A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Not quite the mainstream, but politi-bloggers looking to make a splash in an election year

For many it remains an expensive hobby, but the voices among a new class of political pundits are growing louder and more influential. But in the white noise of online media, can their endeavour ever pay dividends? Gay Alcorn reports.

 
PAULA MATTHEWSON, of AusVotes2013, whose golden rule is “no rants”. PIC: Tamalii Laloulu

PAULA MATTHEWSON, of AusVotes2013, whose golden rule is “no rants”. PIC: Tamalii Laloulu

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OVER Christmas, Paula Matthewson had an idea. Perhaps she could convince a bunch of good political writers to join forces, set up a new site for the federal election, publish the sort of things people can’t read regularly in the established media. Neither right wing, nor left wing. A site with one firm rule: no rants.

And so she did. Canberra-based Matthewson, 49, launched AusVotes2013 in February (motto: Election Policy Wonkage and Much More), and now has 25 people posting on everything from life in Western Sydney to twitter trolls who attack ABC presenter Leigh Sales.

The site is doing well: the quality is high, with lots of sharing around social media and plenty of discussion. More than 10,000 people come to AusVotes2013 each month, on average clicking on two articles each time.

Matthewson, a media adviser to John Howard and Liberal Senator Richard Alston in the early 1990s and now a corporate communications consultant, blogger and prodigious tweeter (“I live my life online”), had found her audience.

Last month, the site won a gong for commentary in the Best Australian Blog competition.

“The gap I identified was that there was no site that you could go to that wasn’t an extreme one way or another, that wasn’t partisan,” says Matthewson. “I was hoping to be able to achieve that, and it’s been achieved more than I had anticipated.”

It is so easy to set up a political website in Australia. It costs little but time, with Twitter and Facebook managing the marketing for you. AusVotes2013 is one of the newest, but there are dozens of others, and hundreds of individual bloggers publishing opinion, analysis, news and investigations, and posting transcripts and videos.

Few Australians would be aware of it, but late into the night, if you want, you can argue about the minutiae of politics and policy with strangers. For those who love politics, it’s the most fun you can have in pajamas.

The newsrooms of the traditional media, apart from the publicly-funded ABC, are still shrinking as print advertising continues its downward spiral. There is some schadenfreude about this among online critics, but also a fear that the “public good” role of journalism, once affordable for the big newspapers – deep political and policy coverage, and dedicated reporters for everything from city councils to courts to education – is also under threat as newspapers reinvent themselves as lean online operations.

The pace of change is giddying – and exciting – and the optimists don’t see what the fuss is about. The government’s ill-fated media reform proposals, in part, were designed to put a break on further concentration of media in Australia – between them, News Ltd and Fairfax control 86 per cent of metro and national newspaper circulation.

The big publishers and the Opposition scoffed at the hand wringing. “We’ve never had such a diversity of voices as we’ve had today in the news media,’’ said Opposition Communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull in March.

“The Internet as the super-platform . . . has allowed Australians to have access to more sources of news, opinion (and) fantasy sometimes masquerading as news and opinion. But all of that material is now available online in a way it never was before.” 

Yes, but dig deeper. How is it going really, particularly for those independent start-ups that are not backed by public funding in some way? 

The Finkelstein media inquiry concluded that only one “significant homegrown Internet news service” – Crikey – had been established so far in Australia, although it noted the emergence of The Global Mail, backed by philanthropy.

Crikey says it has 16,000 paid subscribers, respectable enough – and enough to be profitable – but still tiny. If you click outside the established media websites this election year, most sites you’ll find will be someone’s hobby or full-time passion that loses money or barely breaks even. The other thing you will notice is that opinion is easier to generate than news.

And yet, there is so much energy and experimentation going on, who can predict what will happen in five years? Which sites will disappear, and which will flourish? Will the big players dominate in the same way as they have in print, or will independent sites find a sustainable and substantial niche?

Australian Press Council chairman Julian Disney is dismissive of the “don’t worry, diversity is here” argument. He sees the lack of diversity as “our biggest problem in many ways”.

“It’s terribly important to encourage the emergence of what I’ll very loosely call quality online news and comment outlets [that] reach a sufficiently critical mass to have an impact on mainstream Australia,” Disney told a recent Centre For Advancing Journalism forum. 

“It’s false to argue that just because there’s a whole stack of bloggers and other people contributing to this that [that] addresses the diversity issue. It doesn’t if there aren’t many different sources of opinion that are getting into the mainstream . . . Our only hope there is online [and] we’ve really got to try and encourage the online area to try and reach that critical mass.”

Different strokes: a snapshot  

1.AusVotes2013

What’s the shtick? Non-partisan group blog launched in February by communications specialist and former Liberal staffer Paula Matthewson. Twenty-five contributors with a key rule: “No rants”.

How’s it funded? It’s not.

How’s it doing? Around 10,500 unique visitors a month.* (WordPress figures)

Does it pay contributors? “It’s completely voluntary”.

Editor’s pick: Five-part series What is Western Sydney? by teacher and local resident Preston Towers (a pseudonym). Read the first installment here.  

5-year plan? Site will fold after the September 14 election, although Matthewson hopes to make the idea permanent.

Quote: “The gap that I identified was that there was no site that you could go to that wasn’t an extreme . . . that wasn’t partisan.”

2. Independent Australia

What’s the shtick? “Finally, news has a conscience.” Left-wing site notable for aggressive reports and investigations into political and environmental issues.

How’s it funded? Founder David Donovan has spent $60,000 of his own money, and much more of his time. Has small advertisers, and is experimenting with crowd-funding.

How’s it doing? In April, had more than 270,000 unique visits. *

Does it pay contributors? Yes, $50 for every 2500 ‘clicks’ a story receives.

Editor’s pick:  Environment editor Sandi Keane’s 2011 investigation into the anti-wind farm lobby and its links. Read it here.

5-year plan? Donovan says it needs to be sustainable and if it’s not by 2015, he will consider its future.

Quote:  “Rather than looking at things through a false balance, we quite often take a view of what is the right and the just avenue to take and we try to go down that path.”

3. Catallaxy Files

What’s the shtick? “Australia’s leading libertarian and centre-right group blog” has been around one way or another since the early 2000s. Now edited by RMIT academic Sinclair Davidson.

How’s it funded? It isn’t.

How’s it doing? Almost 100,000 unique visitors a month.  (CloudFlare figures for month to April 20).

Does it pay contributors? No. Regular contributors have other jobs and post when they are able.

Editor’s pick: During the 2010 mining tax debate, the site challenged the Government’s claims that international mining companies paid an effective tax rate of 13 per cent. The mainstream media picked up the analysis. Read the post here

5-year plan? No plans for expansion. To keep going  “because it’s fun”.

Quote: “We’re not setting out to change the world, we are setting out to chat to like-minded people, have a good time. It’s a hobby for us.’

4. The King’s Tribune

What’s the shtick? Melbourne-based website started in 2007 as a double-sided A4 newsletter. Politics, media, culture. Leans left, but eclectic. Editor Jane Gilmore describes it as “what would happen if The Onion and The Monthly got together.”

How’s it funded? Barely. Just under 1000 subscribers pay $5 a month.

How’s it doing? About 20,000 unique visitors a month.*

Does it pay contributors? Yes, between $50 and $250 an article.

Editor’s pick: Not political, but Gilmore nominates an August 2012 story about prostitution in Melbourne. “It changed the way I saw the world.” Read it here.

5-year plan? To make enough money for Gilmore to give up  her job as an electricity consultant.

Quote: “I’ve funded most of it myself. I shudder to think sometimes how much money I’ve put into it.”

5. Larvatus Prodeo

What’s the shtick? “Life, culture and politics from BrisVegas.” Left-of-centre group blog founded in 2005 by Queensland sociologist Dr Mark Bahnisch. Disbanded in April 2012, resurrected in March for the election.

How’s it funded? It’s not.

How’s it doing? Only recently relaunched, but figures for the month to April 20 saw just over 48,000 unique browsers. (CloudFlare figures) *

Does it pay contributors? No, small group post when they like.

Editor’s pick: An ambitious collaboration with Crikey, Behind the Seams, which used experts, reporting and social media to explore the facts and politics of coal seam gas.  Read it here:  

5-year plan? Up in the air. Bahnisch is considering moving overseas to work as an academic after the election.

Quote: “Most of the twitter stream is really highly predictable and news cycle driven. I tend to think it’s a waste of time.”

*Figures should be read with caution. Different organisations – WordPress, Google Analytics etc – measure traffic to websites in different ways. Their statistics can vary.

They are not there yet, but the “stack of bloggers” is ambitious. They are people like Matthewson, who hopes AusVotes2013 will be permanent in some form after the election. And Jane Gilmore, who set up The King’s Tribune way back in 2007 as a double-sided A4 sheet from a bar in the Melbourne suburb of Elwood. Now, it’s a well-regarded website of politics and culture, with close to 1000 paying subscribers.

And David Donovan, the former media director of the Australian Republican Movement, who founded the feisty leftist investigative websiteIndependent Australia from the Gold Coast.

Wendy Harmer’sThe Hoopla hired Gabrielle Chan last year, the first member of the parliamentary press gallery employed by a women’s website. Mia Freedman’s women’s website, Mamamia, has its own take on federal politics, as do many others that have broader interests than Canberra.

New Matilda reinvented itself as a website after a fund-raising survival effort in 2010 and concentrates on federal politics.

The Global Mail, funded by a $15 million, five-year donation from philanthropist Graeme Wood, tackles in-depth political and social issues and employs press gallery veteran Mike Seccombe. There are new players likePolitifact Australia where paid journalists fact-check political claims and rate them as true or false.

Then there are respected individuals bloggers who flourish at election time. William Bowe’s The Poll Bludger publishes excellent seat profiles and more and Scott Steel’sPollytics has set new standards for poll analysis. Both are published by Crikey.

There are non-profit group blogs galore, including the progressive Larvatus Prodeo and the self-proclaimed “leading libertarian and centre-right blog”, Catallaxy Files, both reporting a significant number of readers.

There are dozens more — highbrow, lowbrow, polemical and eye-glazing. Few, as Disney points out, force themselves into mainstream political debate, but that doesn’t mean they lack niche influence or contribute ideas ignored in traditional media. 

Greg Jericho is a blogger who was recently hired by the Guardianin Australia, which has also picked up Matthewson’s AusVotes2013 as a partner. Jericho estimated in his 2012 book, The Rise of the Fifth Estate, that there were 324 broadly-defined political blogs publishing here. Some were group sites, many were run by individuals in their own time, and some were published by established media groups.

On social media, there’s a sense of camaraderie about these trailblazers, the newcomers and the old hands alike. There’s a sense, too, that the pace of the media revolution is accelerating, and that now might be their moment. They watch each other, support each other, and bitch about each other occasionally.

Many work themselves to exhaustion, and all love what they’re doing. Donovan says he gave up salaries of $200,000-a-year as an accountant working in investment banks to devote himself to Independent Australia. He’s never regretted it. “Doing what I’m doing, it doesn’t seem like work.”

Jane Gilmore, 42, works as an electricity consultant to support The King’s Tribune, a politics and culture site that’s now breaking even. It’s a chance to get published herself, to publish others and to have some influence over public discussion. And to “call out bullshit”.

“The way a lot of the mainstream media reports politics has genuine effects, when they misrepresent the facts, particularly the tabloid press . . .  I believe the role of independent media is to point out, ‘Well now, hang on, you got this wrong and you got that wrong’. It was something that [blogger] Matt Cowgill said — there’s this whole blog genre of ‘Hey you nongs, here’s some ABS [Australian Bureau of Statistics] stats, what are you even talking about?’ ”

The subscriptions are just enough to pay modest fees to her writers, including Tim Dunlop and Ben Pobjie, something Gilmore feels strongly about. She pays herself almost nothing. “I shudder to think sometimes how much money I’ve put into it. I would prefer not to know. My accountant knows and he doesn’t tell me and I think that’s best for all of us.”

Independent Australia is unusual because it routinely publishes reported stories and investigations alongside opinion articles from columnists such as Bob Ellis. Figures provided by Donovan indicate that its direction is paying off – unique visitors to the site are up from almost 37,000 in April last year to more than 270,000 last month, according to web traffic analytic firm, StatCounter.

Donovan credits the rise in hits to the site digging into the scandal surrounding Federal MP Craig Thomson and the Health Services Union last year – so far, the site has published 51 stories on the issue. The style of investigations is opinionated, often highly charged and contemptuous of much of the established media. 

Walkley award-winning Sydney Morning Herald investigative journalist Kate McClymont is accused of being “out to get Thomson”, who is facing more than 150 criminal charges relating to the alleged misuse of the union’s funds. He denies the charges.

The site has taken an aggressive stance, too, on “Ashbygate”, excoriating the established media’s lack of digging into James Ashby’s discredited sexual harassment allegations against the former speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Slipper. 

Donovan, 42, disputes the suggestion that the site risks preaching to the choir, limiting its influence to those who share its views.

“I’ve heard that before [and] there’s certainly some validity in saying that. We’re a progressive outfit. We’re not going to appeal to people who like reading The Australian, for example .

“Rather than looking at things through a false balance, we quite often take a view of what is the right and the just avenue to take, and we go down that path. In terms of the environment, we’re anti-nuclear. If we aren’t sure we’ll try to present very equally both sides of the story, but our motto is ‘Not Left or Right, but Right and Wrong’.”

In the on-going debate over payments to contributors – some sites cannot afford it and few can pay what are considered market rates – Donovan has come up with a unique solution. For every 2500 hits a story receives, the writer gets $50. Still, some of his more prolific writers such as investigative reporter Vince O’Grady “refuse to be paid” and his team of editors “believe in what we are doing” and are essentially volunteers.

“At the moment, we’re trying to build up our influence and our readership and we think if we do that then, in time, it will be a viable thing. But you know, these [things] can’t last forever: we started in 2010 and if it’s not viable in 2015, I’ve told myself, that’s when we’ll end it.”

There are flourishing political sites that don’t aim to be commercially viable, or have tried and given up. Brisbane sociologist and sessional lecturer Dr Mark Bahnisch launched Lavartus Prodeo in 2005. It’s a prickly progressive group blog, strong on evidence and often critical of government policies such as reducing funding to universities to part-pay for the Gonski education reforms. Its reports on climate change are detailed and persistent.

Bahnisch closed the site in April last year, positing that there was “no longer the same need for a hub for political discussion, as lively debate has migrated to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter”.

But in March, the site was back. “I think I changed my mind,” Bahnisch says, his faith in social media misplaced. “I’m not a huge fan of Twitter . . .  Most of the stream is really highly predictable and news-cycle driven. I tend to think it’s a waste of time — it’s a very narrow sub-set of people.”

Lavartus was part of an advertising experiment in the late 2000s, in which several sites got together and sold ads as a network. At one point, the site was earning between $2000 and $4000 a month, but for various reasons it dried up.

“After that, we thought it was too much hassle. If you’re not going to make enough money to realistically allocate anyone’s time to it, then it’s a question of whether you want money for beer or pizza or something, and if there’s an enormous amount of work involved it’s not worth it, basically.”

Catallaxy Files, a libertarian-conservative group blog with a streak of climate change scepticism and a spirited wonkish flavor, is edited by Sinclair Davidson, a professor in the school of economics, finance and marketing at RMIT University and a senior fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs. Davidson says the site receives no IPA funding, but it does publish employees such as Julie Novak, as well as The Australian’s economics columnist Judith Sloan.

Some regular bloggers can publish whenever they like, and guest bloggers go through an approval process. The site takes an hour or two of Davidson’s time each day. Nobody gets paid.

“It’s to have fun, to get ideas out, to speak to like-minded people, to push sound policies. I don’t think we have an overtly political agenda. We’re not setting out to change the world. It’s a hobby for us; we’ve all got real jobs.”

He is sceptical that a site like Catallaxy Files could be financially viable in Australia: nor does it worry him. “I’d be very surprised. The market for libertarianism in Australia is actually very, very small. Most of the people who comment [on the site] are not libertarians [but conservatives]. You say something like ‘We should have open borders’.  They say ‘We love you dearly but you’re wrong on that point’.”

Those who are doing it as more than a hobby would like to at least make enough money to support themselves and to pay contributors. It’s a struggle, but there are signs that crowd funding – where small amounts of money are sought from the public – has potential.

Independent Australia recently raised more than $53,000 from 400 individual donations to fund an investigation into the unanswered questions surrounding the Ashby-Slipper case, a remarkable sum that suggests that if enough people are passionate about an issue, they will pay for the journalism.

The King’s Tribune, too, was struggling last year and Jane Gilmore sent out a call to readers. “Somebody suggested we take it back to the readers and say, ‘if you think it’s worth funding, then fund it, and if you don’t, we know [The Tribune] is better off stopping’,” she says. The drive raised about $14,000, enough to pay some debts and keep going.

The websites lucky enough not to scramble for every dollar either have a philanthropic backer, like The Global Mail, or public funding in some form.

The Conversation, launched in 2011, is an innovative and so-far successful experiment. The idea is for professional journalists to work with academics to write articles accessible to the public. Twenty four of Australia’s 39 universities have tipped in money, as do some corporations, as well as the federal government, which provided $500,000 in start-up funds and pledged another $2 million over four years in this month’s Budget. The site now gets $4 million a year. (Disclosure: the author has accepted a short-term position with The Conversation).

The independent sites aren’t asking for handouts, but they are pushing for tax deductibility for donors (the government has granted The Conversation such status). “That would certainly open up a lot more donations to us, a big stream of revenue,” says Independent Australia’s Donovan.

No major party has committed to that, but one criterion if it were to happen might be proof of professional standards. The journalists’ union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, supports tax deductibility for non-profit media starts ups, and is also inviting sites it says are committed to ethics and paying contributors where possible to sign up to its code of ethics, reported previously by The Citizen

The union sees online journalism of all kinds as the future. Even now, they may be small and fighting to stay afloat but, in their way, independent sites and bloggers have changed political coverage in Australia. They needle the mainstream media in a way that is sometimes churlish, but sometimes spot on. The most detailed coverage of the government’s proposed media reforms, for instance, was not published in the newspapers – which were so self-interested they lacked any pretence of balance – but by independent websites and bloggers.

Some bloggers with expertise cover policy issues with superb depth and authority. Press Gallery veteran Laurie Oakes in a speech last year agreed with blogger Greg Jericho’s assessment that “the combination of online political bloggers and the mainstream have created a better coverage for those who seek it”.

“And bloggers and tweeters provide a red-hot fact-checking service,” said Oakes. “If you get something wrong as a journalist you find out about it very quickly these days.”

Gabrielle Chan has been a member of the parliamentary press gallery on and off since 1995. She is steeped in the established media’s way of political reporting, but after her contract to write parliamentary sketches for The Australian expired last year, she made the digital leap. She is now political reporter for The Hoopla, working mostly from her farm in NSW.

“Financially it’s very different because [online media sites] haven’t got as much to pay. What balances that is that you get a whole lot of freedom. Working as a journalist is quite constrained in traditional media: the beauty of online is that you’re able to push the boundaries, try out different things.

“If I’m trying to do anything it’s to use the distance and this new medium to just provide something a bit different, a bit fresh compared with the flog of daily press gallery journalism.” And the instant and passionate feedback from her readers “blew me away”.

Chan defends gallery journalists because they are under extreme daily pressures – “I wouldn’t criticise anyone in the gallery” – but she has noticed that few of them yet take online political reporting seriously.

Politicians, though, are changing. “This week I had a briefing from Julia Gillard, Peter Garrett and Jacinta Collins on a phone hook-up for the education reforms. In the past, they haven’t done that so much [but] certainly since I started at The Hoopla, they have been very aware of including me.

“I don’t think the Coalition has so much because they haven’t got the resources yet. It will be interesting to see if they get into government, as I’m sure they will in September . . . whether they will take as much effort with digital journalists as Labor has.”

Chan is a member of the Canberra Press Gallery, a privileged position that gives her access to parliament and press conferences, for instance.

Others in the new media world aren’t so favoured. Last month, Independent Australia revealed that its application for membership had been rejected. The press gallery committee’s president, Sky TV’S David Speers, explained that preference was given to “established journalists” and that Independent Australia was predominately “opinion-based” rather than a news site.

The decision caused a flurry of indignation on social media. Were online players being locked out by the old guard protecting the way things had always been? What were the criteria for the gallery committee to bestow its privileges? The issue isn’t resolved. The truth is, it’s all in flux, shifting beneath our feet at a frantic pace. What will wash out in the end is anyone’s guess.

Gay Alcorn is a columnist with The Age and a freelance journalist. Twitter: @gay_alcorn.

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