Crikey's cavalier ways pay off

Mark Day

April 27, 2010

As appeared in The Australian on August 7, 2003.

WHEN an email plopped into my inbox with a note saying, ``Hey, take a look at this,'' I read what purported to be chapter and verse of the inner workings, financial details and legal travails of the gadfly Internet site, Crikey, complete with the warning line, ``Off the record and not for onpass or publication''. Of course, there was an immediate temptation to publish it all – to get one back for all the grief Crikey has given most media players over the past three years.

But could I be sure of its accuracy? Might this be a clever way to disseminate disinformation? Might it be that one of Stephen Mayne's many critics was serving up revenge, best taken cold?

Unlike Mayne, who makes a habit of publishing without checks confidential information that falls off the back of an electronic truck, whispers from the rumour mill and untested scuttlebutt, I figured I should check its veracity. I phoned Mayne and outlined what was in my possession. Was it his work? ``Yes,'' he said, he did circulate an update on the Crikey business to his top-shelf clients – 198 life, gold and honorary members – adding that it was ``disappointing'' that his private email had been leaked.

Well, yes, Stephen, it is disappointing when people don't play by the rules, give you a poke in the eye in return for past favours, or dump on you from a great height. But that's what he does. That's grist for the Crikey mill.

And it is clearly working for him.

Crikey has been one of the most interesting publishing experiments of the new millennium. In 2000, when heavyweight publishers around the world were trying to work out ways to make the net pay, Mayne launched his site, featuring a mix of political news and comment, and as a soapbox from which he would campaign for greater corporate disclosure and an end to big-end-of-town rorting.

The Crikey site was free, and still is. But it now is of secondary importance, and often runs days behind Mayne's main focus – his daily email to subscribers, where he mixes gossip and comment with the odd bit of news. For this he charges $77 a year, and has 5000 subscribers. He grumbles that a further 7000 people get it passed on for free. So far he hasn't been able to stop that leakage which, if fully paid, would have him in a nice profit zone.

Mayne's prolific outpouring, often 5000 words a day, sometimes breaks stories – Meg Lees's defection from the Democrats was a legitimate scoop – and it always carries Mayne's spin on the latest corporate or political dealings with a particular emphasis on the media.

But Mayne's emails are also frequently wrong and often unfair. They have attracted several legal actions with costly outcomes, including matters against radio jock Steve Price and the South Australian senator Nick Bolkus, which were settled for many tens of thousands of dollars.

Mayne has argued that he sometimes gets things wrong simply because he doesn't have time to check. His response is to issue immediate denials if challenged, figuring that the denials are often more interesting or telling than the original accusation.

Mayne has been clever. He's taken to himself the role of pricking pomposity and blowing the whistle on excessive spin while refusing to play by the rules of the mainstream media. He's a rebel, and goodness knows how many friends he has lost.

But he's building a business. In his email to what he calls the inner sanctum of Crikey, he reports that in his first month of operations, July 2000, he took in $3030 revenue, and totalled $46,000 in his first year. In the second year he hit revenue of $187,000 and in 2002-03 took in $382,000 – more than eight times his first year – with a peak of $53,000 last October. Mayne says his debt level has fallen from about $100,000 in May to $40,000 now. ``The aim is to be debt-free by Christmas,'' he writes, ``and we've then got the small matter of recovering the $200,000 that we were worth when we began this exercise and having something to show for the past 3 1/2 years.'' He adds: ``Then again, this assumes that Crikey is worth nothing.''

That is an interesting assumption. With more than 100,000 page views a week, Mayne clearly owns an asset, and has engaged an advertising agency to sell ads into his emails and on the website. If he could attract a regular revenue stream from ads – a task that may be difficult given his propensity to slag off the hands that feed him – he could quickly move to annual revenues of $500,000 or more, and book a profit that would make his site attractive. At three times annual revenue, he could be looking for $1.5 million.

But who would buy it? Crikey exists only because of Mayne's quirky input and effort. Without him, it would wither away; yet no sane investor could buy out Mayne and allow him to continue his cavalier approach to accuracy and defamation, which could eat up a year's revenue – and then some – at any moment.

Best that it stays the way it is: annoying, quixotic, irresponsible – and readable.

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