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Feb 18, 2010

Margaret Simons: Crikey still meeting the challenge

Crikey has what so many traditional publishers want -- the hybrid model whereby some content is paid for by the viewer, and other content is free.

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I remember quite distinctly the day on which I first heard someone mention a thing called email. It was 1988, and an academic friend had been using it to communicate with colleagues on the other side of the planet.

He was given to wild enthusiasms, my friend. So I rather discounted the way he raved about how it would transform the way we communicated, how we would soon no longer need those silly, flimsy aerogram letters and a wait of a fortnight to keep in touch with friends on the other side of the world.

It was another three years before I was using email. By 1993, email had begun to be in widespread use, and just seven years after that Crikey was born — a news service or a gossip sheet or a little bit of both delivered by the internet.

It is now 40 years  since email was invented. That means that the medium Stephen Mayne used to launch his venture is now as old as television was when I was a teenager. You can hardly call it new media anymore.

The pace of change  is picking up. There was 150 years between the invention of the printing press and the birth of the modern newspaper, but only about  50 years between the invention of television and its widespread adoption in homes. Faster and faster, we adopt each new technology to do that most ancient and constant of human activities, the sharing of  news and views.

Crikey is now a website and a collection of blogs and a Twitter account and Facebook page as well as an email newsletter. That means an element of interactivity. Yet despite all these changes, publication is still mostly an analogue of what we have been doing ever since Gutenberg — a one-to-many broadcast or publication.

The two big changes made by technology so far have been to speed up the delivery, and to lower the barriers to entry so that anyone — not only those with printing presses and broadcasting licences — can publish or broadcast.

If you take away those two things, then  there isn’t really much difference between Crikey and a traditional newspaper. We have columnists, news, commentary and even a cartoonist. We have a larrikin outsider’s style, but then I am old enough to remember when newspapers had that too.

So now that email is old hat, what next? There may be another big change coming.

The next wave of innovation will be, I suspect, about interaction. It will be less about one person or organisation relaying news, and more about news ecologies — the building of understandings and knowledge through collaboration.

I am talking, of course, about social networking, which is clearly so much more than a toy. It is already an important determinant of what many people choose to read. If a story on my Crikey blog is mentioned and takes off on Twitter, I can see my site traffic rise almost by the minute.

The technologies now being trialled take the social networking capability of the internet and attempt to harness it. Google Wave,  for example, has been described by its developers as an attempt to think through what you would have done if you were inventing email now, rather than 40 years ago.

Or take Twitter — where a news story can be born, build to a wave then crash and dissipate on the beach, all without a single story being filed by a traditional journalist.

I remember when I first took out my Crikey subscription that Stephen Mayne would frequently refer to, and try to harness the Crikey army of readers.

If, in the future, Crikey is not only a daily email and a website and a collection of blogs and a Twitter account, but is also published on something a bit like Google Wave, then that army will be in the room,  and in the process.

Crikey will be not so much a news sheet as a site and facilitator of the building of news — a constant rolling collaboration between news professionals and the audience, in which particular voices emerge from time to time, before being caught up again in the wave as the enterprise moves forward.

The challenge for Crikey, and for everyone else, is to find a way of becoming sustainable, of maintaining its edge.

Crikey has what so many traditional publishers want — the hybrid model whereby some content is paid for by the viewer, and other content is free. Yet Crikey is not yet profitable, and it never has been. The main money, the stuff that keeps the enterprise afloat, still comes in from the old technology — the subscribers to the email.

Having said that, the owners have substantially increased Crikey’s cost base and run it at or near break-even. There’s a commitment to invest in Crikey, especially editorial, and since Private Media purchased Crikey from Mayne they’ve increased the costs by around five times what it was.

Crikey’s 10th birthday is a time for great celebration. When I began to write regularly for Crikey four years ago, I was simultaneously under offer from The Age. I chose what felt was the risky option, in reputational and financial terms.

Looking back, I don’t think there is any question that I made the right decision. I have learned so much, and am part of something lively, hopeful and innovative.

And yet Crikey already faces the challenge of  innovation — of not becoming old media. There can be no resting on our tattered, ratty laurels.

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One thought on “Margaret Simons: Crikey still meeting the challenge

  1. Greg Angelo

    I have been a subscriber for several years.

    I cannot remember how long, but my first interaction with Crikey had something to do with RMIT’s Vice Chancellor and an apparent dodgy PhD. This received some media coverage and was the first time I had heard the Crikey name mentioned. I followed up on the Internet and have been a subscriber ever since.

    I value this little news magazine for its independence, especially Stephen Mayne’s early contribution, and it has evolved into a thought-provoking source of information and competing views, especially from other subscribers.

    Happy 10th birthday.

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