A waltz on the wild side: New Matilda, independent media and the public interest

Flickr/EdinburghCityofPrint

Flickr/EdinburghCityofPrint

When New Matilda shut up shop two years ago, a lot of people thought it spelt the end of a diversified independent media in Australia. It was perilous out there. This town is only big enough for one player – namely, Crikey – its closure seemed to suggest.

Others disagreed.

But no sooner had New Matilda closed down it was back. Thanks to its readers, writers and the passion and tenacity of its editor and publisher, Marni Cordell, the site remains standing to this day and regularly publishes the works Ben Eltham, Ben Pobjie and scores of other independent journalists.

Some have suggested that as the fortunes of some traditional media outlets wane, independent media should step to the fore to ensure the public remains informed and businesses and governments remain accountable.

How feasible a goal is this? I recently caught up with Marni to learn more about New Matilda, and to hear in her own words where the site has been and where it’s heading.

Marni, you’ve worked as a journalist and editor in independent media for – it must be close to 14 years now? You were founding co-editor of Spinach7 Magazine, assistant commissioning editor of The Next Big Thing edition of the Griffith Review and you’ve been a freelancer for more outlets than I could possibly list here. There’s a tendency for many journalists starting out in the game to gravitate towards the relative familiarity and safety of the big media – although some would dispute the job security and safety of such companies these days – but you chose a different path. How did you get started in independent media? And why independent media?

Even before Spinach7 I was actually involved in another little independent publication called The Paper, which was a tabloid format newspaper in Melbourne. I chose independent media because I’ve always been attracted to stories that aren’t being told by the bigger media. That’s the main reason. It’s certainly not about the working conditions because they’re obviously not as good as they are at the bigger outlets! It’s really about the kind of stories that you’re able to tell when you work for a smaller outlet, and when you work for an outlet that is actively interested in going out and finding stories that aren’t being told by other people.

What does it mean, in your view, to be independent? Independent from what and from whom? Prevailing politics? New Matilda has been described as “an avowed journal of the left” and a publication that is “liberal-humanist in its skew“. Firstly, how would you describe it? And secondly, does a tag like that even matter, providing the journalism is fair, factual and honest?

For us it means not being aligned with any political party, lobby group, media organisation or other corporate interest. It always raises a few eyebrows when I say this but I’ve never described New Matilda as left. Our stories might be motivated by social justice – as most investigative journalism is – but they don’t have a political agenda and they don’t consistently come out in support of either the Labor Party, or the Greens, or whoever else. Obviously we do publish stories that people might traditionally associate with the left, but our commitment is to the journalism and the issues first. And yes, for me, good journalism – being accurate and fair, and willing to correct mistakes when they happen – is more important than the politics.

The reason I raise the issue of political positioning is this – there’s a great deal of emphasis placed on New Matilda’s independence. Do you see this independence as a redress of perceived abuses in other areas of the media? Restoring the balance? Or perhaps the notion of balance is the wrong concept to evoke – do you see it as an antidote to “the view from nowhere” – the neither-nor objective position of the “impartial” journalist? A cure for “broderism” – a sense of forced bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship? And in doing so, giving voice to ideas that might otherwise fall by the wayside or get a fair hearing?

That’s a big question, but I definitely seeing it as redressing and restoring a balance in what the other media cover. Obviously, New Matilda can’t cover everything. In some ways, it’s a luxury to be able to say I’m interested in this story, and this story, and I’m not going to give time to the others. At the moment, within our editorial team, we are motivated by what we feel isn’t already getting a fair hearing in other media. If suddenly things were to change and today’s underdog became tomorrow’s dictator; if the way the media were structured and functioned in Australia really changed, would New Matilda change? I’d like to think that it would. We’d go in search of other stories. As it stands, however, there are stories that are neglected by the bigger media merely because of the relentlessness of the daily news cycle. With the 24-hour news cycle that problem has become even worse. Those journalists who bring you daily news about politics in particular are busier than ever – attending press conferences and “chasing ambulances” – and because of that I feel that really significant stories are going untold. In some ways that’s the best part of being independent. You don’t have to do that. You have some control over your news agenda.

I’m interested in unpacking some of the concepts you mentioned there. You describe New Matilda as having “worked hard to fill the gaps left by other media”. I’m wondering – can you tell me more about what does this gap look like? Lachlan Harris argues that in Australia in the last five years, news has been eclipsed by opinion. That was in 2011. He’s suggested that every year the number of journalists goes down and the number of commentators goes up – an observation perhaps all the more salient given that some newsrooms are restructuring and shedding staff. So is there a “news gap”? So does this gap need to be filled with more journalists, perhaps of the independent variety? And what sort of journalism should they be practicing? Long-form journalism? Investigative journalism? More considered opinion and analysis of a dissenting point of view? Can you provide a few examples of how New Matilda has addressed this?

Marni Cordell

Marni Cordell is the editor of New Matilda, and has worked as a journalist and editor in independent media for the past 14 years.

To begin with, I think a distinction needs to be made between opinion and analysis. I don’t think they’re the same thing. There’s a lot of cheap opinion out there, especially online. Editors have realised that they get cheap and easy hits from op-eds. If you say something controversial, even if it’s not very well thought out, people will click on it, comment on it, share it because they’re outraged by it, but none of us are any richer for it. The debate hasn’t advanced. But analysis? Good analysis can really open up people’s understanding of an issue. I think there’s not enough good analysis around. That’s what New Matilda tries to do: fill that gap. We try to bring new information and historical context to remind people of the big picture. I think quality analysis is an extremely valuable form of journalism. On the other hand, investigative journalism is the thing that I’m really passionate about, and I wish we could do more. We strive to do it, and when we do, it’s good. We put out a story about Australia’s funding of Indonesia’s controversial counter-terror unit earlier this year, a story that recently has been picked up by the ABC. When New Matilda does stories like that, it influences the news agenda of the bigger outlets as well. Investigative journalism is important, and I think as many resources as possible should be put into it, but I also think it doesn’t have to be as expensive as people seem to think it is. There’s this idea that it takes half a year and tens of thousands of dollars to break a story, but it really doesn’t have to. Especially because there are so many young journalists out there wanting to work on those kind of stories. The ideals behind investigative journalism – holding powerful institutions to account, giving voice to the voiceless – are what motivate so many people to get into journalism in the first place. You can find people to work on those kinds of stories. You just need to provide them with the outlet.

Back in 2010 you announced that New Matilda would shut down due to lack of financial support. A few people said I told you so – they seemed to suggest that there was no room in the Australian media landscape for an independent commercial operation the likes of New Matilda. But the same year the site returned to publishing under a reader-supported model. You’re still standing. Can you take us through this time and can I ask you – without givin g away anything that might be commercial in confidence – how you think the reader-supported model is faring today? Is it a viable and sustainable practice for independent media outlets?

When we closed in 2010, a lot of people did say we knew you wouldn’t make it but we also had hundreds of people contacting us saying please don’t fold, we’re willing to pay for this. New Matilda was completely free at that stage. It was an advertising-based model. We had so many people contacting us that really the main motivation for trying it was the fact that I was overwhelmed with the show of support. I didn’t know that support was there until we were folding. It made me realise there’s a real desire in Australia for strong independent outlets. Since then, New Matilda has been though several periods of financial difficulty, and our readers know that. They’ve helped along the way. We’ve managed to hold on. I won’t lie and say it hasn’t been a struggle – it has – but I wouldn’t be doing this job if I didn’t really care about it. We’re in a very good position at the moment. We’ve halfway through a funding drive, it’s been going very well, and we’re in the strongest position we’ve been in for quite a while. New Matilda is in a unique position because although we have subscribers, we don’t have a paywall. There’s no other outlet in Australia that’s in that situation. The closest comparison would probably be a public radio model, where people pay to join the station because they support it, and get benefits from it, but it broadcasts to all. We do offer giveaways and other incentives for people to pay, but anybody can still read the website. That model works for us, but I can’t imagine working for many other outlets. Obviously, it wouldn’t work for a big commercial operation. In some ways the fact that we’ve been close to the bone has worked in our favour. I think New Matilda is a really good example of the way in which people’s attitude to paying for news has changed. The public sentiment is shifting, and we’ve ridden that wave. Five years ago, people were outraged at the idea of having to pay for online content. Now, I think people are really coming around to the idea that, well, hang on a minute, this is a quality product that I want, so why shouldn’t I pay for it? More people are realising that they should pay and that they need to pay. I think with all the recent trouble with Fairfax, that realisation has really been brought home.

Earlier this year, the Public Interest Journalism Foundation wrote to Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, asking the government to consider making donations to non-profit media organisations tax deductible. The hope, as I understand it, is that it would provider smaller investors and corporate donors with an incentive to support non-profits that produce quality journalism in the public interest. What’s your view on this?

I think it would change the shape of Australian media. I totally agree with it. It’s extremely hard to get charity status in Australia, especially if you’re doing something that’s traditionally not considered to be charity work. And without being able to offer tax deductibility it can hard to get people to donate. The big killer for us is actually GST. We’re paying a huge amount of GST, even though we’re not making any money. So, if I were to campaign for anything, I’d campaign for a GST exemption – but that’s not likely to happen! The next best thing is definitely tax deductibility for donors. It’s what allowed the independent media sector to flourish in the United States.

You’ve preempted something I was just about to bring up. When I’ve discussed donation models from reader-supported models upwards, some people in the industry shake their head or are nonplussed. Some say journalism isn’t a charitable undertaking. Some joke that the mechanism itself is lifted directly out of the past, operating in much the same way as a patron of the arts would. Of course, I would argue that if the arts in mediaeval and Renaissance Europe contributed to society, knowledge and culture then, so can donor-funded public interest journalism contribute to society, knowledge and culture now. There’s an industry, culture and tradition of that kind of journalism in other markets, especially in the United States with the likes of ProPublica. Not so much in Australia, though. Why do you suppose that is? Is there a different culture in newsrooms in Australia? A different culture in the industry? Is there a different culture when it comes to the Australian audience, perhaps? And can any of that be changed?

A lot of the bigger independent operations in the United States are the beneficiaries of big philanthropy. Obviously, in America, there’s a very different attitude to philanthropy then there is in Australia. That’s a big issue. Also, it’s worth pointing out that a reader-supported model isn’t the same as patrons at all. We’re talking about people willing to pay 80 or 100 dollars. The growth of crowd-funding has really changed the way people feel about the media and the way they can contribute to what’s out there. I think that’s why New Matilda has been able to raise so much money from individuals, and it’s really small amounts from some individuals – it’s not a huge amount from any one person. People feel that if I can give this money, I can contribute to and change what the media in Australia is doing. That’s really empowering. I think it makes people realise it’s not completely out of their control. A lot of people yell at the television. Ten years ago they felt that was their only option. Now, people feel they can change how and what issues are reported, and the crowd-funded or reader-supported model is one great way to do it.

Journalist and activist Wendy Bacon has joined the New Matilda team as contributing editor. She brings with her a wealth of experience – she’s worked for the Nine Network, Fairfax, Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at UTS. How do you see New Matilda’s independence being enlarged and enhanced by Wendy’s addition to the team? Obviously, I don’t expect you to speak on her behalf – in fact, I hope to speak to her directly one day – but can you tell us what kind of stories will she be working on?

I don’t want to speak for her but I can certainly talk about why we’re excited to have her on board. Wendy has a very strong commitment to investigative journalism, and a very strong commitment to independent media. Those two things together make her a perfect fit for New Matilda. She has a long history of being involved in and supporting independent media in Australia, and she’s a very experienced investigative journalist. Wendy is going to be working with both the editorial team and some young journalists and student journalists on particular investigative projects. She’ll be advising us, as well as doing her own journalism.

Last question. What advice would you give to any emerging journalists – or perhaps deft old hands – wanting to embrace independent journalism, and the entrepreneurial risks therein, as both a journalist and a publisher? What does it take to make it?

I think the best advice for younger journalists is to swim against the tide. Whatever your peers are doing, do the opposite. New Matilda is always willing to work with younger journalists. Look at the stories that no-one is looking at. Be prepared to take a trip to where the news is breaking. Pay the airfare. If your story is good you’ll probably make it back by selling the story to one or two of the independent outlets in Australia. Talk to editors before you do so, of course, and make sure the demand for the story is there. I think the main thing is taking risks and not following the pack.

Marni, we could talk about this all day but we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for your time.

No worries.

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