Why I Never Liked Newmatilda.com

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As newmatilda.com heads for the archive in the sky, we’ve asked people who’ve worked on publications which have shaken up the Australian media for their thoughts on independent media past and present. We asked why so many independent media projects have such short lifespans — and what’s needed to survive in a marketplace that is both packed and changing.

First up is Charles Firth with a dose of tough love.

Like so many other independent media projects, the major problem with newmatilda.com was that it was, essentially, a boring idea. This is not to say that there weren’t interesting things wrapped up in the boring idea, but I wouldn’t really know because I didn’t check it out all that often, because, as I say, it was a boring idea from the start.

I know this, because I once had a boring idea. It was called Manic Times. The idea was that Manic Times would bring together all the disparate voices of good, linking the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and we’d all talk among ourselves, in dumbed-down tabloid format, about how bad things were.

Why would anyone read that? I certainly wouldn’t if I hadn’t had to. It’s not to say there weren’t great pieces in there — Pinky Beecroft’s undercover investigation of what it was like to pick up at Hillsong springs to mind as the highlight — but at the end of the day, it failed because it should have failed. I look back now and think, "What was I thinking?".

The Chaser newspaper was another idea I had, and that wasn’t a boring idea at all. It might have had, from time to time, incredibly boring things in it, but the idea itself was quite interesting. The idea was that it would be a Sunday paper — and would act as a chaser shot on your week’s news. The idea being that you read all the heavy Saturday papers, and then The Chaser would come along, light and cutting and cut through all the turgid prose and give you searing, hilarious analysis through barbed satire and great writing.

That was a very interesting idea. It still is. It never became a Sunday vision, but the DNA of that idea never really changed. Because it was a great idea. And the most notable thing about that idea, to me, is that it didn’t try and divide its audience according to a belief set. It was for anyone who wanted to laugh at those in power. Which is just about anyone.

Which leads me to my thesis: if someone wants to come along and set up a successful, thriving "independent" media organisation, the thing they should start out with is a bloody good idea. Which means a mainstream idea. Or at least, an idea that could conceivably appeal to the mainstream if they ever found out about it.

The Monthly qualifies as a great idea: great writing, original reportage, a focus on Australian content. It’s something that anyone would conceivably want to read if they found out about it. The only place it is let down in its current iteration is that it seems to see its role as Australia’s foremost provider of undergraduate-quality cultural studies essays and turgid opinion pieces by grumpy academics at the sunset of their careers. But unless that tendency replaces the original idea completely — there’ll always be room for it in the miniscule world of Australian independent media.

Crikey, love it or hate it, has a similarly great idea behind it: that people self-important enough to think they might be gossiped about are willing to shell out over a hundred bucks a year on the off chance that they might be the subject of some salacious rumour. I don’t quite know what Crikey is doing peddling respectable reportage and interesting writing — it doesn’t seem core to its underlying idea — but it doesn’t seem to have hurt it too much. But if it ever lost its commitment to bitchy, biased swipes at people from unnamed sources, the idea behind Crikey would fundamentally change, and weaken the product.

Which brings us to the question of what newmatilda.com should have been.

I think part of the problem was that it was the brainchild of guilded lefties who enjoyed some level of success in the 1970s, and were wanting to bestow on the next generation a media platform that interested them. This was confused thinking. If Phillip Adams and co had really wanted to make it work, they should have rolled up their sleeves and done it themselves. It was an old person’s idea carried out by teenagers when it should have been an old person’s idea carried out by old people. Then we could have excused the Dad-style humour, and creaky, earnest prose, because it would have at least been authentic.

Instead we were left with something that was trying to be right, and ended up just right on. I don’t think quality writing was ever part of the idea — it was always meant to be a quick and dirty comment site: which is not a bad idea. Just very hard to execute without another limiting idea. A quick, dirty and funny comment site I can get behind. A quick and dirty comment site about the sex lives of public figures I would definitely want to read. But this was a quick and dirty comment site about everything. It was kind of like trying to be what the whole of the internet is on just one site.

Except that nothing I ever read on newmatilda.com skewed the news in a way that hadn’t been said better somewhere else. The internet makes people think that analysis of news is easier than reportage, when the reverse is actually true. The Big Media companies — News, Fairfax and ABC — have a tendency to hire anyone who can reliably churn out original analysis.

To do a newmatilda.com well, you need access to all the journalists in one of those news organisations to help underwrite your content, which is why The Punch, The National Times and The Drum will be sustainable, where newmatilda.com is not. That’s not to say that any of those three websites are in any way more interesting than newmatilda.com but they’re inherently subsidised by their parent company’s sheer scale, and, in particular, their access to good writers.

There are actually quite interesting things happening in the world of "independent" media. Daniel Petre’s firm, Allure Media, over in North Sydney is building a base of web magazines that over time will threaten to disrupt the business models of mainstream magazines. He has a computer gadgets blog, a parenting blog, a Hollywood gossip blog. Every single one of these has a focused, good idea that it relentlessly pursues. Underwritten with a healthy dose of internet advertising AdWords arbitrage, the idea that underpins that business model is, if not amazingly interesting, then at least sustainable. If Petre wanted to enter the quick and dirty political/social comment site world, I can imagine he’d get the Australian rights to Gawker.com, and do it that way. And with the revenue from all the other blogs, he’d be far more assured of long term viability than newmatilda.com or Manic Times, or even The Chaser ever was.

So there you have it. The lesson of the failure of newmatilda.com, and the litany of independent media properties before it, is that in media, good intention alone is not a good idea. In fact, it’s rather boring.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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