New Matilda owner and editor Chris Graham reflects on two years at the helm of Australia’s most ‘controversial’ independent media outlet.
Two years ago today, I took over as the editor and owner of New Matilda. While I’ve broken quite a few promises in my time here – most of them related to deadlines and long-awaited stories (which I’m still working on… in my ‘spare time’) – I’ve most definitely kept one.
I promised a wild ride.
I think it’s fair to say I’ve delivered on that. You’re welcome.
Thinking back over the last two years, New Matilda has caused quite a stir. You might remember New Matilda from such legal sh*tfights as ‘Professor Barry Spurr and his amazing racist, misogynistic emails’ or ‘Freya Newman blows the whistle on Frances Abbott’s stunning white privilege… and faces two-years jail for her bravery’.
In one memorable day in 2014, our ‘presence was required’ in both the Federal Court and the Local Court at the exact same time. And for a period of several months, we had six legal actions/threats pending at one time.
Two years in, we still haven’t lost one… and yet, somehow, we’re still paying off a $55,000 legal bill for one case which we actually ‘won’ (most of our legal work is done by a pro bono genius lawyer named Geoff Holland. I can only imagine where we’d be without him… jail being one obvious option).
And that’s just the stories we’re best know for. We’ve gotten away with a lot more than that.
Ben Eltham revealed the secret Nick Ross recordings in January this year; Max Chalmers blew the lid on the secret Moss Transcripts last year; Thom Mitchell laid bare a dodgy port built off Darwin without environmental approval.
Amy McQuire upset ‘lefties’ everywhere with a stunning dismantling of Annabel Crabb’s Kitche Cabinet show, which was published shortly after she returned from covering the devastation of a cyclone in Vanuatu.
Later that year, we sent Thom Mitchell (below right) to Paris to cover the climate talks. His reporting was, in my view, the best out of Australian media.
Liz Conor’s piece on our black history of how we depict Aboriginal women is just one of her pieces that went viral. Michael Brull has nailed more hypocrites than an Aamer Rahman skit, and Dr Lissa Johnson has laid bare the psychology behind the psychopaths who run our country on numerous occasions.
Our cartoonists routinely land blows that others miss, and contributing editor Wendy Bacon – a journalist who, like me, has never earned a cent from New Matilda, has punched on on WestConnex, feminism, higher education and everything in between.
And they’re just the stories we’ve published. There are so many more we haven’t, in large part because everything takes us 10 times as long, with 1,000 times less resources than that available to our competitors in mainstream media.
Long story short… independent media, notwithstanding its significant challenges, is a pretty interesting place to reside. And New Matilda is as independent as it gets.
Our masthead, of course, is quite a bit older than my tenure. New Matilda is now in its 12th year of publication, a testament to the skill, foresight and downright stubbornness of the editors and owners who’ve come before me.
All of them knew what I’ve only recently discovered – that independent media is fundamentally about doing a lot, with a little.
That and you to love it while you do it, or you won’t last.
Fortunately, I do love what I do. I also happen to love the people I do it with. A better team of writers and staff I couldn’t have asked for.
On the downside, you also have to be prepared to cop the brickbats, and we’ve been belted over the head with our share of those. There’s a reason why I go to precious few media industry events… because I think as whole, my industry is a bit of a toxic waste dump. I don’t know if I’ve ever been the smartest guy in a roomful of journalists, but I know I’ve regularly been the least popular. Badge of honour.
Even so, when I wake in the morning, I don’t have to worry about going to an office where an editor with no moral compass tells me to file some beat-up on [insert minority group here].
I don’t have to worry about the politics or the ‘big business’ that signs my pay cheques. And I don’t have to pretend that I’m providing balance by publishing people with extremist views, like Paul Sheehan, or Andrew Bolt, or Miranda Devine, or Gerard Henderson or any number of right-wing conspiracy theorists.
Instead, I get to publish young and upcoming writers, people who otherwise don’t have a voice. And I get to publish minority groups, and organisations that otherwise get ignored because their core business is human rights, which makes them ‘fringe’ in the eyes of a click-obsessed mainstream media.
Every day, I get to rant and rave and shout at the world. And then I get to go home, and procrastinate and beat myself up about all the admin stuff I should have done that day, but didn’t.
The truth about independent media is that it is what most Australians say that want. Independent.
Sadly, it’s not where most Australians direct their money. Instead, most simply complain about ‘effing journalists’, and then consume whatever mainstream media spew forth regardless.
New Matilda’s subscribers – and a small group of hard-core supporters who back us, whether they agree with everything we publish or not – are the exception to the rule.
I don’t really know how to change that – to expand the base. We’ve tried, with mixed success. We’ll keep trying anyway.
Despite the lack of resources and income, New Matilda’s profile has grown immensely in the last few years. We’re now an established, albeit not particularly well-liked, part of the media landscape. Even today, The Australian newspaper’s media section includes a feature article which quotes NM extensively (we recently got ourselves and hundreds of our readers banned from Facebook for publishing a photo of bare-breasted Aboriginal women performing ceremony).
And so, at this juncture, it’s probably timely to remind people what New Matilda actually stands for, and I can sum it up in a few simple words: holding truth to power.
We’re often referred to as a ‘left wing’ or ‘left leaning’ publication. And that’s true. We are. But politics are full of grey areas and truth these days can be a surprisingly subjective thing.
We’ve upset right-wingers by our very existence, not to mention with the thousands of articles we’ve published in the last two years. And we’ve upset our share of left-wingers by hosting a debate on nuclear energy, climate change, feminism, and Tony Abbott (I likened him to Ted Bundy upon his resignation… now that was a sh*tstorm).
We’ve angered ‘both sides’ and everything in between precisely because we value the truth so much. And contrary to popular opinion, the truth isn’t always in the middle. Sometimes it’s on the right, most times it’s on the left. And sometimes it’s in both places. But wherever it is, if you hold it sacred, then your job is surprisingly much less complicated.
While you go hunting the truth, you have to honour your core values, and promte the issues that you believe matter.
We’re passionate about Aboriginal affairs, because the enduring injustice is as stark and obvious as the enduring stain on the soul of this nation.
We’re passionate about climate change because if we don’t stop destroying the planet then life as we know it ends. All we’ll end up pass on to our children is social and economic ruin.
We’re passionate about worker’s rights because the rich will always try to screw the poor. That’s as sure as death and taxes… which a lot of rich people don’t pay, by the way.
We’re passionate about asylum seekers because they’ve done nothing wrong, and we jail them regardless.
We’re passionate about higher education, because everyone should have access to it, regardless of the size of their parents’ pay cheque.
We’re passionate about human rights, because any worthwhile nation should be judged by how they treat their most vulnerable.
And we’re passionate about media, because we’re supposed to be the Fourth Estate, the safety net when the rest of the system breaks down.
Which segues neatly into what we’re most passionate about – independent media.
Every time Fairfax publishes another piece of ridiculous racial click bait; every time the ABC plays the ‘false balance game’ and puts forward an objectionable lunatic as a ‘voice of conservative reason’; every time SBS sacks a journalist for expressing a private opinion; every time News Corporation hunts a minority, or the unemployed, or a union member, or an ethnic or religious group, or someone from the LGBTQI community; every time commercial television does anything at all; and every time every one of the above, plus Pedestrian TV, rips off one of our yarns and pretends it’s their own (with the exception of any yarn we break around social justice) it makes New Matilda – and our colleagues in independent media, a little more relevant.
The challenge for us is to ensure that these sins of our industry translate to stronger support and greater resources.
I suspect that’ll always be a work in progress. The hopeless optimist in me likes to believe that one day, New Matilda won’t have to beg, borrow and steal to stay alive, pay our rent, and underpay our writers (and for the record, to get there, we need about 10,000 paid subscribers. We’re about a third of the way there. Anyone with any ideas, drop me a line).
Unfortunately, my optimistic heart actually lives in the body of a bitter pessimist, who knows that independent media is marginal, and quite possibly always will be.
Whatever the eventual outcome, the realist in me knows that New Matilda and independent media more generally will always require people with passion and commitment, people who are prepared to make personal sacrifices to prosecute the issues they believe in, and to defend the interests of those unable to defend themselves.
On that front, there’s too many people to thank for where New Matilda is today. You all know who you are, although having said that, a special mention has to go to Angela Nicholson, my partner in crime – literally – who keeps the office running, and the debt collectors at bay. Without Ange… etc etc.
I don’t know where New Matilda will be in another two years. My dream is for it to be stable, where we don’t have to worry about how we pay our small team of writers (or how we don’t pay our small team of writers, which is, in truth, what mostly happens). If you want to help us on that front, share our stories, subscribe to our site, and advertise your stuff.
Until then, we’ll continue to survive on the sniff of an oily rag. And above all else, we’ll continue to learn along the way, and love what we do.
I’m inordinately proud of what New Matilda has achieved in the last two years. We haven’t always got it right, and there’s a lot more we would have liked to have done. But in difficult circumstances, I think we’ve punched well above our weight.
On a personal note, my journey with New Matilda has been both maddening and amazing, and although I still don’t really know the destination, I’m enormously grateful for the many, many people – readers, family, friends, and even enemies – who’ve helped make it possible.
So to them, a sincere thanks for the most challenging two years of my life, whatever role you may have played in it.
And finally, to the team at New Matilda: when the going gets this tough, we really should just bugger off to the pub.
I love that we don’t. I love that we keep trying. And I love that all of you have kept the faith in the face of ridiculous odds.
New Matilda remains a magazine for the true believers. And the wild ride continues.
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