Australia’s professional media outlets are nothing if not keenly absorbed in the story of their own death, and here, in describing the fresh end to one of them, we are hardly breaking with what has become a terrible tradition. On Monday, broadcaster and journalist Wendy Harmer announced the last days of her online publication The Hoopla and in so doing, ignited a dozen opinion pieces and hundreds of social media updates from journalists whose hearts were aflame with the pain of loss.
Of course, the closure of any media business is miserable news, and when it is happens to one founded by a bright populist of Harmer’s affable sort, it’s especially grim. The Hoopla was a very reasonable locus for feminine opinion and one, importantly, that paid and shepherded its miscellaneous flock of chiefly emerging writers. We will be sad to see it go.
But such eulogising is perhaps better kept within the confines of industry gossip, and its wider expression is certainly not something Harmer herself incited when she spoke to ABC Radio much more about the exigencies of the market than the weight of her heart.
And this is the proper conversation. The dwindling of professional media forms, most especially the traditional masthead, should be a matter for business-based discussion and not, as it so often is, about sadness and changing public tastes. We mourn and moralise the downward shift in an industry, and this allows, for example, Rupert Murdoch to turn his long local monopoly on content distribution into a story not, as it should be, about his anti-competitive corporate behaviour but one about our unlawful longing for instant Game of Thrones.
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The media class can rarely see outside its own confines, and this is why it describes every injury to itself in great and doleful detail. Significant job cuts to the ABC, for example, were reported far more broadly than announcements made the same week about even more significant job cuts to CSIRO. Recently, after months of steadfast ignorance on the matter of proposed metadata retention laws, local press only took up a study of Big Data when it realised it might affect them. Intrusive scrutiny of the Australian people to be accessed by a broad range of government and legal institutions? No problem. Laurie Oakes could be forced to reveal his sources? Front-page news.
What we have is a media class that believes that “freedom” in the electronic representation of reality is just as important as, if not more important than, the reality it purports to represent. Media workers have convinced not only themselves of this self-reflexive nonsense but also many of their unwitting allies in the amateur digital sphere. Much of the unpaid activism on social media now focuses on the importance of “representation”, and with each shared status update or retweet about the importance of media reflecting our society, only the importance of media itself is reflected.
Harmer, I think, is sensible enough to know that the end of her publication is not tantamount to the end of an interest in “issues”. All of the eyeballs that set upon her content are still affixed to literate, liberal-Left women of a certain age whose views, having been formed over a lifetime and not in This One Inspiring Blog Post That Will Change The Way You See The World Forever, remain the same. But whenever an outlet shifts or closes, it is read as a shift or a closure in the culture.
If the closure of The Hoopla tells us anything all about changes to the culture, it is perhaps only that the culture likes to absorb the fiction that it can be changed in an instant. Harmer, a resolutely mild person who has never, in my view, believed that things can be shifted in a moment, refused the tricks and the emotional bait of much women’s media. Hers was not a sensationalist site and it did not frequently run, as do Mamamia and Daily Life and new kitsch gorgon on the block at News, RendezView — such a camel of a name, a real horse designed by committee — content devised to provoke simple outrage.
While Hoopla’s published figures indicate that there is conversational room for this more gentle and ambivalent approach, there is little space in the market for such. However much readers might enjoy ambivalence, advertisers, who rely on the certainty of the brand, really don’t. Added to which, the site’s proprietors reportedly wouldn’t take certain kinds of advertising and, of course, it was an independent minnow in our moderate Australian ocean of corporate publishing sharks.
Even if The Hoopla wasn’t your style of journalism, you can perhaps see that it spoke well to a particular audience: people, chiefly female people, who dabbled in and did not live or die by the internet and its Us And Them propositions.
Our belief in readers who have no truck with ambivalence, and therefore complexity, is what interests me about writing on the demise of The Hoopla. Media, which is a market business, has no cultural business confusing what pays the bills with what people might actually want or feel they need. “Needs” are created by the publishing market and its advertising partners. But they are something that we falsely see as clearly reflecting the needs of the people; and as anyone who works in online knows, it’s not just a case these days of bums on seats or eyeballs but of finding a sustainable revenue model. Widely trafficked sites can fail; moderately trafficked websites can succeed because of their funding.
What women want, or what anybody wants, is not reflected in the market but determined by the market.
I am personally not enamoured of the idea of women’s media. I have written for it a little, but I find the pressure of having to represent “a female voice” illogical and impossible. I find the experience of reading “a female voice” just as illogical. And this is due to the creation of women as a market category by the market. Not the other way round.
Still, in terms of the civic experience, I guess a large number of women, and more covertly, men, expect a media tailored to their gender, and if this crude division is to continue being served, I would rather see a little more complexity than Let’s Get Angry About This One Sexist Video and the other anti-intellectual fare on offer in our local women’s media.
It’s a sad day for media when something like The Hoopla ends. We can talk about that among ourselves. What is sad for everyone, about the closure of The Hoopla and the shifting media more generally, is that it is easy to become the victim of a market whose content is as brutally simple as its funding models are complex.
*This article was originally published at Daily Review