ONLINE NEWS AND MAGAZINES
Since the internet’s commercialisation in the mid-1990s, traditional media websites—ninemsn, smh.com.au, ABC Online and later news.com.au—have been Australia’s most trafficked news domains. Yet from the 1980s online entrepreneurs also developed many ‘native-born’ digital news and information publications, including email lists, news groups, search engines, websites, blogs and apps. These have shaped a flourishing independent internet mediascape, although one slow to generate conventional advertising returns or alternative business models.
Online media development spans three phases, defined by the openness of the communications protocols used and public accessibility of the content: dial-up information services, the World Wide Web and cross-media platforms. In the dial-up era, information services (corporate databases, bulletin board systems, email newsletters and news groups) and closed proprietary or open subscriber networks (for example, Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), FidoNet, Usenet) were used to exchange specialist information. The pre-2000 World Wide Web, based on open standard protocols, hypertextuality, multimediality and interactive functionality, offered relatively free access to information, while Web 2.0 dynamic update tools have enabled publishers to incorporate real-time, user-generated content and gather detailed audience data. Cross-media platforms (integrating web, smartphone, tablet) emerged from the widespread uptake of internet-connected mobile devices and social media services. These employ forms of commercial enclosure including subscriber registration, proprietary application programming interfaces (APIs), content paywalls and freemium apps.
While the majority of home-grown online news media emerged during the web phase, forerunners included ‘value added networks’, subscription information services such as AUSINET (1977– ), which provided database access, and IBIS Business Information (1988– ), which sold corporate data, news and analysis. In the 1980s, with the wider use of internet TCP/ IP protocols, BBS-supported news publishing, messaging, discussion and gaming communities. Some hard-copy technology magazines, such as Your Computer (1981–97) and Internet Australasia (1994–97), also maintained BBS as a means of interacting with their readerships.
From May 1994, the Australian Academic and Research Network (AARNet) opened up internet access to commercial internet service providers, signalling the web’s rapid domestic uptake and commercialisation. A few eclectic magazine-style sites, such as Rosie Cross’s cyberfeminist site Geekgirl (1993– ), appeared, but Australians were largely consuming international sites and services. Australian search engine/aggregators, such as Web Wombat (1995– ), founded by Michael Tancredi, and Peter Garriga’s World Wide Whoopee, later Beyond the Black Stump (1995– ), appealed to cultural nationalism.
Early mainstream media sites included the Age (January 1995), the Sydney Morning Herald, ABC Online (August 1995) and the Australian (April 1996). These services were initially promotional, replicating existing hard-copy and broadcast content. ABC Online and ninemsn were early adopters of participatory technologies: ABC Radio National held its first ‘web chat’ with Antarctic scientists in mid-1997, leading to extensive use of program-related forums into the mid-2000s, while ninemsn assumed market dominance with its portal strategy, providing personalised Hotmail, profile pages, photo hosting and file storage, chat rooms and DIY ‘web communities’.
At the turn of the century, two Liberal entrepreneurs, Graham Young and Stephen Mayne, led the growth of an independent online news and opinion sector. In April 1999, Young co-founded On Line Opinion (OLO) with Brisbane journalist and lawyer Lionel Hogg. OLO was designed to be a ‘shopping centre of ideas’ for politicians, government, NGOs, lobby groups, and researchers to discuss new policy ideas. The OLO portal has published expert op-ed articles by more than 4000 authors, hosts a discussion forum and a blog about polling, What the People Want. Young’s willingness to run highly controversial views with little editorial intervention has sparked considerable public debate but attracted criticism from sponsors. The Global Financial Crisis undermined its move to a fully advertising-led model.
Crikey had a markedly different fate. The creation of Stephen Mayne and his wife Paula Piccinini, Crikey also offered a provocative news, feature and commentary service—but with more conventional editorial control, a hybrid web/email newsletter delivery strategy and compelling insider information. It was sold to Eric Beecher and Diana Gribble’s Private Media Partners in 2005. Beecher later consolidated Crikey’s success.
In a more deliberative move, journalist Margo Kingston pioneered mainstream news blogging in July 2000 with Webdiary, a personal political commentary that became an ‘open conversation’ with her readers, a site for debate about online media ethics, and later an independent news discussion community.
Specialist news services appeared throughout the mid-to late 2000s, creating niche online advertising and subscription markets. The Thousands (2005– ) evolved from Sydney- and Melbourne-based pop culture event blogs into ‘city guides’. Music sites FasterLouder, Mess+Noise and inthemix became the new street press (and later part of youth publishing company Sound Alliance). Finance journalist Alan Kohler’s Eureka Report investment newsletter (2005– ) and Business Spectator website (2007– ) were later sold to News Limited. Sports opinion site The Roar (August 2007– ) capitalised on fan contributions, building a pro-am community that attracted investment from the Ten Network.
In response to the participatory journalism moment and interest in opinion writing, media mainstream media organisations launched their own opinion editorial sites. The ABC’s Unleashed published a mix of commissioned and contributed editorials, and later as The Drum included in-house analysis. News Limited followed with The Punch (2009–13) and Fairfax Media re-launched the National Times (2009– ).
Free generalist online news services have also increased media source diversity, often launching new voices, but with mixed financial fortunes. The longest running, New Matilda (NM) (2004– ), has almost folded twice. Founder John Menadue AO, a former News Limited general manager, set up NM to ‘improve the nature of public discussion in Australia’. Inspired by Crikey, Menadue saw NM as a ‘progressive’ magazine of political ideas and policy development forum that would have some influence on the Labor Party. With high-profile shareholders such as Lowitja O’Donoghue, Morry Schwartz and Graham Freudenberg, a board including Rod Cameron and Susie Carleton, and a paid subscription model, NM had a strong business foundation, but struggled to satisfy both its distinct audiences. In 2007, Menadue hived off the policy initiative, which became the Centre for Policy Development. He sold the magazine for $10 to investor Duncan Turpie. After a brief closure in June 2010, editor Marni Cordell bought the company and, prompted by reader requests, ran a successful crowd-funding drive to re-launch it in October. NM now publishes news, feature articles, investigative journalism, commentary and satire with a social justice focus, supported by a community media-like subscription model and some advertising. By early 2014, it had around 1500 subscribers, most paying between $80 to $100 per year, and 150,000 unique visitors per month.
Also describing itself as a ‘progressive journal’ investigative and citizen journalism site, Independent Australia (IA) was founded in June 2010 by David Donovan, former vice-chair of the Australian Republican Movement. IA is owned by the Donovan Family Trust and focuses on exposing legal and political corruption. While it has sought crowd-funding, IA normally runs on a mix of donations, advertising and merchandising. Donovan reports breaking even in mid-2013 and in early 2014 IA was attracting over 300,000 unique visitors a month.
Philanthropy proved a less successful basis for the international ambitions of The Global Mail (TGM), an innovative long-form feature and investigative journalism service, launched with a splash in February 2012 after being underwritten by online booking entrepreneur Graeme Wood. He promised staff a free editorial hand to produce quality, ‘open’ journalism that would promote reader engagement. Edited by ex-ABC foreign correspondent and Media Watch presenter Monica Attard, and then by journalist Lauren Martin, TGM attracted many awards including three Walkley Awards for its photojournalism. With 140,000 unique visitors a month by 2014, Martin argues it performed well against comparable US non-profit site metrics. However, after Wood’s market value plunged he withdrew his support and TGM closed in early 2014. He then invested in the UK Guardian’s Australian website.
In contrast, Australia’s fastest-growing international feature and analysis service, the not-forprofit The Conversation, has developed from a more diverse base of government and corporate sponsorship. Launched in March 2010, The Conversation was the vision of former Fairfax editor Andrew Jaspan, with the support of political scientist Glyn Davis, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne. It publishes articles pitched and written by academics, with professional editorial support. Building on seed funding from five universities, government, the CSIRO and Commonwealth Bank, and legal advice from Corrs Chambers Westgarth, by late 2013 The Conversation had 28 Australian university sponsors and had begun a global push, launching a UK site and establishing a Jakarta-based editor. The local presence received 1.5 million unique visitors a month in March 2014, 35 per cent from overseas. Its adoption of Creative Commons licensing has seen 87 per cent of articles republished elsewhere—an effective promotional strategy.
By 2014, Private Media owner Eric Beecher was Australia’s most successful commercial independent online news publisher, with Crikey and five other niche titles—Leading Company, Property Observer, Smart Company, StartUp Smart and Women’s Agenda—targeting high-income users. Women’s titles such as Mia Freedman’s Mamamia and Wendy Harmer’s The Hoopla have also built strong followings around blogging and user commenting. As competition for domestic advertising has increased, digital news entrepreneurs have sought local and international partnerships to sustain new ventures. In 2013, Beecher and veteran print editor Bruce Guthrie launched The New Daily, a news aggregation site, with funding from three major superannuation funds.
The investment led the Australian Securities and Investments Commission to monitor the site’s coverage of super issues for bias. In mid-2014, the Nine Entertainment Co.’s digital publishing company Mi9 partnered Britain’s most popular web news service, the Mail Online, to launch an Australian-badged site that aggregates lifestyle and celebrity content from both publishers.
REFs: G. Goggin, Virtual Nation (2004); M. Kingston, ‘Diary of a Webdiarist: Ethics Goes Online’, in C. Lumby and E. Probyn (eds), Remote Control: New Media, New Ethics (2004); M. Van Heekeren ‘News in “New Media”: An Historical Comparison Between the Arrival of Television and Online News in Australia’, MIA, 134 (2010).