Creating sustainable Australian independent media outlets is imperative, and hard to do. Supporting Australian independent media is more important still.
Antony Lowenstein here in On Line Opinion puts forward a convincing case as to why “independent and online resources are more essential than ever”. “The public” is cynical about the news produced by the major media companies, and for good reason. During the 2004 federal election campaign Max Suich, founder of The Independent Monthly, former Fairfax chief editorial executive, and a great scrutiniser of a press gallery on the government drip-feed, insisted that proprietors’ influence on editorial is negligible. Lowenstein demonstrates otherwise: Murdoch returned his man, and changes to cross-media laws are now a sure thing.
In February Prime Minister John Howard indicated he won’t move on media de-regulation until the major players decide what they want. Reluctant to act as umpire between the moguls, Howard and Communications Minister Helen Coonan say there’s no hurry, just as long as Kerry(s) and Co come out of it happy. This leaves us wondering in whose interest legislative change will work. That near-obsolete disillusioned “public” (try consumer) barely rates a mention in a discussion about stocks, mergers, acquisitions and shareholders.
So, the time is now for engaged and independent media: we need new players and new forums, inspired visions and critical voices. As Lowenstein concludes, “The challenge has begun”. I agree. Especially with the bit about “challenge”.
In 2004-2005 I co-edited an independent current affairs and culture magazine called Spinach7. My co-editor was Marni Cordell, and the magazine’s producer, Sam de Silva.
Spinach7 was a colourful, glossy quarterly magazine, nationally distributed through newsagencies and bookshops. Our choice of medium was strategic (as was the choice of name, believe it or not). We wanted Spinach7 to read well, look hot and reach a wide audience. Spinach7 published stories about the Asia Pacific region: investigative, topical features and pieces profiling innovative and creative work. We didn’t run a line. We wanted to challenge our readers, and contribute fresh perspectives to current debates. We valued clarity of expression, detail and stimulating ideas. Importantly, we strived to provide access to voices from the places under discussion, valuing local knowledge on issues affecting communities.
We believed - and still do - that there is an audience looking for these kinds of stories, which are overlooked or trivialised by corporate media outlets. However - you guessed it - we didn’t make it. A glossy magazine is very expensive to produce. In order to secure advertising and reach a diverse readership we made certain compromises along the way. While our purpose remained clear, it was challenging and stressful to reconcile the demands involved in producing a commercially viable publication with high production values.
We retained staunchly independent editorial policy and processes, unaffected by relationships with advertisers. And we stuck to “ethical advertising”, even reaching loose consensus on what that meant. But in terms of content we were constantly adjusting, questioning and testing our priorities. Cover images that sell; the importance of impressing and challenging an informed audience; the importance of not patronising or alienating a less informed potential audience - these were pressure points under constant consideration.
All work on Spinach7 magazine was unpaid. We were a lean, committed team but our inability to pay contributors - from who we expected high quality writing supported by research - held us back.
In January of this year we decided it was no longer financially viable for us to keep working in print, for the moment. What follows are my own opinions, they do not necessarily reflect the views of my colleagues.
I’m not looking to blame anyone or anything for us not succeeding - we made our own mistakes, and we also made a good crack at it. But this experience has prompted me to think critically about the context in which independent media makers struggle to make it in Australia, despite the often expressed “urgent need” for vital, viable projects. By context I mean much more than just the market, I mean the cultural conditions that help determine whether or not a crazy dream stands a chance at breaking even.
One of the reasons it’s hard to make independent media initiatives work in this country is because there’s an endemic reluctance to back the risk-takers.
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