Net gains in this brave new world

Mark Day
April 27, 2010

As appeared in The Australian on January 20, 2000.

TO those who say mega-mergers will stifle the free flow of information, compromise journalistic integrity, stymie future start-ups, or limit the news and information business to homogenised pap, I say: horsefeathers.
The Internet is a contrary beast. On one hand it is the sole justification for the merging of America Online and Time Warner. On the other, it is the means by which journalists can be entirely liberated. You want a voice?

Anyone with an idea and a PC can get on line and start shouting.

This is a wonderful concept. A decade ago a journalist who wouldn't or couldn't follow the corporate line had nowhere to go but out – out to another employer, out to public relations, or out of the industry.
Today they can hang out an e-shingle, and who knows? One day they might indulge in a bit of mega-merging themselves.

Take Derryn Hinch. Here's a guy who's been around for 40 years: foreign correspondent, food writer, egomaniac, editor, serial marrier, radio tub-thumper, jailbird, TV host, winegrower, novelist and magazine owner. He has been down on his luck in recent times, having been sacked again, this time by radio 5DN in Adelaide.

That was a convenient moment for Hinch to become an Internet junkie. ``I was a typical journalist Luddite,'' he says. (Careful who you call typical, Derryn. Some of the most web-literate people I know are journos.) ``But that was before I learned what it could do, and what we could do with it.''

In typical fashion, Hinch embraced the Net with religious fervour, set up a site called Hinch Web Radio, and announced it to be the ``Medium for the Millennium''.

It reeks of self promotion, including a profile page which begins: ``Derryn Hinch used to threaten that he would eventually write an autobiography and call it Famous People Who Have Met Me.'' He says he was joking, but I doubt it. Not when he quotes Triple J audiences telling him, ``You're a legend, Dezza.''

The site is an amalgam of news commentaries – all the thoughts of Hinch – and is built around a one-hour weekly live radio program of Net news and celebrities.

The program is broadcast on Adelaide's 5AA, and Hinch is trying to get it on stations in the other capital cities. It also goes out live on the Net.

If this site works it will be because people click in to see what the master self-promoter – the Human Headline – is up to this week. If he pulls an audience, he plans to float the business to make another fortune – ``and hang on to this one''. Good luck.

More interesting is a site under construction called Crikey. It is the work of the very maverick Stephen Mayne, whose 18,000-word stream of consciousness on the site is credited with making a substantial contribution to the demise of Jeff Kennett's Victorian government.

After failing to become a candidate for election, Mayne used to raise questions about the close links between Kennett, media outlets, and various other vested interests. He did this from the vantage point of having worked for the Kennett government as one of its media flaks.

``Jeff tried to control the media by lobbying editors and doing commercial deals,'' he says. ``But then he embraced a medium [through his election campaign site,] which he couldn't control. The Web is a fabulous opportunity to pursue the public interest outside the normal boundaries.''

Mayne also has a profile as an agitator at company annual general meetings. As business editor of Sydney's Daily Telegraph, he bought his own shares and used his right as a shareholder to ask at AGMs the curly questions that corporate heavyweights had refused to answer. It was audacious and entertaining.

Now Mayne is mixing the lot with Crikey. ``We need a harder-hitting form of journalism,'' Mayne says. ``Particularly in the cross-over area of business and politics. There's a niche in the market; a Media Watch online, in a sense, with an emphasis on disclosure.

``There are a heck of a lot of journalists who have been prepared to sell their souls for money, and the public should know about that.''

Mayne plans a register of journalists – recording the names of those who have worked for politicians and are now back in the mainstream (so far 38 on the growing list, ranging from Paddy McGuinness to Kerry O'Brien), journalists who now work for politicians (Crikey plans a no-holds-barred assessment of former Herald Sun writer Tony O'Leary's performance as John Howard's flak), former journalists now in PR, those who left for PR or business and returned, and even those who left journalism to become politicians (Bob Carr, Tony Abbott, etc.)

Crikey will have a sister site concentrating on shareholder issues, inviting subscribers to pose their questions which Mayne can take to AGMs in Australian and the UK.

Subscriptions will be pitched low, at about $50 a year, but Crikey itself will remain free.

Mayne will relinquish his Bitch column in The Eye to concentrate on his sites.

Another one-man site that illustrates what can be done with a PC and a commitment to late nights is the newsletter of an outfit called the Australian Institute of Publishers.

That's a company registered by Ash Long, a long-time publisher who fits into the small-to-tiny category.

Ash used to own The Yea Chronicle, north of Melbourne, and has a string of suburban titles on his CV.

These days he sells, makes and distributes a TV what's on guide for community channels in Melbourne and Sydney, and puts together his weekly Media Flash newsletter at nights.

He emails it to 5000 (he says) addresses each Sunday night, and has in his sights trade print titles such as B&T and AdNews.

The feature of his service is names, names and more names. A scroll through Media Flash allows you to see who's doing what – and most of it is sourced from other Net sites.

Media Flash doesn't make any money yet, either, but hey, that must mean it's incredibly valuable. It is, after all, part of the brave new Internet world.