It’s been a week for banging on in conventional ain’t it awful ways about our major newspaper companies, and while all this is indeed cause for concern and must be documented, it gets my goat, because I don’t really feel gloomy at all about the future of media.
While I know we are going through a period of paradigm shift, with all the distress and chaos that implies, I think the future contains more threat than opportunity.
Which is why today I want to write about a new web based Australian publication that has started quietly in the last few months, built for nothing using open source blogging software, and kicking arse in the content department.
The publication is Inside Story.
Now, before I go on, I should declare that I have a number of conflicts here. The founder and editor of Inside Story is a mate, Peter Browne, who has also in the dim and distant past been my publisher. Browne is well known to journalists, having once edited Australian Society magazine, (that later became Modern Times), worked at the ABC and also presided over the UNSW Press’s short series of Briefings books.
Another conflict: Inside Story comes out of the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University, where I am employed part time. Also, I have written for it and expect to do so again.
So, take all that into account when I say that I think this publication is a prime example of what can now be done with very little, how it is possible with almost no publicity to get noticed and read by a small but engaged audience, and, forsooth, that the decline of newspapers is not necessarily the end of intelligent material on issues of current affairs, written in an accessible fashion.
I won’t go on about the content. Have a look for yourself. It is international, thoughtful and falls nicely between journalism and the academy. Writers include David Corlett, Peter Mares and Geoffrey Barker.
Inside Story had a soft launch in October. It wasn’t really meant to attract much attention. Browne was negotiating a regular print outlet as a partner to run the best articles from the site. The Australian National University were talking about coming in with more funds. He was waiting for those moves to come off before making a big noise.
Yet despite getting almost no publicity Inside Story – which is free to read – already has 1837 subscribers, and around five and a half thousand page views a week.
What’s more, a number of its major articles have been picked up by the mainstream media. Three pieces have been reprinted in the Canberra Times, and one in The Age. Two authors have been interviewed about their pieces on Radio National, and another piece, Xan Rice’s “The Mobiliser”, an extraordinary first person account of the end of a Sudanese refugee camp, is shortly to be reprinted in the New Statesman.
Browne built the site himself, for free, using the open source WordPress blogging software. For copy he draws on Swinburne University’s network of researchers, as well as his own contacts in journalism and publishing.
What is more, Inside Story pays its contributors on a sliding scale. Less for salaried academics, and rates for freelance journalists that are not laughable by industry standards – not that the pot of money is unlimited.
I think this is the real divider between the various online publications. Those that pay have some hope of sustaining high quality copy. Those that don’t become aggregators of stuff produced elsewhere, and forums for the intensely involved and interested, rather than for disinterested journalism.
The fact that Inside Story can pay is, of course, a product of its home inside the university sector – but if the American experiments teach us anything, it is that universities are one of the places where high quality journalism might have to be incubated and reinvented while new business models emerge.
So, amid all the gloom, it pays sometimes to look at the new things that are happening, and could not happen, without the new technology.
More on new and hopeful things in the week ahead, if I have time away from reporting gloom and collapse.