Eltham On Why You Should Support NM


New Matilda is in peril again.

Yes, it’s true. We’re in danger of closing.

"What?" I hear you ask. "Again? Didn’t I help bail you out last year?"

Yes and yes, my friends. It is the nature of the business. It takes money to keep a website open: it pays for web servers and office rent, for phones and utilities, and for a person to call when the site crashes. It takes money to create content: to provide a modest fee for New Matilda’s editors and writers.

New Matilda is an astonishingly lean and responsive organisation. I find it frankly amazing what the site has managed to produce on barely $150,000 this year. It costs Fairfax many millions of dollars just to keep its giant printing presses operational. It costs the ABC tens of millions to keep the radio and television transmitters blaring. The bargain that New Matilda offers savvy fans of interesting political writing is, I believe, unparalleled in the current Australian media. But that doesn’t make it easy to raise money for independent media. No, it’s exceedingly difficult. That’s why we need you to commit.

If you’ve subscribed already, by the way, thank you. You can go now. Click away to the latest Ben Pobjie article, you’ve earned it.

For everyone else, I humbly ask for some of your time, and for your money. Let me try and convince you why you should support New Matilda.

In a word, it’s about diversity. There is nothing like New Matilda in the Australian media, and if we lose it, nothing like it will spring up.

But hang on: diversity? Don’t we have the internet now?

Yes. There’s no doubt that there are lot of voices out there. There’s an ocean of free content online. You can fire up your web browser and read any amount of writing about politics and public affairs from any number of journalists, commentators, bloggers and ordinary citizens. Some of it is deeply informed, incisively argued, beautifully composed. Some of it is similar to New Matilda. So why bother supporting us?

There are two answers: a smaller and a larger one.

Firstly: well, you’re reading this, aren’t you? We know New Matilda has many tens of thousands of readers, some casual, some committed. If you like what you see and you want it continue, well … you know what to do.

There is a second, larger reason. While there are a multitude of voices, there is also a concentration of resources. Judged in terms of the cold hard dollars — and what they can buy in terms of the people, the material, the marketing heft and the technical knowhow — the Australian news media in 2011 is far more concentrated than you realise.

Resources matter. They enable journalists and editors to pursue their work fulltime. They fund investigations. They pay for web servers and the other means of media production. They support web developers and designers to present information with greater clarity and beauty. They help publishers and outlets compete for your attention in the super-saturated white noise of the modern media environment.

And who has the resources? The big guys. In terms of who is covering Australian politics, current affairs, society, business and the environment, not to mention our near neighbours and the region — seriously, diligently, professionally covering — the spectrum of choice is rather narrower than it might first appear.

When it comes to who pays, publishes, supports and edits writers and journalists in this country, a few large organisations dominate. Just four — News Limited, Fairfax, the ABC and the wire service AAP — employ thousands of journalists and generate vast troves of news content. Sky News and the television newsrooms represent maybe a hundred more.

Everything else — everything else — is, in the scheme of things, small change. The online media, the small press, the little magazines, community radio, the blogs, the Tumblr feeds, your local zine-makers: all of them are viable channels of communication. Many are vibrant, fertile, and exciting. Some are even growing. But few of them can pay: either their creators, or their editors and writers. Collectively, the resources and the ability of independent media to genuinely cover current affairs, and its financial support for primary creators, remains limited.

As the site’s editors, Marni and Catri, wrote last year:

"The present state of affairs — in which readers complain that there’s a lack of media diversity, that they don’t like the media that’s available, that their political views aren’t served by big media — will go on until these same readers work out that media costs money and that someone has to pay for it."

By the way, I am not taking anything away from independent media. Quite the contrary. What I ask you to imagine is how radically different our mediascape would be if independent media enjoyed a level of resources equal to its energy and ambitions. This, finally, might put the lie to argument commonly made by the mainstream media, that the output of independent media is somehow of a lower standard, or lacking in the privileged insights, of the big players.

But we don’t live in that world. The world we live in right now sees the daily erosion of support for journalism and writing. In the long term, this will diminish the scrutiny of our media, and the health of our democracy. The upshot is a paradox. While the big media organisations are doing it tough, they still have plenty of resources. Indeed, they have almost all of them. The independent media have almost none.

So I think the conclusion is simple. If you want more independent media in this country — if you want better scrutiny of our society’s powerful elites — then you have an interest in supporting independent media with your money. You can start here. And this should not be your final stop.

Let me anticipate a few criticisms. The most common is that we’re simply not good enough. If there is problem raising funds, then maybe it’s because New Matilda is not a compelling enough product? In the marketplace of ideas, only the strong shall survive.

I don’t think you’ll be surprised to find that I disagree. You don’t have to be an unreconstructed Marxist to spot the flaws in the argument. Hard news and current affairs have rarely been profitable. They have always been subsidised — whether by the taxpayer, advertisers, a philanthropic foundation, a powerful media baron, or simply a community of readers.

New Matilda will never be a media empire. But we can carve out a sustainable niche. With growing support, New Matilda could support full-time correspondents covering the issues we know our readers are passionate about: the environment, federal politics, business, the world. We could embark on serious investigations. We could bring you deeper and richer content.

But right now, on the scale that it currently operates, New Matilda is valuable. We think it’s worth supporting as it stands.

Another criticism we often hear is that New Matilda doesn’t market itself well enough. It’ true, we don’t have the resources to pay a full-time marketing professional to build our readership, or to employ full-time administrators. Given that only two staffers keep New Matilda going, the profile of the site is remarkably high. Without more support, the organisation remains a work in progress.

A final criticism is also common: why bother? New Matilda seems to be perpetually in crisis. Maybe it’s just not sustainable. What’s the point of contributing this time? And the answer to this one is: don’t give up. We’re not giving up. We will keep publishing. And to do that, we’ll keep asking for your support.

Because there is no magic bullet. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Independent media takes blood, sweat, tears — and cash. If you give us the cash, if enough of you support us, we will give you New Matilda. If you don’t, we can’t.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.