There is a strong myth in new and independent media, says freelance journalist and new media entrepreneur Mel Campbell.
It goes like this: “If you work really hard to be good at something you really love and believe in, people will organically discover it and love it too, and you’ll build a grassroots following, and then an investor or a publisher will come along and you’ll end up doing it for a day job.”
Three years after Campbell and her collaborators Andrew Tijs and Daniel Zugna launched a stylish online independent pop culture periodical, she is here to tell us that it ain’t necessarily so. The periodical they launched, online mag The Enthusiast, has cost them only in the low four figures to launch and maintain, but much, much more in effort, time and peace of mind.
This week The Enthusiast is the latest publication to be featured in Crikey’s Monday series New Kid on the Block about start-ups and indy media. We’re trying to capture some of the enthusiasm and energy bubbling away below the radar of the mainstream.
The Enthuisast is not actually all that new — it is celebrating its third birthday now. But in the middle of this year it will relaunch around a weekly podcast in which the three principals will attempt to communicate the atmosphere of their editorial meetings — as Campbell describes it: “Three people sitting around chatting about pop culture, sharing interesting things and making each other laugh.”
The story of this bright indy publication is sobering for those who embrace the possibilities of new media. There is no doubt The Enthusiast is a professional standard publication, well in touch with popular culture. Although there is pedestrian material on the site, the best has a zing that puts mainstream media to shame.
Take Andrew Doyle’s 2009 intro to a review of The Best Australian Essays (Black Inc) publication: “The Australian literary landscape sometimes resembles a cultural representation of the Mafia: a few bosses at the top, with aspiring foot soldiers attempting to make their way up through the ranks. This hierarchy is seemingly mimicked by the yearly stocking filler for the intelligentsia, The Best Australian Essays.”
Or there is Campbell’s pre-Christmas expose of Coles’ beer discount stuff-up or her 2009 reflections on Coles Homebrand Creole Creams. (No prizes for guessing where she shops.) Or Tijs’ rumination on a long-ago Narre Warren barbecue and the golden oldie Khe Sanh.
The Enthusiast actually got to ask Chisel front man and all-around Aussie rock legend Jimmy Barnes — have you ever got sick of Khe Sanh? “You know what? At times, I’ve wanted, just for the sake of the audience, not to have to do it in the set,” he says with a tinge of exasperation. “But you can hear them calling for it from the opening of the set and I’ve never really got sick of it.” He’s never inadvertently caught a cover band playing it in his presence, Tijs reported, although he recalls “a couple of karaoke bars where I’ve walked past and people are doing it. I’ve stuck my head in to freak them out”.
Campbell modestly states that she believes The Enthusiast publishes “some of the smartest, funniest and most unique cultural journalism in the country”. But it makes no money, and pays no salaries or contributors’ fees and working on it has challenged the enthusiasm of the title.
It all began in 2007. Campbell tells the story: “We’d go out boozing on Friday nights and fantasise about having our very own magazine where we could be the bosses and write the brilliant stories we weren’t allowed to write in our day jobs. You know — the usual narrative of idealism and self-delusion that characterises the founding of most independent media ventures. But we really made it happen in 2008 when we were all at crossroads in our careers.”
Campbell had previously co-founded Is Not Magazine, a piece of street press that was displayed on outdoor poster sites. It was used as part of Melbourne’s bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature, but there was no money. “We raised money by organising elaborate themed parties,” says Campbell. It folded in 2008.
This time, she planned to leave print behind, and attempt an online culture website that didn’t do politics or sport or lifestyle, gig guides or cafe reviews. “We wanted to be Australia’s answer to Slate or The AV Club,” she says.
After two years, Campbell, who does most of the day-to-day work of keeping the site going, still hoped to build a sufficient audience to attract major advertisers. Today, the site carries Apple MacBook ads via an advertising network.
Says Campbell: “At most media organisations selling ad space is someone’s full-time job, and one of the most naive things we ever did was assuming we’d be able to fit that work in around our editorial work, which in turn we fit in around our paid work.”
Campbell, a music journalist who puts food on the table with a melange of freelance writing and editing (her essay on homos-xuality in football was anthologised in The Best Australian Sports Writing) has worked so hard on The Enthusiast that it has made her physically ill. She was hospitalised during last year’s Comedy Festival. Which could be seen as ironic.
“I’ve since come to terms with how freakish that ‘success’ narrative is, and how little power my enthusiasm has to influence either audiences or the people who hold the purse strings,” she says now.
Campbell has taken advice that she has to be either an editor or a businesswoman — not both. She decided that it was the creative work — the editing and writing — that she cared about most: “So we basically have to stop seeing the site as a business.”
Campbell admits that one reason for the change to a podcast format is that it will be easier: “Because it shares the labour more evenly, streamlines our publishing activities, and lets us discuss all the news and review material that we’re constantly consuming without the pressure to ‘write it up’.” The site will continue as a venue for news that won’t hold until the podcast is done, plus features and reviews.
The site already features podcasts of the summer radio show that the three collaborators host on Melbourne Community Radio Station Triple R.
Campbell writes as much as she can herself, partly because she is ashamed to have to ask contributors to write for free. She says: “When we use contributors we’re very upfront — grovellingly apologetic, really — about not being able to pay. I feel very strongly about not wanting to rip off emerging writers by promising them ‘exposure’ or ‘experience’, and the whole thing fills me with shame. I try to work extra hard myself, trying to populate the site by my efforts rather than letting contributors feel like we’re exploiting them.”
For other aspiring new kids on the block, it might be hard to say whether The Enthusiast is an optimistic tale or a cautionary one. It is professionally written in the sense that its principal contributors are journalists who earn their living in the industry.
It contains quality content including material you are not likely to read elsewhere. And yet the only answer to the question “what is the business model” is a burst of laughter.
“Ultimately I guess I’ve learnt not to lose sight of the enthusiasm that gave the site its name, and to continue publishing it because I want to, not to ingratiate myself with readers or to generate ‘uniques’ for advertisers,” Campbell says.
So is there another, more lucrative way?