After three and a half years and 13 issues, trailblazing Australian feminist and editor Anne Summers has announced she will no longer publish her experiment in magazine-style digital journalism, Anne Summers Reports.
ASR, whose first issue launched in November 2012, was intended to be “sane, factual and relevant” (a mission statement she says she came up with after reading The Australian one day). But no new issues have been published since August 2015, with Summers telling those on the mailing list in February that she was looking for business partners to provide “the kind of investment that will allow us to resume regular publishing”.
This search has not been successful. “Regrettably, my search for a partner has not been successful and we do not have the funds to be able to continue,” Summers told readers on Tuesday afternoon. “In fact, we are in debt,” she added — $180,000 worth of it (the magazine is still taking donations to meet this figure).
“I am sad but my overwhelming feeling is one of pride at what we managed to achieve over the past three and half years: thirteen issues of ASR, four Digests, eight Conversation events and one Masterclass. That is a lot, especially considering the size of our team and how little money we had. I want us to be judged not by how long we lasted but by how good we were.”
Summers is the author of Australian feminist classic Damned Whores and God’s Police, as well as a Walkley award-winning journalist who mostly worked with Fairfax. She is currently writing an autobiography which will be released by Allen and Unwin next year.
Speaking to Crikey this morning, that she had had a potential partner and investor for ASR in mind. “I thought it was going to come to fruition, and in the end, it didn’t.”
Summers has always described ASR as a magazine rather than a digital publication. It published its issues in PDF form, which “allowed each page to be designed”.
“It recreated the experience of reading some of the best American magazines … with a focus on very long pieces about interesting subjects … It’s very difficult to produce long stories online and have them look good.”
Summers says some readers loved the PDF format, which they could put on tablets and eReaders and read like a magazine. But it wasn’t suited to mobiles, and gave poor analytics on what people were reading, which is necessary to attract advertisers.
“I did what I could, and I’m very happy with what I did,” she said when asked if the PDF format was a mistake. “We were in the process of developing a new platform with Issimo in Melbourne [a digital magazine which licenses out its custom content management system]. That would have been a very different experience. They had come up with a design which was attempting to achieve the two objectives — the flexibility of a website with the design capabilities of the PDF. And we were pretty close to achieving that.”
“Obviously digital publishing is continuing to evolve. Everyone talks about paying for it, but I’m interested in the content. And I’m someone who believes very strongly the images are as important as the words.”
ASR’s focus on photography and design as well as long-form writing made it relatively expensive to produce. It took about $20,000 to pay for an issue of the magazine. Writers and a managing editor were paid modest salaries.
The magazine had sponsors but carried little advertising and was freely available. It had 16,500 subscribed to a mailing list. The magazine took donations — around 600 people made a mix of one-off and recurring donations totalling close to $100,000. “I was just very very heartened by the fact we had so many donations,” Summers said. “It wasn’t enough to keep going forever, but it was enough to keep going for a while.”
Before searching for a partner, Summers had been hoping to fund the magazine through events.
Most issues led with an in-depth interview with a high-profile person. These interviewees would then donate their time at a public event, to which ASR sold tickets. The most famous was with Julia Gillard, who posed for and spoke to ASR immediately before Kevin Rudd’s successful challenge for the prime ministership. It was the last print interview she gave as PM (the front-page portrait of her taken by photographer Peter Brew-Bevans has been acquired by the National Portrait Gallery).
Summers told Crikey all but one of ASR‘s events covered their costs. But most didn’t make enough of a surplus to fund the magazine. “They are very expensive to produce. There’s a minimum cost.”
“Writers deserve to be paid, as do artists and photographers. I do not believe in the digital publishing ‘business model’ that makes no provision for payment to those whose work creates the content. If we could not afford to pay for these, we could not afford to publish. We had hoped the events might subsidise the magazine, but that turned out to be unrealistic.
“Over our three and half years, we attracted 16,500 subscribers and, I am touched to report, new people are signing up even as I write this … It is clear that many people crave the sane, factual, relevant magazine we were proud to produce.”
The magazine’s archives will stay up.
ASR is only the latest independent digital title focused on features and analysis to shut down in recent months.
The Hoopla, started by Wendy Harmer, shut down in March last year. CEO Jane Waterhouse told Crikey at the time the publication hadn’t survived putting up a paywall, which it felt it needed to do at the time to continue to pay its writers. “The trajectory is positive, but it’s too little too late,” she said. “It’s not enough to survive on subscriptions — you need affiliate income and advertising income, too … Putting that hard paywall up was our biggest mistake.”
And in 2014, the Melbourne-based Kings Tribune, started by Jane Gilmore and Justin Shaw, also shut down after seven years. Gilmore told Crikey then that it again came down to money. “It was something I always enjoyed doing and I would have kept going with it. The Tribune was never enough in itself to pay its writers and to pay for my life, so I did other work to keep going. But my income from that other work changed recently and there wasn’t enough money left over.”
Also in 2014, New Matilda almost shut down with then-editor and owner Marni Cordell saying she “couldn’t afford another year”. But it was saved and remains in publication under new ownership. It currently relies on voluntary subscription revenues, crowd-funding and donated labour to stay afloat.