Postcards From The Media's Edge


Two covers tell the story. There’s the one we got right: Issue Four, featuring artist Arlene TextaQueen. She’s in her trademark superhero costume with the tools of her trade — brightly coloured felt-tips — slung around her waist and tucked behind her ears. She bears her teeth and a little bit of breast. She’s hot and she’s interesting. Not in that order.

Then there’s the cover of Issue Two, which featured an unnamed Guadalcanal woman from the Solomon Islands in a floral-print dress, looking wary and tired in a burnt-out yard. Our cover story probed Australia’s 2003 intervention in the Solomon Islands, detailing a complex back-story to "Operation Helpem Fren" and humanising the situation in the Solomons.

As soon as it came back from the printers, we realised this depressing and understated image was no way to sell a magazine. But it was an important story — desperately important — and underreported and distorted by other Australian outlets.

The theme of Issue Two’s editorial? The importance of being earnest. Or rather: our felt inability to be anything else, despite a growing awareness that it was going to be hard to make our sincere, serious and passionate magazine Spinach7 work. We live in a world of commodified experiences, but could we — should we — figure out how to package this kind of content appealingly enough to render it "commercially viable"? (This at least is how I reflect on the dilemma. It is of course my own view.)

Sam de Silva, Marni Cordell and I started Spinach7 in early 2003. We had known each other since 2001, meeting in the social-cultural milieu that existed around Melbourne’s grassroots leftist political community. We shared frustrations with this scene — as well as being steeped, at that time, in its concerns.

We disliked the tendency to cast an active "us" as enlightened and as giving a f*ck: a marginal identity constructed in opposition to an ignorant, uncaring, passive, undifferentiated "mainstream". Indeed, we banked on an optimistic gamble: that the stuff we were involved in, knew about and were concerned about had reach — we hoped/thought/found that it would interest and touch a wider audience if it was communicated openly, rather than defensively or dictatorially. (This was something with which Marni and Sam experimented in another independent media project, The Paper.) We also wanted to make something that looked good and brought stories to life with photojournalism. Sam remained behind the scenes and Marni and I co-edited Spinach7 throughout 2003 and 2004.

We sought particularly to orient our audience to postcolonial realities — we featured lots of Aboriginal, Pacific and Asian content. We kept low to the ground, running in-depth interviews and heard perspectives from people involved in the world, people who were busily making art, building things, initiating things, or people simply immersed in other, unfamiliar worlds. It was stories we were after, perceptions and lived experiences of everyday life.

One of the things I like about is that it values these low-to-the-ground perspectives. Among the range of stories runs I find I am often most drawn to unknown writers and observers, rather than liberal commentators whose subject is parliamentary politics. publishes these kind of human-centred "communiqués", sometimes naïve and necessarily subjective — there’s a lot to be learnt from everyday accounts, particularly of conflict and hardship.

We worked in print: we wanted each edition to have a life, to lie around, to be flicked through in cafes, stumbled across in toilets. We wanted dramatic images to catch someone’s eye in a suburban newsagency. In sticking with print, we were swimming against the tide — independent online media projects were getting going all around us. Truth be told, I’m a luddite. Marni — obviously — isn’t.

The community of which we were a part, from which we drew contributors, ideas, support and plenty of unpaid help, also harboured our harshest critics. We received some hurtful swipes and some more valuable, engaged critique. But it was always about the ideas and the issues — not our careers.

We certainly weren’t in it for the money. Marni and I were constantly rearranging editorial meetings around Centrelink appointments and the paid work we juggled on the side. Geminis both of us, we surmised that when the two of us sat down there were four opinions on everything: we’d thrash it out and eventually three would agree and the one dissenter would have to live with her unease.

We lived the cliché, the magazine lifestyle, drinking too much coffee and working ourselves into the ground. We were very inexperienced and learnt a lot. It was heaps of fun.

Spinach7 did not break even. Sales were okay — but not okay enough to hang in there for another year and consolidate our vision, readership, sales revenue and advertising base. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with niche publishing. Sure it’s important to saturate your potential readership in order that they know you exist, and to reach beyond that too. But it’s also important to back yourself, and it’s entirely legitimate to want to do something specific, original and challenging. It’s very hard to make niche publishing work in Australia simply because of the economy of scale — we all know that and I’m glad it doesn’t stop us trying. I don’t have any solutions!

As to our broader impact on the media landscape: I feel ill-qualified to comment. Our readers missed us.

I missed it too in a way, but it was good to move on. I stepped sideways once and then sideways again and then eventually settled into being a mum and a PhD in an anthropology department. Marni began work at five years ago. What next Cordell?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.