Waltzing Newmatilda.com Away


Many stories change depending on who’s telling the tale, and different eyes, ears and minds can look at the same situation and see a completely different set of events.

For example, there’s a town up the Murray from Adelaide called Moorook. The word in the Big Smoke was that Moorook was one of several communal habitats set up in the early 1890s to convince would-be followers of Billy Lane to forgo life in the New Australia of Paraguay and to have another go at life in Old Australia.

But the bloke in the front bar of the Moorook Community Club whose family had been there since those days hadn’t heard any of this before. He talked about paddlesteamers bringing in people who couldn’t find work in the city, about 20 families being dropped on the riverbank to live under a single roughly made roof as they grew crops for the cityfolk to eat, and about how many of these battlers were eventually given land of their own.

Either way, the community spirit of this place is stronger than in most. As one local lady told me, "if you’re in trouble in Moorook and you sing out, there’s a lot of people behind you."

I was always a keen writer, indeed, I used to wag school one day a week to write for my local newspaper, the Portland Observer

It didn’t take long for me to give up my notions of intrepid reporting. In actual fact my "career" ended the first day of one financial year, when I rolled up for work at a little local rag to find the doors locked, and the boss long gone, along with my last fortnight’s pay.

Really, though, I’d lost the taste the day I was rooting around the glovebox of a car in the wreckers’ yard to find out who’d had the prang. Looking up from my endeavours I noticed one of the driver’s teeth embedded in the steering wheel. "So, this is journalism?," I thought to myself. I could hear the voice of my Portland Observer mentor, a lovely lady named Jane Belfield, a former PNG correspondent for the ABC. She used to mutter about the editor from within the cloud of cigarette smoke around her typewriter, and was kind enough while subbing my slips to give me ideas. Her advice? "If you love to write, don’t become a journo." That day in the scrapyard I decided she was right.

Years later I came across Webdiary, pretty much by accident — and hadn’t known that such a world existed. I’d been flailing around the internet with a horror of Halliburton in my mind, and a mate who listened to Phillip Adams a lot suggested I contact Margo Kingston. Margo made me feel that I wasn’t alone in my thoughts, and she coached me into creating a Webdiary piece.

Then she pushed me off the deep end into a thread-pool of scary-sounding people who seemed to know each other well, who argued things out and debated among themselves. I loved it and I stuck around. This all happened during the last months of Webdiary‘s residency at the Sydney Morning Herald. My second piece was published in the first week of the website’s independence.

I watched Margo try her damnedest to make the place something that would be self-sustaining and financially independent. By the end of that year, during which I believe she would’ve been able to make a go of things if not for the horrendous ill-health she’d been experiencing, Margo decided to hang up her green eye-shade and give the game away.

That was when Webiary had just had passed its fifth birthday. On 4 July this year we’re turning 10. All this time, the site’s been run by volunteers dedicated to keeping the doors open to this home of citizen journalism — moderating comments, asking people to contribute threadstarters, scribbling a few paragraphs themselves, doing their best to maintain The House that Margo Built according to the manual found in the attic. I’m proud to now be one of these folks, and consider my endeavours here as a way of passing along the good karma that was so generously given to me and so many others.

The point is, communities take longer to evolve than many people realise. My family run a music pub in Adelaide, hosting as many different kinds of melody as we can squeeze into the place. My parents’ dream had been to create a musical waterhole at which those who came for refreshment could hear each others’ noises and hopefully join in a new sound. Now, 17 years later, we’re noticing that sense of community growing increasingly stronger. It might take a few more years to hear what we’re hoping for.

Sometime you see flashes of what can happen. On the day of writing this my father and I had the pleasure of sitting down to lunch with a couple of blokes from the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, the local producer of Today Tonight, some fairly maverick local lawyers and a folksinger friend. The conversation was rolling pleasantly enough, until the Scotsman looking after the boys asked us if we’d heard of a Scots minstrel and internationally respected activist named Alistair Hulett. Alistair wrote a lot of great songs, and one of his greatest was a song about the forming of the community of Australia:

"Let it quicken your heart beat
The road’s at your own feet
Travel it lightly and travel it well
And don’t speak of success
Or christen it progress
Til the swaggies can all waltz Matilda as well."

Sadly, Jimmy Dancer waltzed Alistair away from us all in January this year. He was a man who created relationships that I’m sure will last for years, and a moment of sadness today passed between all of us who knew him. With this shared sentiment for a singer and his songs, the travellers knew that they were among friends in our house.

Margo Kingston created an online community, turning her site into an interactive blog at a time when blogs didn’t exist. People came to talk with her, and she helped them to talk to each other. Sometimes these days Webdiary can be a fairly quiet place — even though it still draws thousands of readers — and then, without warning, an issue will bring back familiar voices, arguing the contributing factors, debating the merits of outcomes, drawing on both knowledge of the subjects and each other in a way that would never happen anywhere but "at Margo’s".

Phillip Adams has this to say about her and Webdiary:

"Trad journalism was rarely rad journalism. In these last days we romanticise the old days to a ridiculous extent, smearing the unreliable lens of memory with Vaseline. Most journalists were content to toe the proprietorial line — as rigid as the party line — or simply add to the pages of dross. We remember the heroes of the profession because there were so few of them. The real warriors of the press gallery, the unstoppable investigators of political or corporate naughtiness and the fearless foreign correspondents were the exception, not the rule. Now trad journalism, for good and ill, seems terminal — and hope lies elsewhere… in a new era of truly independent work. Which is when and where Webdiary and Margo Kingston came in, recruiting energetic outsiders — community journalists — to keep the bastards honest. As my generation expires, going down in our sinking ships, it’s this new mob who’ll have to find new ways — including those elusive ‘new business models’ — to save society from itself. What Kingston showed was there’s no shortage of talent."

In the future, this decade will be recognised as a pioneering era of the internet — and perhaps the early innovators will be compared to the Wright Brothers flying the first airplane. What would Orville and Wilbur have done if they knew how important their invention would become? Maybe a media industry centred around community journalism can’t yet get far enough off the ground to fly more than a short distance. Maybe it won’t be until commercial media fully embraces cyberspace — and perhaps then non-corporate outlets will be recognised as truly necessary alternatives to the commercial fare? Who knows? If we take the long view, we’re still right at the beginning.

May all those who’ve waltzed at newmatilda.com and Webdiary always dance, knowing that the rhythm in their steps will be heard in future melodies. And if a wandering swagman "on the wallaby" happens to find the track to "Ours", please feel free to say g’day — the door’s always open, and the fire still burning …

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.