Internet entrepreneur Graeme Wood has again entered the realm of public debate, emerging as the key bankroller of Monica Attard’s new online journalism venture.
Crikey can reveal the Wotif.com founder, whose personal wealth is valued at about $372 million, has provided the seed money for The Global Mail, set to launch in January or February next year.
The cash for the venture will be sourced from Wood directly, with the possibility of other sources to follow. In the lead-up to last year’s federal election the philanthropist flicked the Greens a cool $1.6 million to fund prime-time TV ads, the biggest political donation in Australian history.
But The Global Mail, using the URL theglobalmail.org, marks his first foray into blue chip investigative journalism.
Attard told Crikey the start-up would employ four senior journalists abroad in New York City, Paris and Asia and seven locally in a Sydney HQ. Local staff would be split between young up-and-comers with “the capacity to fly” and more senior appointments.
“It’ll be a combination of just off-the-cycle analysis but will also engage with it,” Attard said.
The respected ABC veteran said The Global Mail was completely not-for-profit and would feature neither subscriptions nor advertising: “It is entirely, utterly in the public interest.”
She confirmed the site’s news stories would include cutting-edge multimedia elements like video and audio. Each local reporter will follow their own “beat”, raising the prospect of a news-breaking juggernaut punching well above its weight.
Attard is the current presenter of ABC Local Radio’s Sunday Profile (which also airs on Radio National) and has a few weeks left on-air before she wades into the online space full-time.
Crikey understands funding will be secured from Wood personally, and not his Graeme Wood Foundation, which holds about $20 million in assets and last year gave away about $1 million to a range of arts charities. While Attard stayed mum on specifics, the estimated cost of the start-up could stretch to well over $2-3 million a year.
Wood, a keen bushwalker, has emerged as a prominent voice on the philanthropic scene in recent years and also has some prior experience in the news business. In 2008 he set up business news aggregator Wotnews in addition to the ASX-listed Wotif.com, which he founded in 1999 and is now worth $1.4 billion. Wood is no longer a Wotif executive, but remains on the board with about a 25% stake.
Following on from his part purchase last year of swathes of pristine Tasmanian native forest from notorious logging firm Gunns, Wood recently attempted to buy the company’s Triabunna woodchip mill before it was seemingly snaffled by timber haulage operator Ron O’Connor.
He told Crikey this morning that Attard had initially approached him with the idea, but that he’d been mulling over the paucity of Australian investigative journalism for some time.
“This is about journalism … I think that the quality of public interest journalism is at the lowest ebb that I’m aware of,” Wood said. “That’s a result of financial difficulties that media organisations are suffering, so as the quality goes down … there’s demand there that’s not being met.”
Wood said the “closest comparison” to The Global Mail would be the US-based site Propublica which “is pretty much 100% public interest journalism”: “They do more long-form investigative stuff, but only with a US domestic audience in mind.”
His ambitions for The Global Mail are, unsurprisingly, global: “The initial focus will be Australian; we’ve got some presence in the marketplace. But we’ll expand fairly quickly, maybe towards Asia. Initially it will be reporting on Australian issues from a global context.”
Online start-ups have a chequered history in Australia, but Wood says there are no initial plans to expand beyond philanthropy and he’s happy to cop ongoing losses.
“I think eventually there’ll be a financial business model for this sort of thing, but it ain’t there yet,” he said.
Wood said that, echoing Propublica, tie-ups with existing media organisations is “very much part of our thinking” to distribute content. And despite his orientation as a passionate environmentalist, Wood says there will “absolutely” be a church and state division between himself and Attard.
“It’s formally stated that the owner nor the board has editorial influence … and given the experience and status of the journalists involved there’s no way that they would put up with that either.”
He is currently in talks with other like-minded individuals to join the The Global Mail board.