Australian commentary forum New Matilda will shut its virtual doors next month, after funding and advertising revenue for the venture dried up.

Several contributors were told the news yesterday that their services were no longer required. The site will cease publishing new articles on June 25.

In an editorial posted on New Matilda after Crikey broke the news this morning, editor Marni Cordell wrote the financial problems that had beset the venture since its inception in 2004 had become too much to bear:

“We’ve now come to realise we were being too optimistic and that we’re unable to continue publishing into the next financial year. This is in large part due to the sheer difficulty of selling online advertising in the current media environment.

“…as the site has increased in popularity, so have our running costs — and with them the knowledge that we are unable to subsidise the project indefinitely. The big media players are struggling to find a workable online business model that allows them to pay their writers and maintain high standards — and so are we. Since we already run a very lean operation, cutting costs is not an option and we are taking the only path available to us at this time. “

Former Gough Whitlam private secretary John Menadue set up New Matilda in 2004 to counter what he called an institutional failure in the contemporary media.

In February 2007 the site was sold to mysterious Gold Coast businessman Duncan Turpie for $10, after its original shareholders had ploughed in $315,000. Turpie was an initial New Matilda board member who made his money in mathematics.

After beginning with a subscription business model, the site moved to an advertising-funded site soon after Turpie took over that provided all content free to readers. But that approach failed to generate enough revenue to keep the business afloat.

New Matilda‘s resident satirist Ben Pobjie was devastated when told the news this morning.

“It’s just really sad,” he told Crikey. “Basically New Matilda gave me my start as a professional writer; no one would know my name if it wasn’t for New Matilda.

“It’s just sad that another alternative outlet is closing. The landscape is going to be that little bit smaller.”

National affairs editor Ben Eltham, who is travelling to Sydney today to discuss the upheaval “over a few beers”, was more sanguine: “It’s sad, but I’m not shocked because these things happen.

“Still, it’s very disappointing because we were doing some really good stuff. I think the website was maturing and it was starting to establish itself as the mainstream media started to hollow out. The publication was starting to stand out as an actual site that was providing quality analysis and fresh angles and fulfilling an important niche in the media-scape.”

Eltham said the New Matilda brand was valuable and that another white knight may emerge to save it. “I believe the site could have been viable, particularly with the ongoing shift of media to the internet,” he said.

The respected former AAP correspondent said he would focus on completing his PhD and raising a family.

“I’d like to pay tribute to my colleagues who have done a wonderful job on a shoestring budget,” he said.

Cordell — now out of a job —  told Crikey the momentum to close the site was “building over a period of months”.

“I’m really disappointed that it’s come to this,” she said, but hinted the website could still be saved. “It’s almost breaking even, and I’d be open to it being bought by someone else.”

Head of the Sydney-based Centre for Policy Development Miriam Lyons, whose work grew out of New Matilda before the connection was severed, said the news was sad but not entirely unexpected.

“Australia has a long tradition of excellent independent publications falling over, and it would have been difficult to pay the staff even a quarter of what they’re worth,” she said.

Since its inception New Matilda has mostly published left-wing opinion and commentary, with contributors paid between $100 and $200 an article. It was believed to be operating on the smell of an oily rag, with insiders telling Crikey its operation had become a month-to-month proposition.

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Peter Fray
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