The Golden Age Of Publishing

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The recent kerfuffle over Meanjin, one of the nation’s oldest and most significant literary journals, illustrates the difficulties facing small Australian magazines.

You might think that we should be in a Golden Age of publishing, since the technical aspects of getting words out there have becoming so much easier and more accessible. Editors, designers and publishers have at their fingertips resources that would have been beyond their imagination even a decade ago, as the digital revolution rumbles on.

Yet these innovations don’t necessarily reduce costs. As Jacinda Woodhead argued  in respect of the Meanjin situation, the savings from shifting from paper to pixels are not as clear cut as you might think: "Many assume a journal could save money with the elimination of print, but digital does not necessarily equal inexpensive. Surely an established literary journal venturing into largely unexplored terrain would require a budget for discovery and innovation?"

An online publication works to a different rhythm than its paper counterpart. You might lower your printers’ bill but suddenly you require daily content, in a way you never did before. How exactly do you pay for that?

Besides, the real problems are not with outgoings so much as incomings. And it’s not just the small end of town struggling with how to raise a buck. Meanjin’s problems pall beside those confronting the newspaper industry, which continues to haemorrhage readers locally and around the world.

Over at Crikey, Margaret Simons recently noted:

"The quarterly newspaper circulation figures are out, and not even the industry association can do much with spin, because they are almost universally bad, with drops Monday to Saturday of around three percent for all titles combined. This follows a previous decline in the June quarter of a similar size.

"That’s bad enough by itself, but remember that the circulation figures cover a quarter in which there was an election campaign – which traditionally puts on circulation.

"Consider, also, that population is increasing. The combined result tells us that print newspaper reading is a habit for a rapidly declining number of Australians, even when there are things happening that they might want to know about."

The latest figures in the US show that average weekday circulation of American newspapers fell 5 percent in the six months ended 30 September 2010. Such is the state of the industry that this was hailed as good news, since it represented a lower rate of decline than 9 per cent drop in the previous period.

Now, the troubles of dead tree media are not new. Still, none of the business solutions dreamed up by the media moguls seem to be working. Rupert Murdoch knows something about making money. But he’s invested his hopes in the online paywall trialled by the Times of London and the Sunday Times — and the early indications suggest that particular project constitutes a flop of fairly monumental proportions. The influential web theorist Clay Shirky has crunched the numbers and suggested that the reduction in total web audience seems to be on the order of 97 per cent. He writes:

"One way to think of this transition is that online, the Times has stopped being a newspaper, in the sense of a generally available and omnibus account of the news of the day, broadly read in the community. Instead, it is becoming a newsletter, an outlet supported by, and speaking to, a specific and relatively coherent and compact audience."

It’s a crucial point, since it moves us away from a too narrowly technological understanding of what’s at stake. That is, while the web might have exacerbated declines in circulation, the trend was already apparent long before the internet came onto the scene. In Australia, for instance, newspapers reached their peak influence in the late 1970s or early 1980s, and their reach has been shrinking ever since.

Why? As Shirky suggests, a newspaper, in the way that we’ve traditionally understood it, depends upon a unified public. It requires a broad readership, not simply in terms of numbers but in respect of a common set of assumptions and interests.

That’s why the glory days of the press coincided with the long boom after the Second World War, a time of relative economic and social stability, in which Keynesianism explicitly validated public works and the public sphere. Since then, however, the turn back to marketisation that reached its zenith with neo-liberalism has problematised, more and more explicitly, the very notion of a public. In the idealised free market, there is, as Margaret Thatcher famously explained, no such thing as society — there’s simply an aggregation of competing individuals. In the midst of that fragmentation, the old newspaper model no longer makes sense.

Obviously, the internet, with its culture of free speech, has disrupted the traditional economies of print. Yet it’s often forgotten that the online turn explicitly requires the public come accept new costs, just as it trained readers not to pay for their papers. We shell out for computers, for modems, for ISPs — utility charges that were unknown 20 years earlier. With all this new expenditure, why are we so reluctant to pay for news websites?

Because, as Shirky implies, if there’s no longer just one or two major outlets servicing a uniform public, then newspapers, as we’ve understood them, don’t really exist anymore. If you’re going to pay for a newsletter, there’s no particular reason why it should be the Times — you’re just as likely to fork out for a niche publication servicing an idiosyncratic interest of your own.

And it’s in that embrace of particularity that — maybe, just maybe — a window has opened for little magazines.

That is, in recent times, we’ve seen some interesting experiments in subsidising publications through crowdfunding. The idea is that, if you’re a small publication, you can embrace your niche, by appealing directly and publicly to those interested in what you’re doing to keep you afloat. That’s the logic behind New Matilda’s relaunch and the campaign it’s running at Fundbreak.

At Overland, we’ve been trying something similar for several years now. We’re still fundamentally a quarterly print journal, financially dependent on punters subscribing to receive four editions in the mail. But we also make all our print content available free online, even as we devote resources to a group blog that’s become something like an online magazine in its own right. Each year, we then run a Subscriberthon (plug — it starts next Monday!), in which we appeal directly to those who like what they’ve been reading for free, asking them to take out a paid subscription.

Does it work? Ask us next week!

Certainly, crowd funding’s not a magic solution. Mumbrella reported on YouCommNews, a project launched by Swinburne University’s Public Interest Journalism Foundation, in which journalists appeal for resources to investigate particular stories. The site recently published its first crowdfunded story.

But, Mumbrella suggests, the results seem to be patchy, with several investigations folding for lack of support.

The model works best where there’s already a loyal and deeply involved community. That’s why an example often invoked comes from public radio — in Melbourne, for instance, 3RRR raises remarkable amount of money through the generosity of listeners, who could, if they chose, continue to listen for free. How? Over many years, the station has built up a culture in which it’s widely understood that, if you enjoy 3RRR and want to continue, you need to support what it does.

But there’s other examples more directly relevant to journalism and magazine publishing. Over the last few years, Wikileaks has broken, as it proudly proclaims, more significant stories than most of the major news empires combines. Yet Assange and co are entirely dependent on their supporters, not only financially, but to keep them out of jail.

It would be utopian to think there’s any easy way to escape the logic of the market. The state of the media in Australia — increasingly, the state of the media in the world — is a political problem and thus ultimately requires a political solution. I’ve argued previously in New Matilda that a publicly funded online newspaper makes increasing sense, in much the same way — and for much the same reasons — as public funding for radio and television news makes sense. But that’s a different discussion.

Right here and right now, though, independent media could do with a hand. I don’t read New Matilda every day but I’m always glad that it’s there. That’s why I’ve donated to its appeal. You should do the same – and, then, if you’ve still got any spare change, pop over to Overland during our Subscriberthon.

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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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