The contributor budget has been cut here at Crikey, leading some to fear the publication will be run with a harder commercial edge following recent changes in ownership and management.

But the proprietor, Eric Beecher, insists the cuts are “very very small” and do not reflect any change in attitude to the publication, which he has often said runs at close to break-even because his primary motive is interest in the journalism.

The cuts, which total about $50,000, have been mainly directed at the website, with some of Crikey’s network of bloggers either being dropped or told that they are welcome to continue to contribute, but they will be doing so for free.

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The cuts follow Amanda Gome,  the founder of Crikey’s stablemate publication, being appointed to oversee Crikey.

Beecher told me last week that the cuts in the budget were “very very small” in proportion to the “millions of dollars a year” that Crikey costs to produce. He rejected any suggestion that they indicated a change of attitude.

“Since we bought Crikey a little under five years ago, we have increased the costs by six times.” The recent cuts were best seen as an “adjustment” as the publication refocused its priorities, he said.

“Some of the blogs are going gangbusters, but others aren’t doing as well,” Beecher said. Those that did not add to Crikey’s core remits of politics, media and public affairs were being “trimmed”.

Crikey has never been a big payer to freelance contributors. Editor Jonathan Green was frank when he told the Media140 conference in Sydney last week “we pay sh-t”. Many contributors accept as little as $100 per published item. Some are paid more, but others are not paid at all. This compares to rates paid by mainstream newspapers starting at about 50-60 cents a word, and a dollar a word for contributors to The Monthly magazine — although Fairfax and News Limited have stopped paying many op-ed contributors altogether.

Beecher said that it had always been the case that Crikey had to be a sustainable business, and it was stronger if it made a profit, rather than only just breaking even. “Overall it is going incredibly well,” he said. The $50,000 cut from the contributor budget would be reinvested in the publication, he said.

Among the more valuable content affected by the cuts is the Croakey health site, run by freelance journalist Melissa Sweet, which has attracted a niche audience of health and community service professionals attracted by coverage of public health policy issues that tend to be neglected by mainstream media. Sweet also runs the Crikey Health and Medical Panel (CHAMP) of Crikey contributors. For more on this, see my blog.

Over the past 12 months Crikey has relaunched its website and developed a network of blogs, (of which mine is one.)

Several of the blogs had been contracted on an income-sharing model, with payments tied to site traffic. But while the site traffic arrived, the revenue to match did not, with advertisers apparently preferring the subscription email, which circulates to 14,000 high-income, influential readers paid subscribers and about as many again through email forwarding.

It is also true that Beecher and co-owner Diana Gribble now have other investors to consider. Crikey is no longer their personal business only. While they retain control of the company, late last year they engaged in what Beecher describes as a “small equity raising” bringing in new “passive” investors. Stuart Simson, a former managing director of The Age, became an independent director along with Beecher, Gribble, creative director Chong Weng Ho and marketing man John Addis.

The new shareholders include, through various company structures, Michael Noyce, Susan and Richard Gibson and James and Jane Vicars.

The Crikey experience is significant, not only because it is Australia’s first commercial internet-only journalism service, but also because it is a small but interesting experiment in a mixture of “pay wall” and free journalistic content at a time when the sustainable mix between the two is the talk of the industry.

Beecher rejected suggestions that the change in ownership had anything to do with the budget cuts. Nor, he said, had he noticed any impact on site traffic, which continues to grow, from the launch of News Limited’s The Punch or the Fairfax National Times — both of which pay nothing for contributor content. “I don’t think they are competitors. They are very different kinds of publication,” he said.

Beecher said he had no plans to change its core ethos or focus on journalism for the sake of profitability.

He pledged that Crikey would not take the “easy path” to attracting niche advertising for the online blogs. “We could do it easily by writing about lifestyle and watches and cameras and so on. That is not what we are about. We simply won’t do that,” he said.

For more on the background to this story and how it came to publication, read my blog.

* Declaration: My Crikey blog The Content Makers is not among those that have been cut. However, the method under which I am paid was recently altered, at my suggestion, to a retainer that includes my work for the subscription email, ending a system under which part of my payment was tied to blog site traffic.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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