In an age of worldwide mass internet usage, a common misconception suggests that the public has never been so well informed and is therefore in touch with current affairs, news events and goings-on. If only this were the case. The opposite is in fact often true. While Australians are now better educated than at any time in our history, their connection and power to change or mould events, has in many cases, in fact, decreased. When did you last feel the ability to change the coverage of a major story? When did you last contact the Sydney Morning Herald, Courier Mail or The Age and demand investigation into a specific topic? And what effect would you have even if you did? Australia is currently experiencing a divergence in information dissemination, and a lesser reliance on the printed work to get informed. All major media companies are naturally concerned, yet few seem to know how to deal with the ramifications of the web revolution. Overseas examples, such as slate.com, salon.com and alternet.org, suggest online magazines are possible, though their ability to make profits, let alone breakeven, is questionable. Of course, the fact that a news organization says it needs to make a profit to continue is one of the great myths of the media firmament. What is more important, solid reporting or good figures in the annual report?
Margo Kingston is online political editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and one of the most outspoken journalists in Australia. She edits Webdiary, a free-flowing forum that gives readers the opportunity to express views and engage in discussion about issues of the day. Kingston edits contributions and helps shape the debates.
‘It’s evolved from an online column to I’m not really sure what it is now, a general reader vibe’, suggests Kingston. ‘It started off as really short emails then lots of people wanted more substantial contributions, which evolved into having columnists.’ This soon led to the introduction of current ALP National President Carmen Lawrence to the fold.
‘When Carmen Lawrence resigned [from the ALP frontbench], I called her and said, ‘you’ll probably get a lot of other offers, but if not, you could become a columnist for Webdiary.’ I asked the editor in chief of the Sydney Morning Herald, Alan Revell, if the paper would like to take her on, and he said, ‘no, she’s damaged goods after the Penny Easton affair’, and I emailed back and said, ‘I really don’t think that’s the issue, she’s going to be the new spokesman for the disaffected left in the party.’ As it turned out, nobody wanted her, so she became a Webdiary columnist.’
So where does Webdiary fit into the Australian media landscape? It’s a strange beast, funded by Fairfax, a mainstream news organization, yet sometimes featuring voices and debates not unlike Indy media, and unafraid to run the latest Chomsky missive. Primarily left of centre, but keen to share a stage with the occasional right-winger, Webdiary frequently suffers from an identity crisis; and that’s one of its main strengths. Whether talking about the war in Iraq, same sex couples, higher education or the state of our democracy under John Howard, debates are fierce, fiery, argumentative and passionate. It is unquestionably one of the few spaces in any online mainstream newspaper across the world that is willing to encourage and engage citizens to be involved in our democracy. Kingston argues that the space provides an essential service to an otherwise generally compliant media landscape.
‘Webdiary was the only place that published the list of guests at the Howard BBQ during the Bush visit’ , states Kingston. ‘That triggered in my mind a few things. One, there’s a crunch on news space and has been for many years. Secondly, there’s been a reduction in journalists and that’s been going on for many years. So you have actually more and more important news not actually getting recorded in the mainstream media which is pretty frightening. Webdiary has shown it’s a way for readers to get the information they want.’
‘Another important aspect too is speeches or transcripts. I first started that seriously at the end of the 2001 election with the children overboard affair. I published every single transcript of Howard and Reith and Ruddock and then I went back to what they’d said at the beginning of the campaign.’
Investigative journalists David Marr and Marian Wilkinson even used Webdiary during research of their incendiary 2002 book, Dark Victory. The space is as much about opinions as keeping track of official doublespeak.
Kingston argues that the Australian media needs to radically reform itself if it wants to regain trust in the wider community, particularly due to the rise and rise of the PR machine around politicians.
‘With the Bush and Hu visits and the war widow, Kylie Russell, I was describing how the reporter goes about getting the story and putting almost verbatim on record the various blocking techniques of the press secretaries, all to open up that process. That made me realise that the spin-doctors have got us by the short and curlies at the moment. They understand how our news judgement works and how decisions are made and exactly what form news stories take. Mainly because they’ve all worked in the media and they’re all bloody traitors. So they understand that if they actually don’t answer or don’t take calls or blow shit of you and hang up, there is actually no story, you’re actually relying on them to get the impetus or the peg for the story.’
‘I’ve found this in a few ways, so if they block, the story’s just doesn’t run. I’ve actually made suggestions to the Sydney Morning Herald news desk about this, about trying to alter our style to accommodate that, otherwise we’re checkmated. I did an experiment with that, in the Kylie Russell war widow story, of writing in news story style the fact of the PM’s office not answering any questions, which is very significant. And I had to write it in the first person, and I showed it to a few people in the Canberra bureau, and they said, it’s a good story, there’s no reason they couldn’t run it, except that it’s in the first person and they’d say I’m not part of the story. We’ve got to have a regular section of what spin-doctors wouldn’t answer today.’
Kingston has written in an upcoming book on media in Australia, and her chapter details how the web is revolutionising news delivery and the reader response to it. Traditional ethics are being challenged and boundaries are being crossed between the journalist and readers. Nothing is as it once was, and Webdiary is one of the few forums in Australia where the mainstream respects and airs the views of non-journalists, at length, empowering them to create alternative realities and interpretations. It’s perhaps the ultimate postmodern news experiment in the mainstream.
In her chapter, Kingston writes the following in relation to journalist’s traditional role: “[We] are under constant pressure to write what the powerful want written, and not delve into what they don’t.” It’s a level of self-awareness that challenges the mainstream, making Kingston an anathema in the Australian media landscape.
Kingston offers another insight into the ways of the corporate media, and the importance of providing alternatives to its rigidity.
‘I thought Howard had admitted in a Greg Sheridan arse-kissing interview [in The Australian] that he had decided to go to war long before he told us. He said, “Bush rang me and asked what do I do. Howard said, ‘it’s important that you’re perceived to have gone to the UN before we go to war.’ I got very excited because I thought that proved the lie [of Howard having committed to war months before telling the public]. I called Howard’s office but they wormed their way out of it. I rang the Opposition, and nothing. I rang the news desk and said I’d like to offer this story, and they said, ‘no, since Howard’s said what he meant, if we run it, we’re making a campaign against Howard’. I was shocked and I said how about writing the story with Howard’s denial and letting readers make up their own minds. ‘We can’t be perceived as doing that’, I was told, so I ran it as a news story of Webdiary and it got a lot of hits.’
‘I had a long chat to the news editor, and I said if this is the way it’s going, that if they deny something, it’s not a story, we’re really have to find a way through this. We have to change our structure, and give readers the chance to make up their own minds. We’re not keeping up with the game.’
Despite the fact that Australian has the most tightly owned media landscape in the world (see XMedia for a campaign against the proposed changes to the media ownership laws which would inevitably lead to less voices and diversity), Kingston doesn’t blame the practioneners of her craft, rather she sites the realities of news becoming a greater commodity to be bought and sold.
‘I don’t blame the journalists because they’re dealing with massive structural problems’, says Kingston. ‘The main one is the sheer lack of space. When I was in Canberra after those two non-state visits (Bush and Hu), it was just scandalous the important and good stories that didn’t run. One day the news list was chocker block with ‘to die for’ stories, yet they held 7 stories, which means they spiked them. The space problem has been growing in the last 10 years. It’s all supplements and advertising ratios. Their main thing is how much profit are we making a page.’
And solutions for the future? It’s a question around the world, especially for web-based publications. To accept advertisements, or not to accept advertisements. Buzzflash and Znet in the US are two organizations that have make a commitment to allow no advertising on their sites, surviving on reader donation and subscriptions. Kingston sees a near future with readers having to show their love with more than just words.
‘People want to get new information on the web, not just endless opinion. If they want to get new information on Australian politics and news, they are going to have to put their hands in their pockets, particularly if the cross media laws go through. The starting point and model is probably Crikey.
Antony Loewenstein is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia