Journalistic utopias don’t work

tim burrowes landscapeThe Global Mail’s threatened closure is a huge missed opportunity for journalism, but there are lessons to be learned about letting journalists run the show, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes.

Back in what I now realise were the final golden years of local newspapers, my first job saw me working with a wonderfully resourced team. Experienced, well-paid journos, steeped in the crafts of reporting. A room full of knowledgeable sub editors who knew the beat intimately and were on hand to stop cub reporters’ idiotic mistakes from making it into print. And a small army of photographers available to record every golden wedding anniversary and house fire.

Yet we didn’t appreciate those resources, and we squandered them. The lunches were long and the product was tired. Frankly, if everyone had worked a bit harder, the paper could have been twice as good with half the staff.

Now I’m not suggesting that the team of journalists on The Global Mail have spent the last two years on the piss, but it does seem to me that journalistic utopias rarely work out as hoped.

The Global Mail, you’ll recall, launched a couple of years ago, thanks to the philanthropic dollars of Wotif founder Graeme Wood and with some very idealistic aims.

Journos were (apparently) recruited with promises of never having deadlines. They could craft a story until it was perfect.

The result was that an operation with more than 20 staff had a tiny output. And a tiny output meant a relatively tiny audience. And this meant little or no influence.

You can have beautifully written work and beautifully shot photographic essays but if almost nobody sees them, then there is little influence to be had. I must admit my first thought when I saw The Global Mail’s work recognised at big journalistic awards like The Walkleys was usually a guilty start that I’d forgotten again that they were there.

The site always had the aura of a group from the previous generation’s journos coming back for one last caper. Evolving from traditional media for a digital world seemed a little beneath them.

Freedom from commercial pressures appeared to also remove the imperative to find an audience.

Changes of management and stories of disharmony in the early days didn’t help perceptions. Or realities.

It’s hard to know how much Graeme Wood’s financial circumstances played a role in his decision to pull funding. But although he gave a five year commitment, if the site has failed to make an impact by now, it’s fair to say it never will. So sad as it is, I can’t say I blame him.

The claimed number of 120,000 unique visitors per month and 17,000 email subscribers just isn’t enough for a site with supposedly global relevance.

Particularly given Wood’s role in underwriting The Guardian’s launch into Australia, a move which has had far greater impact in a far shorter time.

But at the same time, it still feels like such a squandered opportunity. If only they’d been able to combine journalistic rigour and experience with entrepreneurial publishing. God knows there isn’t enough well resourced long form journalism in the world.

A similar thing happened in the UK a few years back when The Independent launched. Led by journos, the title very nearly died, until the adults took over.

I don’t think we can draw too many conclusions about new models of funding journalism. But there are certainly lessons to be learned about building business plans, even if you don’t intend to make a profit.

There are local examples where new models are working. Andrew Jaspan’s The Conversation has seen the former editor of The Age persuade academia and some big brands to fund a site which is getting major traffic in Australia and the UK with the US and India on the radar too.

Just this week, New Matilda launched a crowd funding campaign to write about the justice system.

The staff of The Global Mail will spend the next few weeks trying to avoid closure by persuading somebody else to fund the offering. If I were them, I’d spend less time spruiking the unquestionably high quality journalism and more on building a story about how they will find an audience.

Otherwise, this amazing opportunity will have been squandered.


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