Crikey profile in Online Journalism Review


November 14, 2015

This Tim Blair piece appeared in Online Journalism Review back in February 2001.

Where Are Australia's Web Voices?

By Tim Blair, OJR Contributor

Sydney's seamy Kings Cross is known for three things: prostitution, heroin, and Internet cafes. It's such a vice-soaked, reeking dump that the cafes, even though they overflow with hippie backpackers, actually improve the place a little. You know a street has got problems when backpackers drive property values up.

Welcome to the world of Stephen Mayne, Australia's only celebrity Internet journalist. When Melbourne-based Mayne is in Sydney – which he is constantly, usually to cover business stories – he edits his Web site, Crikey, from one of the Cross's cafes. It's a cheap way to run a cheap business; the income from Mayne's site, which has a small subscriber component and recently signed its first advertising deal, so far isn't enough to cover his mortgage payments.

Still, with an average of just 12,000 page impressions per week and about 3,000 unique users, Mayne's one-year-old site – it specializes in media and political gossip, plus business info – has the highest profile of any lone wolf operation in Australia. "We are the best-known independent Web site out there," he says. "There isn't anyone else. We're it."

Mayne isn't bragging. Actually, he's disgusted. "There's a total reluctance by journalists in Australia to get online and run their own show," he says. "Nobody wants to leave the established mainstream press. There's no Drudge here. Even individual industries don't have anti-sites, like Overlawyered.com and PRWatch.com in the States. There's nothing."

[Full disclosure: the author has in the past assisted Mayne in editing his Web site. Painful disclosure: Mayne doesn't pay any contributors, not even his friends.]

A curious fact: Australia has embraced the Internet (most businesses and 28 percent of the nation's households have Internet access), but not what you might call Internet culture. The most popular sites are spinoffs of established media or financial businesses. Part of Mayne's success, he admits, is due to his background in politics and the established media, and his use of radio, television and print contacts to gain publicity for his site.

So why hasn't Webbed-up Australia spawned a whole rash of Web voices? "Australians use the Net to find information and services – not opinions and commentary," says Sydney freelancer Sandra Lee, a former assistant editor with Sydney's Daily Telegraph. "There's a mental block about using new technology as a forum in the contemporary political and cultural debate, and I don't quite understand why that is."

Mayne says it's because journalists are not entrepreneurial. Also, the economics of running a site in a nation of just 18 million don't add up, and investors have been reluctant to fund such ventures. But he is talking about big time, for-profit supersites.

It's possibly more troubling that Australia also lacks smaller, not-for-profit, for-the-love-of-it political and cultural sites.

One of the few is On Line Opinion, assembled over two days each week by Queensland businessman/publisher Graham Young and editor Hugh Brown. "I'd be surprised if we even had 100 hits in our first month," says Young, who set up the site nearly two years ago.

It's grown substantially since then. The site now gets around 19,000 page views per month (an increase of 400 percent in one year) and has run articles by Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, senior Federal Labor politicians and various university figures. Young's thoughtful, dry, bipartisan content attracts high-level readers.

"Every now and then I see a browser on the site with the letters 'dpmc'," he says. "'Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.'"

Young's site is inexpensive to run, and probably at least a little influential. You'd think it would prompt a raft of competitors or imitators. "Australians tend to be very timid when it comes to artistic output," says Young.

As well, he says, Australians have over decades come to be "heavily reliant on state support and overseas publishing houses" for their information. It may be that the freedom of the Web does more to scare away Down Under Web publications than it does to attract them.

Young has cleverly limited his Web site's aims. Independent Web journalists in Australia who've aimed higher – say, to make money – have crashed magnificently.

One of the most recent failures was The Zeitgeist Gazette, run by veteran television producer David Salter and veteran magazine publisher Richard Walsh. To be fair, the fact that the publication was Web-based had little to do with its collapse.The product was so wrong-headed that journalists in Sydney began taking bets on when it would close within days of its debut.

Consider first the terrible name. Then take into account the content: The Zeitgeist Gazette essentially provided a daily summary of the morning's newspapers. This was delivered at, ahem, 3 p.m. each day. You know, just when you really crave a decent summary of something you read maybe seven or eight hours earlier.

Did I mention that the daily service was subscriber-only? And that it cost – brace yourself – Aust$495 [about U.S.$272] per year?

[Full disclosure: the author was once described by Zeitgeist as someone who can "write badly about nothing at all." Additional bonus disclosure: I collected more than Aust $120 (about U.S.$66) in bets when Zeitgeist died about eight months after its launch.]

Another media info site, Media Flash, last year took to openly begging for cash. "I am trying to raise [Aust]$85,000 [U.S.$46,600]– either by repayable loans or gifts – by 5 p.m. this Wednesday," wrote publisher Ash Long in November. "Otherwise I'm being put out of the picture."

Ash's plea – "Will you help me please ... bear in mind that I'm nervously exhausted and that my wife has just had MRI brain scans" – must have worked, because Media Flash is still running.

Meanwhile, says Lee, "There is no buzz about any Internet site in Australia. No one is talking about the must-read Web sites like Jim Romenesko's MediaNews or the Drudge Report. And that's because there isn't one in Australia to create a buzz about."

Mayne is trying, but he's walking a lonely road. The best-known Internet journalist in Australia is routinely rejected when he applies for press credentials to even mundane events. You can reach him by e-mail, or just scope out the Internet cafes in Kings Cross. He's the one without the backpack.

Why hasn't Australia spawned the same amount of independent Web voices as other places? Tell us in the OJR Forums.

* Tim Blair is an Australian freelance writer.