Crikey! Could that make money?
By David Walker (Google profile)
What's been Australia's most distinctive contribution to the online publishing boom? No contest: it's Stephen Mayne's Crikey.com.au, the Web site and email bulletin that runs the lawnmower over fields of tall poppies in politics, business and the media.
And now we're about to find out whether Crikey is also Australia's first halfway viable online publishing business.
For anyone who hasn't followed the lengthy Crikey saga, it goes like this. Young finance writer Stephen Mayne quits journalism to take up spin-doctoring for the right-wing Kennett Government of Victoria, wins the government's admiration, quits to return to journalism, appears destined for great office at Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd, claims on television that Mr Kennett used his office to improperly obtain allocations of shares, wins a Walkley award (Australian equivalent of the US journalism Pulitzer) for asking questions at company meetings and reporting the answers, quits News for rival Fairfax, quits Fairfax to stand against Kennett and publish tales of his spin-doctor experiences at the jeffed.com.au Web site, finds himself credited as a force behind Kennett's surprise 1999 election loss, starts Crikey.com.au and associated email newsletter, runs for board and council positions, attracts publicity while losing elections, and gets right up lots of powerful noses by publishing amusing, scathing and sometimes deadly accurate online commentary.
In one recent adventure (in late April 2001) Mayne was barred from a tax-policy press conference held by the Kennett Government's Labor Party replacement, the Bracks Government. The Bracks Government ostensibly barred him because he's a serial political candidate and fringe publisher rather than an "accredited" Victorian press gallery journalist, but it may have also suspected that the fiscally conservative Mayne would write well-informed and less-than-flattering commentary on the tax cuts. The high points of this particular Mayne adventure were:
- Security staff telling Mayne he might "cause trouble". This line accidentally provoked the suspicion that the accredited print, radio and television journalists cause the government very little trouble at all.
- Premier Bracks warning that allowing Australia's Internet media into tax-policy press conferences would cause unacceptable overcrowding. If only.
- Premier Bracks telling the accredited journalists that "Internet services are quite different" from normal media. Online publishing is now, it seems, officially unhip.
As so often, this adventure brought master self-publicist Mayne yet more attention. It also attracted more of the $55-a-year subscriptions that may just end up earning him a living.
So how do the numbers stack up? Mayne estimates his costs at around $400 a week. Against that, he claims to have more than 1200 of those $55-a-year subscriptions. With his first year in business just finishing, he must now persuade subscribers to renew - one of the toughest tasks in publishing. If he can keep renewals high while gathering new readers, leveraging the Crikey brand and exploiting the advertising opportunities of Crikey's upmarket subscriber base, Mayne might just find himself with a $100,000-a-year business.
Making Internet publishing pay would be quite a feat. Giant media firms like NBC and CNN have had their pockets emptied by online publishing; in Australia, hefty losses have sent almost every major media group scurrying away from the Internet this year. A profitable Crikey would demonstrate that the Internet could play an important role in Australian public debate. It would also fuel the case that the future of online content belongs to small publishers - the case put forward eloquently earlier this year by journalist and online publisher Daniel Rutter at his computer information site, Dansdata.com.
$100,000 a year is not a fortune for a business that has run through more than $100,000 of capital, and which still relies on the underpaid help of Mayne's family and friends. So why does Mayne keep Crikey running? If he was seeking fame, money and professional recognition, he only had to keep on going the way he was going back in 1992, climbing the grimy but lucrative government/News Limited career ladder. Instead, as best I can tell, he willingly trashed his career because he believed that it was the best way to promote accountability in governments, businesses and news media.
The Internet has let Stephen Mayne give voice to his convictions. It would be a sweet symmetry indeed if he were to return the favour by showing that Australian online publishing has a viable future.
(Disclosures: the author, David Walker, is a member of the Labor Party, a Crikey subscriber, and spent part of his own career as a political journalist resisting Stephen Mayne's spin-doctoring.)