Ten weeks after Crikey.com was launched on 14 February 2000, I participated in a session on Radio National raking over the coals after the closure of two independent start-ups, The Eye and the Zeitgeist Gazette, neither of which made their first birthday.
David Salter remarked after the discussion that everyone has a couple of big stories up their sleeve, but the hard thing for start-ups is to maintain the flow of content over a sustained period. The obvious implication was that I could only trade off being a Jeff Kennett-insider-turned-whistleblower for so long and that Crikey would go the way of so many others.
The Eye was Eric Beecher and John Singleton’s attempt at a fortnightly magazine, but it was over-promoted and a little too cautious when it came to pursuing stories and tactics which really attracted attention. I was editing The Eye‘s gossip column in the weeks immediately after contributing in a small way to the demise of Jeff Kennett through Jeffed.com — but was surprised The Eye wasn’t interested in publishing any of the Jeffed material. Apparently there was a problem with being a partisan player rather than a 100 per cent neutral observer.
Similarly, The Eye‘s business editor Emiliya Mychasuk showed no interest in a series of lively AGM clashes I was waging with billionaires such as Kerry Packer, Frank Lowy and Rupert Murdoch in late 1999.
When an earlier exercise in AGM activism for The Daily Telegraph in late 1998 was announced as a Walkley winner in December 1999, I took the decision to quit The Eye and instead go it alone with Crikey in a far less cautious venture embracing an irreverent blend of journalism and activism.
The initial business model was to provide a free website updated each Sunday. Subscribers were charged $30 a year and received a Crikey t-shirt, occasional email alerts about new material on the site and promised access to the tiny password protected archive. Unlike the mainstream media, we happily published anonymous material — and sometimes we didn’t check tips rigorously enough. There was also talk of making money selling books and launching a separate related subscriber site, shareowner.com.au, for corporate governance campaigning.
Unfortunately, $30,000 of my now-wife’s money was lost on the dotcom crash in April 2000 — and then we headed overseas for an indulgent two month pre-wedding honeymoon which left Crikey going nowhere. This was cut short when a big Maori process server lobbed a defamation writ on the wife of one of our shareholders, Andrew Inwood — because he’d registered the Crikey business name in NSW.
We got back from our trip, enjoyed the Sydney Olympics and six days after the closing ceremony spent $25,000 on our wedding. Oh dear! With a much reduced bank balance, we started asking the first serious questions about revenue. The separate website for shareowners was abandoned and we shifted to regular email updates rather than free giveaways on the main Crikey site.
With more than $100,000 spent in the first six months, we needed a circuit breaker. How about a free direct marketing campaign to more than 5 million households? This was achieved by nominating for the boards of the most widely owned companies in Australia — such as Telstra, NRMA Insurance, NAB, CBA, David Jones and Woolworths.
In an unprecedented blitz of nine contested board elections in 48 days, these companies were forced to distribute my platform to their shareholders — and they all included a generous free plug for Crikey. It was at the height of this part-activism, part-PR stunt in November 2000 that we had our first $1000 week in subscription revenue.
The two other keys to our rising traffic were free media mentions and great political content courtesy of Christian Kerr, aka Hillary Bray, whose regular skewerings of John Howard from a moderate Liberal perspective generated much interest.
This successful formula of strong content and mass media plugs was first established during the 1999 Victorian election in the jeffed.com battle. We published original insider political content — in our case it was this 18,500 word treatise against Kennett — and then relied on the mainstream media to promote it. 774 ABC Melbourne’s Jon Faine was key: he endlessly plugged Jeffed.com and was responsible for at least half of the extraordinary 115,000 page views it attracted from a standing start in the last 13 days of the campaign.
The launch of Crikey fortunately coincided with a Howard government edict that the ABC produce more business content. By late 2000 I was doing weekly radio spots on ABC Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane — all of which provided priceless publicity for Crikey. During 2001 our stable of often anonymous contributors started to increase and with Christian Kerr still firing and the daily email model evolving, we approached $10,000 of revenue in some months.
However, it was five big events in 2002 that cemented Crikey as a commercially viable and permanent fixture on the Australian media scene. They unfolded as follows.
In February 2002: shock jock Steve Price forced the sale of our family home as part of his defamation blitzkrieg and then settled for $50,000 and an apology. Monthly revenue tripled to $30,000 courtesy of sympathy and enormous publicity and Price was appointed Crikey’s "honorary marketing director".
In May and June 2002, various anonymous Victorian ALP insiders contributed an extraordinary 34,000 words of factional bile during the great fight for control of the Right. This was a substantial broadening of Christian Kerr’s largely Liberal insights on the site.
Crikey took a punt on 27 June 2002 in revealing "Cheryl’s big secret", the one that Laurie Oakes complained in his Bulletin column was missing from her memoir. Oakes then came out with the email evidence on the Cheryl Kernot and Gareth Evans affair that night on the 6pm news.
In June and July 2002, Crikey received three leaked Democrat documents which caused party turmoil as Meg Lees defected and Natasha Stott Despoja resigned as leader following a mutiny by the so-called "gang of five". This story was shortlisted for a Walkley.
Crikey might have been done over as far as the cover image for Garry Linnell’s Good Weekend feature story on July 27 2002 was concerned, but with 1.8 million readers, the free publicity was gold.
Success breeds success and the momentum from all these events generated a daily avalanche of email material such that the model changed to harvesting and editing contributions rather than writing the stories ourselves. To cope with the extra workload, we took on Kate Jackson and Ben Shearman as journalistic interns in 2002, both of whom stayed beyond the 2005 sale.
The other important move in 2002 was to dramatically expand the email database with the advent of the "alertee", or freeloader who got a pared down version of the daily email but all of the paying ads. The even smarter move by the new owners in 2005 was to introduce a three-week free trial for the full edition, which has expanded the overall email list to more than 40,000, with about 13,000 paying full freight.
I’m still a believer in email being the killer application of the web and building Australia’s biggest and best email list over 10 years remains the key to Crikey‘s value. While website advertising is important, it is the ads in the daily email edition which work best and contribute a large slice of advertising revenue, which exceeds $100,000 in a good month.
Not that much changed from late 2002 until the sale of Crikey in March 2005 and revenues remained fairly steady at around $30,000 a month, with subscriptions producing about 90 per cent of all revenue. These days it is closer to a 50–50 advertising-subscription revenue split.
We settled the last outstanding defamation action by former Labor Senator Nick Bolkus for $25,000 in early 2003 and after that ran a successful risk-mitigation strategy of publishing plenty of adventurous material but then loudly withdrawing, grovelling and correcting at the first sign of trouble.
The arrival of Glenn Dyer in early 2004 substantially strengthened the business and media coverage and Christian Kerr’s voluntary outing in the Sunday Age in July 2004 was another major moment.
It helped too when a positive profile by Adam Shand on Channel Nine’s Sunday program aired in May 2004 — just weeks before Kerry Packer churlishly banned access to the Crikey email and website at all his media operations.
Independent media is an extremely hard game which requires enormous energy, a dedicated army of often poorly paid contributors and plenty of mainstream media attention. During my regular catch-ups with Eric Beecher before the Crikey sale, he used to say our biggest asset was merely surviving. Brand building is very important for any publication but in a fickle world with a plethora of online alternatives, you really are only as good as the last edition.
Independent publishers are all too often passionate journalists but bad business operators who are particularly ineffective when it comes to selling advertising. The current owners of Crikey have a strong combination of editorial passion and commercial savvy — and although the business model today isn’t exactly hugely profitable, it wasn’t when I had it either.
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