Journalism’s new model?

Does the launch of philanthropically funded news site The Global Mail signal a new era for journalism or is the model destined to be a passing fad, asks Cathie McGinn in this article first published in Encore magazine.

With little fanfare, philanthropically funded news site The Global Mail launched in February this year.

The online-only title received a generous five-year funding commitment from businessman Graeme Wood, founder of accommodation website wotif.com, who donated $15million.

At a time when the future of print media is being questioned, the issue of the cost of journalism is ever more pressing. As long established mastheads close their doors around the world – here in Australia, News Limited recently announced the closure of local Queensland titles The Noosa Journal and Weekender – the move to online reporting continues. And there is clearly an audience in this space, as evidenced by The Australian’s recent announcement 30,000 readers have taken up digital subscriptions to access content behind the first major news paywall in the country. While News Limited is seeing results in the attempt to monetise their online offerings, The Global Mail is doing the reverse instead choosing to put journalism first, monetisation never.

The site’s motto is ‘Our audience is our only agenda’ and managing editor Monica Attard (note: this article was published before Attard’s departure from Global Mail) says the platform offers “a more considered, less breathless read” bucking the trend of online snack-sized content in favour of long-form journalism.The editorial team behind the site stands at 13 journalists, a director of photography, two web producers and a media manager. Bronwen Clune, founder of new media venture Perth Norg says: “This model actually benefits journalists; they have a closer connection with the audience and greater responsibility to fact check.”

As the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures and The Global Mail is not the first Australian online news provider to try out a new model. Independent news website New Matilda funds journalism by asking readers to become ‘financial supporters’ with a monthly contribution that works on a sliding scale from just $7.34 per month for individuals to organisations that can chip in $27.50, or the ‘big love’ supporters who donate $83.33 each month.

Unlike New Matilda, where content can be accessed by any member of the public, independent news website Crikey only offers select articles with access to its full site and a daily newsletter via a more traditional funding model based on straight subscriptions starting at $160 per year. Established in 2000, Crikey has proved itself to be more than a passing fad with a solid, legitimate business model that also relies on advertising.

Also breaking new ground is ex-editor of The Age, Andrew Jaspan, and university-funded news site The Conversation which began with an initial investment of $6million.

At the other end of the scale is Swinburne University Public Interest Journalism Foundation’s YouCommNews, an online portal seeking crowd funding for journalists. In November 2010 the site published its first publicly funded piece by journalist Toula Mantis looking at chronic fatigue syndrome. A glance at the projects on the site shows the model is struggling with stories dating back to April 2011 yet to reach the projected funding targets. In Attard’s view there is a “real problem with the idea that journalism is directly paid for by the audience; it’s ethically problematic”. And given the example of YouCommNews, it is far from a sustainable model.

An upfront outlay of cash in the example of The Global Mail makes sense but what happens when the initial injection dries up? Attard told Encore’s sister publication Mumbrella: “We have no intention of monetising the site. We may well develop an app and there may be some revenue streams that we can create around the app but the site will remain free.”

Given that monetising app publications is also new territory, Attard is taking a risk, albeit one with a $15million dollar safety net very few publishers, including the major players, can boast.

(Update: Attard has since departed The Global Mail)

  •  This piece first appeared in Encore magazine. Subscribe to the print edition here or download the iPad edition here

Encore Magazine - MoGeneration Pty Ltd


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