Media circles are abuzz with the news that Eric Beecher and Di Gribble have bought Crikey. Last October they gave this interview to the Financial Review’sBoss Magazine.
The Reader picks up on threats and challenges to mainstream media. We give people another option, something with a particular style and personality they can read on the weekend. This has been a glint in our eye for 10 or 11 years. When we first started Text Media [in 1990], we workshopped a concept called IDEAS, a newsletter along these lines. Since then the notion of summarising the best bits of the media has started to catch on.
It’s not a carefully strategised commercial venture – it’s a completely different approach. We’ve been through the fire, and we’re also great observers.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
We’ve learned that when new media products are launched there’s an overwhelming tendency to do vast amounts of marketing at the beginning. In some ways that’s illogical. You know when you launch it’s going to take a year, maybe two, before you’re anywhere near pleased with it. We’ve been doing The Reader for a little over a year, and we think it’s ready now.
Di and I have worked together for 14 years. We get on well. We don’t compete with each other. We have enough respect for each other that if one of us thinks the other is over-stepping the mark we can say so, and we do.
We have huge respect for each other’s views; we each use the other as a sounding board, and we’re great readers. Our Eureka moments happen all the time. When we stumble across something, one of us says “look at this”. We’ll pore over it, chuckle about it. That’s what we’re trying to get through with The Reader.
I’ve really had two careers, one as a journalist and editor, the other as a businessman. I much prefer the journalism, to spend my time in
pursuit of interesting ideas and disclosure rather than in making money, although I learned more about leadership and management in business. In a creative industry like journalism, it’s primarily about trying to keep people up, to get them to succeed creatively. It’s quite different to motivating people to succeed commercially.
The Eye [the fortnightly magazine launched in 1999 and closed the next year] and The Reader are not the biggest things I’ve done. The big thing was to set up a company. We created The Melbourne Weekly, which had a value of about $50 million on it. We did The Eye too, and that didn’t work. I’m not running away from that, but the big impact that had was to teach me never to stuff up like that again.
I know what happened, I know why it didn’t work, and you learn vastly more from your mistakes than your successes. It was a big mistake, but the things I learned from it made it a big mistake rather than a big failure.
We were able to succeed commercially at Text Media, but we never felt we were able to succeed editorially. Now we’ve split the two apart. We’ve sold Text Media [to Fairfax] and we can spend a lot more time trying to do things editorially. The Reader is a big part of our lives, but we do it because we enjoy doing it – we’re not building a big empire.
McPhee Gribble, the publishing company I jointly founded with Hilary McPhee, had just sold to Penguin. I was doing a radio interview and the interviewer asked what I was going to do now. Eric rang and said, “What are you going to do?”
I wanted to work for myself, and Eric was sick of working where other people always had the final say, so we decided to start something.
We rented somewhere to work, Eric and I and a secretary, a couple of desks from IKEA and a telephone, and we just launched into it.
Our competitors left us alone for a year because they thought we were nutty editorial people who didn’t understand business. Eric was a
journalist and I was a “bookie” – what would we know? In the end, our biggest competitor had to buy us.
The Melbourne Weekly was the basis of Text Media’s success, but with The Eye we did it all too fast, we didn’t give it time to survive. Now we’re doing The Reader we’ve given ourselves a year to get it right.
There are a whole lot of old cliches about the Australian media, and one is: you never go broke underestimating the taste of the Australian public. In other words, crap sells, good stuff doesn’t. The trick is to produce stuff of very high quality, which nevertheless appeals.
You have to like your readers. You have to respect your readers. Everything you do you have to have your reader in mind, not your colleagues or your financial director.
I’ll tell you about the newspaperman and the book publisher. When Eric has an idea he expects it to be in tomorrow’s paper. When I have an idea I expect it to be in a book that’s to come out in a year’s time. But we’ve reached a compromise.
Eric says: “Let’s do this.” I say: “Forty-eight hours, let me think about it.”
The commonalities: we’re both in love with ideas, wanting to make them real. The Reader reflects the fact that we live in a global village; it’s Australia as part of the world. What are the new ideas, the things that really matter?
We developed the idea through our last year at Text Media. It was such a big commercial animal by the time we sold it and we both had a desire to get back to some sort of editorial roots – to do something that was just fun.
A lot of people would regard us as sitting ducks for the sharks because we’ll put principles before profits. We’ve always been keen on profits, but we act according to our principles – that’s what makes it easy for us to work together.
One of the things I’ve learned from Eric is listening. When you talk to Eric he listens carefully.
He teases out things that are important and goes after them like a Jack Russell terrier.
I’m more interested in underlying things. Eric and I might have a meeting with someone and we’ll talk about it afterwards and he’ll tell me the 14 most interesting things the person said. I’ll say: “But did you notice he didn’t meet your eyes?”