Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Don't call it 'independent' media

I had a heated exchange on social media with a young writer some months back about whether to call small emerging online media websites "independent". I hear a lot of people talking about the "independent media" for example, using an analogue to the situation in the music industry where small labels set themselves apart from the "majors" by using the word "indie" to describe themselves. But the reality doesn't cut so cleanly in Australia. Or anywhere. All media is by definition "independent" because it's role is to be a watchman and to protect the community from abuse by powerful interests, be they government, corporations or private individuals.

There are three main print companies in Australia: News Ltd, Fairfax Media and APN News & Media. When I think about these three companies I find it hard to see anything that unites them. They all have different structures in terms of ownership. APN, for example, is 30 percent owned by Irish company Independent News & Media. APN largely serves regional markets. It's the little guy among the big three and nobody really knows what it stands for except that it operates tabloid newspapers. News Ltd is owned by US parent News Corp, which is traded on the NASDAQ but in which Rupert Murdoch has a controlling share. Most people understand that News Ltd papers have a conservative bias. Fairfax Media serves metro markets - Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Canberra - and is publicly traded on the ASX. Most people see Fairfax as gradually becoming more popularist but retaining its mainly objective stance. Then there's the government-funded ABC, which has a broad charter to serve the interests of the Australian public; the ABC is a highly trusted source of information. Because APN is mainly in regional markets the general consensus is that the Australian mainstream media (MSM) involves the other three players.

In the general news and the political space - which is the space people mostly inhabit online - there are a number of small, new websites. Crikey is a website owned by a company called Private Media which also operates a set of niche publications that are on the web. Crikey is the big little brother and tends to be irreverent, taking its publishing cues to a certain degree from the Big 3 but also doing plenty of original reporting. It is based in Melbourne but serves the entire Australian market. Crikey survives by subscriptions and advertising. New Matilda is a small outfit owned by one person, Marni Cordell, who also does a lot of the editing work. It is more overtly Left in its politics and tends to go for the alternative view, running stories that can appeal to an urban elite. New Matilda solicits reader donations. Independent Australia is a new outfit that does some interesting longer journalism and publishes no information about its ownership, but only about its editorial staff. I suspect that it is operated by volunteers. Like New Matilda, Independent Australia tends to sit on the Left on the political spectrum. Then there's Australians For Honest Politics, which was set up by ex-Fairfax journalist Margo Kingston. It is run by volunteers in southeast Queensland. The site is highly irreverent and is as happy to criticise the MSM as it is politicians. The Global Mail is a not-for-profit outfit set up using money provided by internet entrepreneur Graeme Woods. Headquartered in Sydney, it runs longer journalism and mixes its focus between the original and the topical.

As in the case of the MSM, there is not a lot to enable you to group these smaller, new news websites together. Crikey optimistically uses the word "independent" twice on its masthead, as if that gives it credibility and a new kind of gravitas. Funny thing is that The Global Mail does the same. I say optimistically because compared to the other three websites listed above Crikey is the most established, best-staffed, and richest one we've got. Australians For Honest Politics makes Crikey look like the MSM.

Others can continue to use the word "independent" to group together such websites as these, in opposition to such companies as those. But I won't. To me, these little startups will always be just small news websites. I wish them all well. It is amazing how we are so well-served by them in the face of a striking lack of diversity within Australian media generally. There are estimates that News Ltd, for example, controls 70 percent of the print media here. I especially wish the little guys well because despite the growth of internet usage most people still tend to rely on the MSM for their news. One reason for this is the depth of their newsrooms; the MSM just has more people doing news and so is able to pull together fuller accounts quicker than can the smaller outfits. The thing to remember is that it's the community that drives this business. Your clicks today are what drive the news agenda tomorrow, to a large degree. And your spending habits are what support the news outfits you use. Spend wisely.

1 comment:

Noely Neate said...

Crikey is not really the same as IA & AFHP as they at least have access to the Press Gallery, which makes a big difference in ability to report, so they are more like the mainstream newspapers without a print version (though I would have to say they are a lot more balanced than MSM).

I have a lot of respect for the IA & AFHP as thousands of hours are put into both for no profit. I know David who runs IA is not affiliated to any political party at all, just likes calling BS when he sees it and is very very ethical about Journalistic integrity, rarely quotes the odious 'source' that MSM love to use. When he does quote a 'source' it really is someone who has to keep quiet. I also know he checks, verifies, more than one source etc., for all reports, something I am not sure the big boys are bother with?

With AFHP I love the differences of opinion onsite. Even my 'punter' rants get a run, as we often look at things differently. They are giving a voice to a large collective of people with an experienced journalist carefully ensuring that no lines are crossed ethically or legally.

Hopefully both succeed. They deserve to and they deserve a wider audience. Group think is never a good thing, diversity & information is needed to make informed decisions.

Speaking of 'informed'. As far as the election goes, you can't go past Ausvotes2013, the experts lined up there, with full information is brilliant & much needed in the current media climate :)