Today Crikey starts a new Monday series about media start-ups. There are a few reasons we think it a good time to do this. First, amid all the gloom, doom and frantic experimentation surrounding Big Media, it is easy for innovative start-ups to be missed.

Secondly, the potential for start-ups, particularly internet-based start-ups, to add to media diversity is one of the topics being explored by the federal government media inquiry. So it doesn’t hurt to survey the field.

The truth is that a lot of very interesting stuff is being tried by small media enterprises. While some rise and die without disturbing the surface of media, it is also the case that small enterprises are, as research in the latest Australian Journalism Review finds, already a significant source of journalists’ jobs.

The research, by academic John Cokely and others, shows that already more journalism jobs exist outside “big media” organisations than within them by a factor of four to three, where “big media” is defined as enterprises employing 10 or more journalists. Margaret Gee’s Media Guide lists 2770 media outlets. Cokely writes that his represents an estimated 7967 journalists jobs across print, broadcast, online and agencies. Of these, 3407 jobs were in 99 publishing organisations employing 10 or more journalists. The remainder — 4560 — were in 2357 organisations employing fewer than nine journalists — many employing only one. [1]

Founder-operated start-ups are the model that led to the invention of the modern newspaper. It is also, of course, the history of Crikey.

We will be Catholic in our approach in this series, not trying to pick winners. Clearly, many of the new enterprises will have trouble with sustainability. Some, including the one featured this week, do not yet employ anyone other than their founders. They vary from loss-making, not for profit and modestly profitable. Their origins are equally various: some are started by journalists, others arise directly from the communities of interest they serve.

Not all of them see themselves as journalistic — but some of them have the potential to expand journalism practice, particularly in areas such as audience participation and what might be termed online “community work”.

We hope this series might serve a small part in making sure that good ideas are shared, even when the publications encapsulating those ideas do not survive.

Feel free to let us know of start-ups that we might be interested in featuring.

The first start-up we are featuring is this one, a feisty little print magazine with a cover price of $8.95, and big aspirations. It started in 2007 as a photocopied in-house newsletter for the St Kilda local wine bar, The King’s Tribune. As the editors, bar patrons Justin and Jane Shaw, put it:

“It was a double-sided A4 page intended to keep the denizens of the bar up to date with who had been sin-binned, why someone played a coathanger at the air guitar comp and whether anything was happening in the world outside. After a few months The Tribune staggered out of the bar and appeared in cafes, bars and laundromats around St Kilda and Elwood. We started getting offers to write (for free) from some amazingly good writers. Readers started emailing us asking for copies because the latest issue had disappeared within days of delivery. Cafes were ringing asking to be included in the distribution. We expanded across the whole of inner-city Melbourne and had to knock back interstate inquires.It had all the hallmarks of a screaming success, except for one thing — it generated absolutely no income.”

So starting in October, the Shaws upgraded the magazine and started to charge for it. Neither of the Shaws have any experience in media. Justin has a day job. Jane is a consultant in the energy business who gives “a lot of time” to their new venture, which is mixing up professional writers, bloggers and cartoonists.

She describes the result as “what would happen if The Onion and The Monthly got together in a bar”.

The November issue includes a cartoon and text essay purporting to explain science by Crikey’s very own First Dog on the Moon, plus pieces by ethicist Leslie Cannold, the blogger Drag0nista and Tim Dunlop, a veteran of the Australian blogosphere.

The result is a kind of prickly, lefty, inner-suburban collection of blog posts in print form, mixed with recipes, a crossword and political comment. I chuckled a few times reading through it.

Jane Shaw says that she is absolutely committed to keeping it in print, rather than online only. “The age of print media isn’t dead,” she says. “The age of crap print media might be dead.” People still appreciate getting a hard-copy publication. The King’s Tribune has a web page, but only subscribers can access full articles. Subscriptions cost $25 for three months’ of magazines plus access to the website. There is an online-only option at $5 a month, with an iPad app in planning.

At present, circulation of The King’s Tribune is just 500, and it is a loss maker. The publication needs circulation of 1500 to break even, Shaw says. She pays some of her writers reasonable rates. Others donate their work for free. There is no marketing budget. The magazine depends on word of mouth.

Plenty of people have told the Shaws that their enterprise is doomed, that they will never make a go of it. They prefer to be optimistic.

The Kings Tribune is at heart a community publication in its origins, what in the US might be called hyperlocal — starting with the patronage of a single bar in a single suburb. Now, it aspires to be national.

Nice to think that they might make a go of it.

[1] John Cokey, Maria Edstrom, Jessica McBride and Angela Ranke, Moving Away from Big Media. Australian Journalism Review July 2011.

Peter Fray

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