How much of a market is there for “heavy” social and political journalism and
commentary once it is separated from the media behemoths and reader habits that
have supported it? Recent figures suggest the market is large enough to sustain
a worthwhile journalistic effort.

One of Australia’s
oldest internet-based journals, Online
, is boasting a record month, with 431,867 visits and 1,053,005
page views. Online Opinion has been going since 1999. In a report sent
to sponsors last week editor Graham Young said that “while we don’t make the
same noise as Crikey, when it comes to site stats we are just as large”.

Meanwhile the internet-based magazine New
– less than two years old –is claiming 4,216 paid
subscribers and rising. Crikey, which operates primarily as a daily email but
also has a free website with limited content, has more than 9,000 paid
subscribers and about another 26,000 “squatters” who receive an abridged
version. In February 2006, Crikey’s website clocked 848,836 visits and
1,576,606 page views.

Reader research (here,here
and here)
suggests that there is a fair bit of crossover in the readership. Perhaps all these
readers are the same people, assiduously surfing between sites. But even
allowing for crossover, the figures suggest that serious internet-based
journals are beginning to build significant numbers of influential and
high-income readers.

Hold the celebrations for now. Most internet journals either don’t pay their
contributors, or pay below industry rates. Most either don’t make a profit, or
don’t aim to do so. Online Opinion is supported, as Young has put it, by
“civil society”. Sponsors include a number of universities – but he is now
looking for commercial sponsors as well. New Matilda has some way to go
before it breaks even.

Crikey is the exception. Publisher Diana Gribble says the business “has
underlying profitability” but money is still being invested. “If we stopped
doing that we’d have a profitable small business, and even with investment I
expect us to make a profit next year.”

Breaking news – finding things out – is expensive work. So far there is no
Australian based internet publication doing consistent daily ground-breaking
reportage. All the internet-based publications are dependent on the broadsheet
newspapers, linking to them and bouncing off them with comment and opinion, and
adding occasional nuggets of new information.

Nevertheless with internet advertising booming and readership figures growing
it’s easy to believe that these sites will soon come of age.

Declaration: Margaret Simons receives a retainer from Crikey.