions.

“In terms of being a media critic, I’m probably the only journalist that has worked for the two main newspaper groups – Murdoch and John Fairfax – in both Sydney and Melbourne,” says Mayne. “Having been a spin doctor, I also know how politics works on the inside. And having sat in major metro news conferences as a business editor, chief of staff or columnist for five years also gives me a good head start for being a media insider.”

The Birth of an Insider

Weary of giving private tennis lessons to fund his university education, Mayne started his press career in Melbourne a dozen years ago at Murdoch’s The Sun News Pictorial, Australia’s largest-circulation paper that merged with the Herald in 1990. Next came a job at the giant Melbourne daily The Age as a banking and public-finance reporter, and in 1992 Mayne jumped into politics as a press secretary under conservative Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett – a pro-business spotlight hog who had the Clintonesque trait of being incredibly popular while creating pockets of seething, fanatical enemies. Kennett’s promotional tools included his Web site, Jeff.com.au, which showcased his abilities to turn Commonwealth party politics into U.S.-style personality contests. It also spawned satirical opposition sites, including RealJeff.com. Kennett didn’t care much for such parodies, and RealJeff.com mysteriously vanished.

Another anti-Kennett site was the popular Jeffed.com, this one created by Mayne after he grew disillusioned with his former boss and tried to run against him in the 1999 election. (Mayne was kept out of the race on a technicality, but some credit Kennett’s surprise defeat to the Jeffed.com dispatches.)

“The only way to bring attention to the full panoply of scandals was to stand against him in the election and publish a Jeffed.com,” Mayne told me by e-mail. “This site had 115,000 page views in two weeks and helped change the government. And with every bridge back to the mainstream media burnt, I had to stay online.”

Newspapers didn’t want Mayne’s hit pieces on Kennett, and a Web convert was born. He started Crikey in February 2000 and soon added Shareowner.com.au to his homegrown online empire, the latter site serving as a permanent home to the shareholder-activist journalism that won him the Walkley.

“Fed up with the mainstream media, a failure as a political candidate and too old to play the tennis circuit, Mayne had two options at the end of 1999: marry very well or start a web publishing business,” Mayne writes in the About Us section of his sites. “He’s doing both and therefore has a rapidly diminishing share portfolio that does not match his appetite for asking questions on the floor of AGMs [Annual General Meetings].”

The Alleged Interview

I’ve followed the Crikey site since OJR contributor Tim Blair first wrote about it here in February, but my first encounter with Stephen Mayne occurred in June, on a live radio show from Melbourne. I was in the studio, badly hungover, whoring my first novel and talking about the state of online journalism … let’s just have Mayne tell the story, as he did in one of his frequent subscriber e-mails:

“In what was a complete coincidence yesterday morning, Triple J rang at short notice asking me to join a Francis Leach interview with LA-based novelist and Web journo Ken Layne, whose new novel Dot.Con is said to be a ripper. The interview moved to defamation risks associated with Web journalism, prompting an answer along the lines of: “Well, Francis, would you believe I’m actually sitting in the car outside the Victorian Supreme Court right now, about to go in for a contempt of court action over a defamation matter being brought by another journalist?”

We had a good on-air talk, ended by Mayne’s need to get inside the courtroom and defend himself. I busied myself with another dozen interviews and Mayne busied himself with defamation concerns, and we finally got together the following night with Blair, like Mayne a former chief of staff at Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph in Sydney. Mayne was late, so we got into the delicious Australian wine without him. By the time he arrived – all six-foot-six of him – there was little hope of doing a formal interview. We had dinner instead.

I didn’t order the kangaroo steak, due to my belief that you shouldn’t eat an animal until you’ve at least seen one in the wild, and all I’d seen at that point were radio booths, newsrooms, fine restaurants, drunken “journos,” a few roadkill wallabies on the Coast Highway, and several thousand grazing sheep. I had the lamb.

It was an illuminating evening. After a wide-ranging discussion you’d never hear at a table of modern U.S. reporters, we headed to the pubs and met a gang of newspaper people. Many hours later, Mayne dropped me at the hotel and I failed to type up any notes, figuring we’d cover the details by e-mail. One day I’ll buy a tape recorder.

The Price Problem

Steve Price is a talk-radio personality with Melbourne station 3AW, and Mayne has never been impressed with the announcer or his coverage of Kennett. “Too soft,” says Mayne.

Described in The Age’s coverage of the defamation case as a “bellower” and “afternoon-radio-tub-thumper,” Price sued Mayne for running an item about a “cash for comment” controversy. The charge was that Price had accepted a free Volvo in exchange for favorable on-air mentions about the dealership, even though the Australian Broadcasting Authority had already investigated the charge and found Price had done nothing improper.

Here’s where it gets Drudgian. The item in question was a press release issued by one Raymond Hoser about the controversy. Mayne says he just slapped the release onto the site as a footnote to another story and failed to closely read it – failing to notice that Hoser’s version had the Australian Broadcasting Authority finding Price guilty of taking a happy-talk bribe from the Bilia Hawthorn Volvo dealership.

The ABA report had this to say:

“The ABA did not receive any evidence that Mr. Price had entered into improper agreements, arrangements or understandings that affected his on-air conduct on 3AW. In addition, the infrequency of the interviews, the nature of the interviews with Bilia Hawthorn staff and newsworthiness of the interviews of the managing directors of Volvo, indicate that Bilia Hawthorn did not receive any preferential treatment or greater access to interviews as a result of the advertising relationship between Bilia Hawthorn and 3AW or the vehicle provided to Mr. Price.”

Price’s lawyers complained about the posting of the Hoser press release and Mayne immediately removed the offending material and posted a quick apology on Crikey. But Price wasn’t swayed, calling the apology “deliberately sarcastic.” He not only went forward with the writ of defamation, but claimed Mayne was trying to intimidate him into dropping the matter.

One example of this abuse, according to The Age’s coverage of the battle, was Mayne’s charge that Price and another 3AW employee had called him a “‘fruitcake,’ ‘idiot,’ ‘dill,’ ‘not a journalist’s bottom,’ and said I believe in ‘fairies at the bottom of the garden.'”

Those Foster’s “How to speak Australian” advertisements won’t help you now. Not that I’ve ever seen an Aussie drink a Foster’s ….

Mayne responded by publicly begging Price to keep the defamation case alive, because it provided Crikey with priceless publicity and a spike in subscriptions. Mayne held many drunken fund-raisers in Melbourne and Sydney, Price continued to dismiss Mayne on-air, and Mayne happily went to competing radio stations to insult Price. The whole act, which continues to this day, has a weird chumminess about it that might owe something to the size of Australia’s population: with just 18 million humans on the giant island and most of them in Sydney and Melbourne, media people all know each other – print, broadcast, even crazy Web journalists.

Attorneys Gina Schoff and Will Houghton attended a post-wedding party for Mayne and his wife last October and presented a “beautiful $140 throw rug.” But Schoff and Houghton ended up representing Price in the defamation action. Mayne responded by donning his giant foam suit and taking the throw rug to 3AW’s headquarters, in protest. The Human Crikey also made an appearance outside the Volvo dealership.

All right, maybe this doesn’t have that many parallels to Sidney Blumenthal’s lawsuit against Drudge. But Mayne sees a few.

“Australia has a woeful record on Web journalism and Web activism, and I’ve fallen into a leadership position by default,” he said by e-mail. “I’m similar to Drudge in having one big yarn as a launching pad, but have a better journalistic background. Also, Drudge tends to be a link factory, whereas we generate most of our own content (about 10,000 words a week). We’re similar to Drudge in that we publish rumors that the mainstream have not yet firmed up, and take more legal risks than most.”

Such risky behavior has also made Mayne unwelcome at certain press gatherings, like those held by current Victorian Premier Steve Bracks. After Mayne was denied entrance to an April press conference, he quickly alerted Crikey’s subscribers – many of them print journalists. And another Crikey scandal was born, with the flustered Bracks trying to explain why Net-only reporters should be kept outside.

“If we were to allow all those Internet services in here, we would have to exclude some of you, and we don’t want to do this,” Bracks said. “That is just an established position. Internet services are quite different, I think, aren’t they?”

The Age then published an e-mail exchange between Mayne and Sharon McCrohan, Bracks’ media advisor.

“Press conferences are only open to news organizations,” McCrohan wrote. “Should we build a new media room to accommodate everyone who sets up a Web site which contains political commentary? Please don’t waste your time – or ours – turning up at 1 p.m.”

A spokesman for Australia’s Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance said the state government’s mistreatment of an online journalist was “worrying,” and newspapers noted that Mayne was not only an accredited reporter, but that Crikey had just been commended at the Melbourne Press Club’s Quill media awards.

Beyond the Weirdness, Success

The Crikey circus keeps Mayne’s name in the media, but it also detracts from the most interesting part of his venture: it’s making a little money. Not much from advertising or investment, although Crikey has a bit of both, but from paying subscribers.

In a speech he gave in Melbourne last year, Mayne sketched his vision for a site that would make a little money:

“The culture of the Web is that everything is free and, when there are so many sites out there, you have to be very special for people to be willing to pay for it,” he said. “By practicing immersion journalism, it should be possible to overcome the public’s natural reluctance to pay for news on the Net.”

Immersion Journalism goes a step beyond the old New Journalism, which assumed a fancy magazine would pay the writer for such stuff. Because it’s not just the journalist who is immersed in the story — the reader has a stake, as well. And if the reader has a stake in this Underdog Coverage, the reader might be willing to pay a few dollars to keep this Lone Wolf online.

Especially if that reader is a minor-league investor. When Mayne ran for a seat on the ComBank board, 17,500 shareholders approved and only 5,500 voted No. But such things are decided on total shares owned – no “One Man, One Vote” in the business world – so he lost with 40 percent. Attempts to get on the board of the country’s second-biggest retailer, Woolworths, got a 58 percent approval from stockholders, while his run for NRMA (Australia’s top insurance firm) got a primary vote of 44 percent. It is worth thinking about, for a moment. This is a journalist who runs for political office, for a spot on corporate Boards of Directors, simply because he believes these positions are filled with frauds. And while he hasn’t yet won any of these offices, he has come close enough to inspire fear within the hearts of the Power Brokers.

It’s as if “Roger and Me” director Michael Moore had quit all that annoying “60 Minutes” badgering and won a seat on the board of General Motors.

* * *

The Crikey subscription drive has none of that “less than it costs to feed a starving child” rubbish you see in pitches for Salon Premium. A Crikey sub is $55 Australian and all you get is access to the archives, Mayne’s unhinged e-mails and maybe a T-shirt. Everything else is free, including Hillary Bray’s inside-government columns and hilarious lists of Australia’s drunken-driving elite, journalists with corporate connections in the bedroom and other Great Australian Sex Scandals. With such a small population, it’s impressive to collect more than 1,500 paying subscribers for what is basically a one-man operation with some tech help and a few contributing columnists.

I mean, Salon.com now claims to have 12,000 subscribers in a country of 280 million. And Salon burns through more money in a day – an average of $30,000 US, based on SEC filings – than Mayne has spent in 17 months of running Crikey. With 600,000-plus words of archives and an almost-daily stream of Crikey e-mails and new stories on the Web site, this tiny operation produces content like those bloated-staff online publishers can only dream about. And Crikey’s not padded with wire copy, either.

Of course, Australia has seen its own big-money tech flameouts. The shameful collapse of the Murdoch-Packer kids’ OneTel has filled the business and gossip pages for months now, and dozens of high-profile Web companies have quietly closed their doors. All the more reason to look at small ventures like Crikey as the real New Media Economy … even if the site is in dire need of a copy editor.

A baby girl was born to the Mayne family last week, as the Crikey e-mails detailed, and they won’t get rich off $90,000 Australian a year. But with annual expenses of just $20,000, they sure won’t starve. Turning those media-yuppie subscribers into a high-end advertising base could turn Crikey Media into a solid and profitable business, the Sydney Morning Herald noted in a May article.

The curious thing about Crikey is that it wasn’t started to cash in on a Web IPO wave or any other greedbag scheme. It began as a protest, a protest against the few media giants who run Australia’s press and the corporate bullies who lie to small-scale stockholders. And it began by emulating British publications like Private Eye and The Economist. Read those magazines side by side and you’ll have a good idea of how Mayne’s rabble-rousing business brain works.

“Private Eye takes the piss out of business, politics and media. They are our role models,” Mayne says. “The model of immersion journalism where you become part of the story is also unusual. Our coverage on the recent Melbourne Lord Mayoral elections was different from the rest because I was a candidate, and we provided greater depth to our coverage than the space-and-time limited traditional media.”

Should Price win his legal battle with Crikey, all this scandalous fun could come to a quick, ugly end. His family’s apartment could be sold with the proceeds going to the offended afternoon talk-show host.

But it might be hard to stop a guy who gets to press conferences on a bicycle and likes to publish the site from scumbag Internet cafe51s.

Will publicity stunts and giant foam suits jumpstart Australian online journalism? Is Crikey.com.au a good business model for Web publishing, and would it work in the United States? Discuss all this and more in the OJR forums.

* Ken Layne writes the Citizen Layne column and has, for the past year, maintained a Web log covering journalism, politics and whatever else seems right. He has toiled for wire services, daily papers, magazines and myriad doomed European publications, and also founded the late, great Tabloid.net. Now an author of trashy thrillers, he also helps edit the LA Examiner and tries to live a quiet life.

ends

Ken’s original piece complete with all 70 links to his various sources can be found: here.

The piece has caused a bit of a stir online in the US because Businessweek.com followed up with their own story and Ken Layne then turned around and accused the Business Week journo of plagiarism.

Check out Ken’s latest piece on the matter and you’ll find all the necessary links to get right across what is a very interesting debate right here.

And finally, if you fancy subscribing to our 5 emails a week and searchable archive service complete with a Crikey tee-shirt, just click here to sign up.

Peter Fray

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