What lessons, if any, are there for new media in the death of the independent leftish e-zine New Matilda? And what way does the future lie?
Last week New Matilda editor Marni Cordell announced that the publication would cease on June 25, having failed to break even this year.
Thus, it joins a long list of independent commentary sites, from Margo Kingston’s pioneering Webdiary, founded in 2000 before the word “blog” was mainstream, up to the present day. Cordell rejects the word “fail”, making the point that longevity is not the only measure of success.
It is a fair point. Kingston’s Webdiary, for example, not only worked out many rules of the game that others have followed or had to reinvent, but also led to the development of several writers who made their mark elsewhere. New Matilda can claim the same success.
The coming and going of independent sites is part of new media. All those commentators who periodically claim that blogging is dead (because so many blogs thrive for a year or two and then go quiet) are necessarily wrong. Individual blogs may die, but blogging is here to stay (although I suspect we will soon come up with a different word for the activity, or rather a range of different words).
From now on there will always be someone, somewhere, who is within a finger tip’s reach of communicating their news and views to the world.
Nevertheless, longevity is one measure of success. So is it impossible for serious new media sites to cut the mustard long term?
When New Matilda’s demise was announced, Duncan Riley suggested how things might have been done better. He said a lack of business sense was to blame:
“There’s nothing hard about covering your costs and living within your means. There’s nothing hard about knowing if you’re doing the same thing for 3 or 6 years, and it isn’t working, you change the model or you get out before burning more money.”
Riley said there were “more than a few” Australian sites making money, and there was more money in quality advertising in Australia than in the United States. So what would he do? More general news through an AAP feed, pay writers less, open the door to more contributor contributions and get better advertising.
But Cordell pronounced herself slightly offended by the notion that they could pay writers less. Already the standard New Matilda fee was just $100 a piece — so low she admitted she was ashamed, although she comforted herself with the knowledge that the magazine’s editorial team had compensated by providing intense feedback and development advice, which she knew had benefited contributors. Many contributors had written for free, without which, she said, New Matilda would probably have gone under sooner.
Meanwhile, Mark Bahnisch at Larvatus Prodeo suggested that the future lay in a new media ecosystem.Rather than pay for an office and for salaried staff (New Matilda had four full-time and one part-time) what about a network of blogs? Bahnisch hinted that Larvatus Prodeo was looking at options, partly in reaction to the extent to which blogging had been sucked up by the mainstream media, with sites such as The Punch, the Drum and, of course, Crikey.
New Matilda nearly folded three years ago, but was rescued by the little-known philanthropist Duncan Turpie. Cordell told me that Turpie had been a hands-off proprietor. She still didn’t know the precise source of his wealth or how much he had burnt in the venture, but he had finally pulled the plug when it was clear that the site was not close to breaking even.
There is still some hope for New Matilda. There have been nibbles from various people interested in a takeover, but so far nothing concrete.
So what lessons can be drawn?
Cordell regrets the mid-2007 decision to drop subscriptions and make content available for free. This was done in the belief that it would lead to higher site traffic and therefore more ability to sell advertising.
New Matilda was not the only site to find, in the latter half of the decade, that the age-old equation audience numbers = advertising dollars no longer works online.
Crikey, at the same time, was redeveloping its website, with a wealth of free content. It, too, was to discover that while the audience increased, advertising revenue did not go up in the same proportions.
So it is that we arrive at the irony that lefty e-zines come to the same conclusion as Rupert Murdoch. Paywalls may be necessary for economic survival.
The death of New Matilda can mask that there are many sites still going strong. Crikey, for example, is on target to be profitable this year, has grown over its 10 years of life, employs a full-time staff of around 15 and retains journalists such as myself.
It more or less pays for itself, thanks to a mix of subscription content and advertising-supported free content. It isn’t about to die. But some of the commentary in the wilds of new media last week suggested that these days, Crikey is seen as mainstream, rather than truly independent new media. Which just shows that if you hang around long enough you become part of the furniture.
Crikey doesn’t pay contributors well either. The standard fee is $100 a piece. But Crikey does employ staff journalists who are paid at industry rates.
There are other long-lived sites. On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit venture supported by sponsors and employing two full-time staff. It was one of Australia’s first online independent publications and shows no signs of death.
The hard ask, for all of these, is factual reporting. Cordell last week said to me that one of her greatest regrets was that New Matilda had not been able to do more investigative work. With a standard payment of just $100 a piece, it was too big an ask.
The truth is that opinion-based sites can be trusted to either survive, or be quickly replaced by others. Opinion is cheap in every sense of the word, which is why News Ltd’s The Punch and Fairfax’s National Times can continue to pay nothing — that’s right, nothing for contributions, and the ABC’s The Drum pays just $200 a piece. It is not a lack of independent opinion and analysis that we need to worry about.
News reporting is a different matter. It involves some of the hard and dirty work of journalism — the hanging around, the developing of contacts, the cold-call telephoning of people who do not want to talk to you, and who are often angry and rude.
While some people may do some of this work for free some of the time, if you want it done consistently and well, then ultimately it has to be paid for.
One of the reasons Crikey survives as a subscription service is surely that it includes, as well as a great deal of commentary and opinion, a fair bit of news. The Crikey model suggests people will pay to be told news.
So what lessons from New Matilda? For the moment, we learn that independent media has to be small, low cost, and largely opinion based. Riley’s model of not paying contributors, or not paying them much, doubtless works for some kinds of content.
But to build a model that people are prepared to pay for, you have to be offering more than opinion. You have to have either expert insights to offer, highly specialised content not available elsewhere for free, or a reputation for consistently breaking news that other media organisations don’t cover.
And all that is expensive. The depth of the challenges facing media organisations can be appreciated by the fact that everyone — from Rupert Murdoch down — is experimenting.