‘A crazy act of will’: The Guardian Australia turns one

The Guardian this week celebrates the first anniversary of its Australian operation. Launch editor Katharine Viner and some of her team talk to Nic Christensen to discuss the publication’s place in Australia’s media landscape.

It was over breakfast at the Edinburgh Media Festival, in August of 2012, that Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger first raised the idea of moving his deputy editor out to Australia to launch a digital offshoot of the UK newspaper.

“I said to him: ‘No, it’s far too far away’,” Katharine Viner reveals, as we sit in her Sydney office in Surry Hills, some 16 months into her stint as launch editor and editor-in-chief of the Guardian Australia.

“Then I started thinking about it,” Viner quickly adds. “And the more I thought about it, it occurred to me that it could be quite good fun running things and I love the idea of setting up something brand new.

“The more I thought about the situation, here, the more it seemed like we could succeed.”

The Guardian Australia team

The Guardian Australia team

It is 12 months since the Guardian Australia formally launched its Australian online edition and the media outlet has already made a major impression on the local media landscape.

The online operation now employs some 50 people and is about to open a new office in Melbourne, its Australian audience is at a record high and the media outlet has an impressive string of local exclusives to its name.

These include breaking the story on the petition which was the catalyst for the leadership spill which ousted Julia Gillard as Prime Minister and the Edward Snowden/NSA revelations that showed the Australian government were spying on the Indonesian government and high level officials, including the president and his wife.

Asked to describe the place the site has found within the Australian media landscape Viner quotes one her reporters, political editor Lenore Taylor.

“Lenore once told me: ‘We’ve smashed our way in’,” says Viner, somewhat defiantly. “This time last year there was such a small number of us you can’t imagine.

“We had one news editor and one production editor and no subs and it was all of us banding together in this crazy act of will. That’s what it felt like.”

Putting together the pieces

David Marr insists that Katharine Viner is responsible for ruining his retirement plans.

To be fair, it was a double-act that cornered the former Fairfax journalist and prominent commentator, over coffee one afternoon in November 2012, in the backyard of his inner city Sydney home.

“It was Annabel Crabb who brought her around,” says Marr, with a hint of bemusement about the sequence of events that followed.

“I mean I had no intention of working for The Guardian but she came to me via Annabel, who is a close friend of mine, and sold the idea to me.

“It was all beautifully done. There was no ‘what are you doing next Tuesday’ but just ‘what are you doing this afternoon?’.”

“Annabel then turns up with Katharine Viner, who I’ve never met, and by the time those two dames disappeared, an hour later, my post-Fairfax career plans had been tossed up into the air and fallen down in a very different pattern.”

Viner’s version is similar, although is completely unapologetic when told of the 66-year-old’s claims of conspiracy she quips: “Oh well, that man is far too young and thrusting to retire.”

Marr’s appointment along with the poaching of Fairfax political journalists Taylor and Katharine Murphy were crucial to the speed with which The Guardian Australia gained momentum, argues media commentator Margaret Simons.

“Katherine hired incredibly shrewdly,” says Simons, who is a journalism professor at the University of Melbourne.

“I remember thinking, when those first announcements were made, Lenore Taylor, Katherine Murphy, but also people like (data journalist) Nick Evershed, yes that’s exactly who you would hire and she has continued to hire very shrewdly,” she says citing the recent poaching of Crikey’s very popular cartoonist First Dog on the Moon.

“That may well prove to be her longest standing legacy because of course those people will go on and help to shape the organisation into the future.”

Taylor and Murphy ensured the Guardian Australia hit the ground running in Canberra, even if that meant working from a table at the back of the Network Ten technical offices.

When asked to describe the past 14 months political editor Taylor turns to a line made famous by former Prime Minister Paul Keating to describe the experience: “In the beginning it was downhill ‘one ski, no poles’, we had small resources but big ambitions.”

In Canberra, The Guardian would seek to try and separate itself from its rivals by refusing to cover the unsourced rumours driving ongoing leadership speculation, driven largely by supporters of ousted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

“I just found it so boring and I had only been here a few weeks at that point,” says Viner. “I just found it really boring, it was all unnamed sources and sort of hearsay and deadening to read.

“It is interesting to me that when there was actually a spill Lenore was the first on it,” she adds, referring to the petition story which sparked the leadership spill, which saw the demise of Gillard and the return of Rudd.

Taylor says there was a couple of stories that really broke through for them. “I think we have established ourselves in just one year as a whole new mainstream player in the landscape,” she insists while also contrasting The Guardian Australia with some of its rivals.

“We are growing not shrinking, our (online) circulation is rising not falling and I think we’ve proven there was a gap in the market which we are filling. People seem to want to read us.”

The Indonesian spy scandal 

In some cases they had no choice, with one story more than any other dominating the news cycle for much of the latter quarter of 2014.

As part of the treasure trove of documents leaked by US whistleblower Edward Snowden to the Guardian in the US were documents which showed Australia had been actively tapping the phones of senior official of our one of its nearest neighbours, Indonesia.

The documents were published by the company’s Australian offshoot in November, in a partnership with public broadcaster the ABC, and caused a media and diplomatic firestorm both here and in Indonesia.

“Clearly the one that got the most attention was the Snowden leaked document about our spying on Indonesia,” Taylor says, when asked which story she  is proudest of since she joined the Guardian.

“I think we dealt with that responsibly and properly. A lot of the stuff that has been written about it is entirely wrong.”

Taylor is referring to criticisms by the government, several conservative commentators and also rival publisher News Corp Australia as to whether they, along with taxpayer funded broadcaster the ABC, should have published a story which contributed to a serious deterioration of the Australian diplomatic relationship with Indonesia.

“The trouble with the way it was run is that they didn’t appear to consult anyone as to the possible damage to the national interest,” argues Neil James, executive director of the Australia Defence Association.

Taylor, a seasoned political reporter who has previously held senior reporting roles at News Corp and Fairfax, dismisses this critique.

“We did go to intelligence agencies to make sure that we weren’t writing anything that could have serious ramifications,” she says. “Obviously it was going to be embarrassing for the government but we needed to make sure that we were aware of the broader ramifications of what we were doing and we did.”

Viner for her part is equally resolute about publishing the controversial and potentially explosive revelations.  “It is obviously not any newspaper editor’s job to publish stories for the sake of patriotism,” she says.

“The ABC were great to work with, I really enjoyed collaborating with them as it meant we had two sets of eyes, experience in Indonesia — which we don’t have — it was just a great collaboration.”

Whilst The Guardian brought the source material ABC managing director Mark Scott argues the public broadcaster provided a number of key resources to the story, an element lost in some of the subsequent commentary around the story.

“There is significant misunderstanding about the Indonesian spy story” says Scott. “There was genuine partnership and collaboration in delivering it: drawing not only on the original document, but also the ABC’s international reporting team in the region, our depth in Canberra and our legal team.”

When asked about the ensuing media and political storm Viner says: “The reactions and impact? I mean, Tony Abbott criticised us three or four times and that just meant that more people heard of us.”

It is this element of the story that Chris Mitchell editor-in-chief of The Australian, whose newspaper published nearly 20 news stories, editorials and opinion pieces on the issue, almost all of them critical, says he has concerns about.

“I would not criticise The Guardian for the ABC deal on Snowden. It was smart of  The Guardian but silly of the ABC to allow itself to be criticized for marketing another news organisation’s story,” said Mitchell.

Scott fiercely rejects that the public broadcaster was used for “marketing” by The Guardian. “It is simply not true to suggest the ABC’s role was simply to promote the story” says the ABC boss.

“We partner with a number of major media organisations from time-to-time, and the Guardian has partnered with numerous media partners around the NSA stories, who like us, bring local expertise.”

A diverse Australian media 

In less than 18-months Viner has personally become a major player in the Australian media scene, as part of a team which picked up a much coveted Walkley Award for a multimedia piece on the bushfire in Dunalley, Tasmania and being asked to give the prestigious A.N. Smith Lecture.

But that profile has also made Viner a target for criticism in some quarters.

The OzOne example was at the height of the Indonesian spy scandal when News Corp photographers camped outside the Guardian bureau in the Canberra press gallery trying to take photos of her in the corridors of parliament.

When the incident is raised in the interview, Viner is initially reluctant to be drawn on the behaviour of rival News Corp, with which The Guardian has enjoyed a fraught relationship, not least after it exposed widespread use of phone hacking in the UK.

“I wouldn’t say it wouldn’t happen in the UK, but it certainly hasn’t happened to me before,” she says, when asked if the practice would have happened in the ultra competitive UK newspaper market.

She pauses for a second, appearing to weigh up whether to go further, before adding: “I was surprised because I clearly wasn’t the story. But I guess if you don’t want people talking about the story which was Edward Snowden’s revelations then you might want to get them talking about something else.”

Asked what she makes of the level of competition in the Australian media she is again cautious, deflecting the question: “I think there are lots of really good journalists in Australia.”

It is only when asked to comment on what she thinks of rival News Corp, and in particular national broadsheet The Australian, that Viner sheds her initial reticence and takes aim: “I think the way The Australian goes after people they don’t like is a misuse of power, and the extent to which News Corp has been able to skew the political discourse in this country is startling — though that influence appears to be waning.

“Otherwise, they have some impressive journalists and I always enjoy the Saturday arts section in The Oz.”

While The Guardian is a global media brand it has sought to carve out its place in the Australian media, but as Margaret Simons notes there are often unintended consequences, particularly for independent media, when the media market is as small as it is in Australia.

“To my mind there is plenty to be said and plenty of need for voices but the real competition is for voices,” says Simons, an admitted fan of The Guardian.

“There simply aren’t that many top flight writers to cover all the new entrants in independent media.”

Simons is referring to a critique made of The Guardian in the wake of the recent poaching of Crikey cartoonist Andrew Marlton, aka First Dog on the Moon, and the recent near closure of political commentary site New Matilda, which saw its editor Marni Cordell cite defections to The Guardian, and another independent media outlet The Conversation, as a factor in her decision to walk away. Days later Cordell announced she was taking the job of editor of Crikey.

“There are quite a number of voices in brand names there, but we tend to see the same bylines cropping up again and again,” says Simons. “The real challenge for all of these entrants is to develop new talent.”

Viner admits this is an area she has sought to expand on, adding: “I’m really proud of, for example, the number of indigenous writers we’ve had writing — I think that’s been fresh, interesting and exciting.”

But it’s when the wider independent media critique is raised with her that Viner seems genuinely mortified by the suggestion that The Guardian has been bad for the wider independent media landscape.

“(We have) absolutely not,” she says. “We are independent media, we are part of it, and we believe in a plural Australian media scene.

“There are loads of fantastic smaller websites, Crikey, Junkee, New Matilda, even your own Mumbrella, who are essential to a diverse media.”

In a separate interview, David Marr, who is currently writing for both The Guardian and The Saturday Paper, leaps to her defence when the topic is raised with him. “What are people suggesting, some kind of national protection unit?” he asks somewhat indignantly.

“What she is selling is what appeals deeply to journalists, which is strong journalism. It’s not that The Guardian pays big money — it doesn’t. It’s not poaching with fat pay cheques.”

Towards a sustainable business model

The money question is one that always comes up with The Guardian.

Funded by the deep pockets of the Scott Trust, a not-for-profit company which is charged with the continuation of publication “free from commercial or political interference”,  and which posted losses of £30.9m last year, an improvement on the £44.2m it lost the year before. Despite losses that would make most media companies panic, the recent sale of The Guardian’s UK online buying site Trader Media, a lucrative car sales site, netted the trust an estimated $1.09 – 1.2 billion (AUD) meaning it could survive on current losses for the next 30 years.

However, Viner is resolute that she didn’t have a big budget when she arrived last February, adding the budget has only grown as revenue and audiences have increased.

This viewpoint stands in contrast with the local perception of a global media brand coming to town and bringing its chequebook, as it commenced its poaching and hiring raid.

Viner explains: “(The perception) was the sleight of hand. I mean, what it meant is that we existed enough… I mean I do have a theory, and this sounds bad, but you can obviously have too few resources but it’s very dangerous to have too many.

“I’m thrilled with the First Dog on the Moon hire, but I hired him as soon as I could afford to.”

Under questioning she also signals they are not finished growing the Australian operation.

“The plan is to build. That’s all I can say. The plan is definitely to build,” she says, remaining coy on the details.

Rusbridger’s vision is to build the global audience, in places such as Australia and the US, and leverage off what it says globally is an audience of 100 million unique browsers. Currently UK rival the Mail Online, which also has operations in the US and Australia, is the biggest English-language news site in the world with around 58 million monthly users.

Source: Nielsen. Note there are trend breaks in May 2013 and March 2014

Source: Nielsen. Note there are trend breaks in May 2013 and March 2014

In Australia, the official domestic metric, Nielsen has reported more mixed growth in unique audience for The Guardian, with the numbers remaining between 1.1m to 1.3m mark for much of last year before climbing to a 1.7m audience last month making it a regular in the top 10 news rankings.

Ian McClelland, managing director of the Guardian Australia says their internal metrics show unique browsers have gone from 2.5m before the Australian launch to 5.1m last month, while revenue is 300 per cent above projections, allowing them to accelerate growth.

Despite this the cost base of the Guardian Australia has also exploded dramatically. From just one correspondent, Lee Glendinning, working out of the Fairfax office, two years ago, the newspaper now has annual costs experts estimate would be approaching at least $10m a year.

For her part Viner is most pleased with consistency of the growth.

“In rural NT traffic has gone up the same proportion and in rural Queensland it has gone up the same proportion, obviously from a lower base.”

She is also proud of how they have built Australian engagement on the website.

“There is an amazing statistic where Australia is six per cent of The Guardian’s global readership but is 12 per cent of the comments on the Guardian’s website from a base of almost none a year ago.”

“I joke with London that our (Australian) readers are nearly as loyal as the British readership and they have had a newspaper since 1821 and we’ve only been going since May.”

The editor-in-chief

Katharine Viner ImageThroughout the interview Viner is everything she has been described to me, by colleagues and friends: warm, charming, funny, engaging and highly intellectual.

We discuss how she embedded herself in Australian literature and pop culture (for her first six months in Australia she did not let herself watch any non-Australian film or TV or non-Australian books) and she invites me to test her knowledge.

It’s a challenge I’m not game to try, more for fear having my own knowledge of Australian culture shown up.

Viner tells me: “I feel somewhat besotted with it all which is why I’m so sad to be leaving and one of the reasons why I think I’ll keep coming back is Australian culture. I find it so interesting.”

The only time she is stumped throughout our conversation is when she is asked what mistakes she’s made in the role.

She struggles for a moment before conceding: “It’s a good question — it’s good to think about these things.”

Then she admits: “I have pushed everybody so hard, and I have worried about that at times.

“But they have all performed so brilliantly that I can’t really regret that,” she says in a tone that is equal parts concerned, proud and also unapologetic.

That answer also helps me understand the story of how she first came to prominence, as a relatively junior reporter at the Guardian.

When I bring up the story it leaves Viner slightly mortified. “Oh God, that’s a story from 100 years ago,” she says with a look that might be wondering who on her staff may have shared the story.

“I was 26 and I was new at The Guardian,” she says. “I had been there about eight months and it was a bank holiday, the weekend when (Princess) Diana died.

“It was August and everyone was on holiday and they asked me to produce a commemorative supplement and we hadn’t done that many of them at that time. And it went down very well. That’s all,” trying to undersell the story.

“Please don’t use the Diana story. I was just in the right place at the right time. Although I guess I did deliver,” she says, referring to how she co-opted the likes of Maya Angelou and Caroline Duffy to write for her at short notice.

“I also edited the weekend magazine for seven years. I have been around since then.”

Indeed she has. In the 17 years since, Viner has held a number of senior roles at the newspaper rising to deputy editor of The Guardian and is increasingly seen by many as a potential successor to editor-in-chief of The Guardian Alan Rusbridger, particularly in light of the promotion to the US editorship, a key market if The Guardian’s global digital growth strategy is to succeed.

Is the editor-in-chief of the global publication a role one she is interested in? Once again, Viner deflects her answer, choosing a diplomatic frame of words, while also notably not ruling out her interest in the role.

“I take jobs that I think are interesting and that I will enjoy. That’s what I’m doing here and I love working with Alan,” she says.

As the interview wraps up there are just a couple of final questions: In your career what are you proudest of? “This (the Guardian Australia),” she replies without the hubris such a statement might imply.

Viner will be replaced by another head office implant Emily Wilson, but can she see a time when the Guardian Australia editor is a local, pointing to deputy editor Lee Glendinning and adding: “A future editor of Guardian Australia will be absolutely be Australian, and I hope that will happen soon. Lee is a superb journalist and editor and I think she should be aiming for the very top.”

Finally, is there anything Viner has learned from her Australian experience she will be taking to America?

“I would say you don’t lose anything by being bold,” she tells me, immediately letting out a solid laugh.

A lack of boldness is certainly not something you can accuse Viner or her fledgling online publication of.

Nic Christensen


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