If the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over while hoping for a different result, a report in the Media section of today’s Australian might be taken as a suggestion that Wotif founder and mega-bucks Greens backer Graeme Wood is a suitable case for treatment. If so, read on and appreciate that such a conclusion would be irredeemably wrong.
Not so long ago, Wood sank what was reported to be as much as $15 million into a very strange vanity site that went by the name of the Global Mail. It folded after a couple of years, which was to be expected of an operation staffed with the sweepings of various Fairfax publications and, of course, the ABC, where the notion of cost-efficiency remains such an alien concept that, as The Australian also reports this morning, the national broadcaster paid Credit Suisse $3.7 million for “commercial advisory services” from December 2013 to July 2015. As Credit Suisse’s chairman, John O’Sullivan, has been “a close friend of the Prime Minister since their school days”, you might have thought Mr Turnbull could have asked for a mates-rate discount. But that’s probably another story.
Of greater immediate interest is Graeme Wood’s latest apparent folly, his investment in The Guardian Australia, which is said to have have run a up $14 million worth of losses over the past 12 months.
Same targeted audience as the Global Mail.
Same green-left-only hiring policy.
And — surprise! surprise! — same blot of deepest red ink on the bottom line.
If Wood’s interest were only in turning a profit, he can’t say he wasn’t warned. Back in 2012, the now-editor of Quadrant Online dropped Wood an unsolicited note briefly detailing what was wrong with the Global Mail and why, if he genuinely wished to make his site a viable operation, drastic steps were needed. The key elements of that advice are reproduced below:
Who do you want to reach? What do you want to tell them? Why are you doing this?
They are the three key questions and the Global Mail’s current form suggests none has been given more than a moment’s thought (perhaps over dessert as [ex-ABCer Monica] Attard persuaded you to part with $15 million?)
Reach: Your content is of a kind with The Drum, Crikey, The Conversation, the ABC, much of Fairfax and any number of blogs. These represent maybe 10% of the news-consuming public, and that would be on a good day. If you want a tiny share of a small market segment, the Global Mail as it currently exists is the way to get it.
What? There is too much preaching. By all means position the Global Mail on the left, but if you don’t allow dissident voices into the mix, the site becomes just another propaganda spigot. Plus, your news editor – if you have one – isn’t doing his or her job. The stories are too long, too boring and I have yet to see anything that resembles sharp, witty writing. You have collected a bunch of people who all think the same way, write the same way and bang on (interminably) about the same subjects. Then you have compounded that error by not hiring an old-school backbench editor, someone with the spine to throw boring copy back at reporters and tell them to fix it ….
Why? Ask yourself this: What are you trying to achieve for $15 million? So far, all you have done is give Attard a pulpit to rabbit on about her virtues and those of the mates she hired at your expense. Great work if you can get it! The traffic numbers say readers are a good deal less impressed with the site than Attard has been with herself.
If you, as the proprietor, spell out what you aim to achieve, you can then hire professionals to draw up and execute that plan. Until then you will be bled dry by writers who, as journalists, make good dinner party guests. The Attard version – that you are an Antipodean Daddy Warbucks only too happy to underwrite indefinitely her mates’ follies and incompetence – cannot be true. Surely?
Personally, even before scrapping and re-launching the site, I would write an old-fashioned business plan, one with a dollar amount on the bottom line. Making money is how we keep score, as your Wotif investors know. Without a business plan, the Global Mail will remain nothing more than an enclave staffed by ABCers, superannuated Fairfax types and riddled with groupthink. A look at the [Fairfax Media; FXJ] stock price will tell you how well that approach is working.
… And by the way, why give them full-time jobs? It’s not as if there is rampant competition for unoriginal writers of all-too-worthy and predictable prose. You could have had them on piece-work contracts and saved a fortune.
Look, I won’t go on any longer. I’m not in the habit of providing unpaid consultancy services, it’s just that Australian journalism is in such a sad and sorry state I could not restrain myself. You have $15 million worth of mad money to blow and a sincere desire to expand the reach of free speech. For God’s sake, get some bang for your buck – and do the cause of public debate a favour at the same time.
etc etc etc
PS: … And no, I’m not looking for a job, just some decent Australian journalism.
Wood responded with a short note to the effect that he would get in touch, which he never did.
It is unbecoming to take pleasure in another’s pain, but in the case of The Guardian Australia rather difficult to avoid that temptation — not because a dilettante publisher is out of pocket, but because both of Wood’s ill-starred forays into the news business illustrate so much of what is diseased and out of whack about Australian journalism and, not to stretch a point, the gross imbalance in the philanthropies of the left and right.
Consider the greenhouse ecology of Australia’s media, where fragile and rare species flourish in an atmosphere of other people’s money. The list starts with the ABC, where cronyism and groupthink are subsidised by the taxpayer, but it extends much further than that. Thanks to rich “progressives” who put their money where their politics are, the web and newsstands are littered with the self-satisfied smuggery of second-rate, money-losing outlets for leftist orthodoxy. Apart from Wood, think here of property developer Morry Schwartz, whose reckless, largely unread and mostly unreadable Saturday Paper follows the Global Mail model in having rounded up the usual suspects to peddle the same old nonsense. If you are giving Bob Ellis a weekly column and presenting him as an agent of accuracy, insight and rationality, you are looking for a loss-leading tax deduction, operating a retirement home for the ink-stained and odious, or both.
Yet in another sense it works beautifully. Take a further beneficiary of a rich leftist’s largesse, Mike Seccombe and his current gig at Saturday Paper, where he landed after Wood’s generosity toward the Global Mail ran its course. Because he is published at all, that means he can be presented by the ABC as a guest worthy of a spot on the Insiders couch, there to preach the party line on whatever the talking points of the day might happen to be: the dire peril of global warming, the ‘inhumanity’ of Nauru and Manus, the alleged misogyny of Tony Abbott, the lustrous inevitability of Malcolm Turnbull, the pressing need for fresh and larger taxes etc etc etc ad nauseam.
The Guardian, too, serves its purpose in this regard. Despite what the latest losses state is an economically unviable news organ, visited by many but cherished only by a narrow band of Greens voters and Labor luvvies, those bylines of the inexperienced and ardent, the superannuated and supercilious, serve as an entre to the further propagation of their views and opinions on the ABC, their ABC. Again to cite Insiders, what would be David Marr’s claim to ongoing guest spots were it not for the stream of his epistles on newsprint subsidised by his employers’ political leanings and vanities? To hear Marr announce, as he did several months ago, that Tony Abbott had found himself hopelessly “wedged” because his views on gay marriage match those of his Pope is to grasp in an instant that he is as unversed in Catholic doctrine as on the atmospheric impact of trace gasses — another topic on which he has maintained Abbott is perplexed, this time to find himself in disagreement with Francis’ Laudato si encyclical.
Now consider another item of today’s news, also reported in The Australian‘s splendid Media section: New Matilda‘s Chris Graham now has a seat on the Press Council. Chances are you don’t read New Matilda or, if you do, it is for the perverse pleasure of seeing what journalism academic Wendy “I Have Been F***ed by God’s Steel Prick” Bacon’s acolytes are telling each other and their readers. But on the broader left it is a different matter; indeed, any ally — even a guttersnipe keyhole-peeper — is a worthy ally if it advances the cause. Thus did we see New Matilda‘s publication of private emails by Sydney University’s Barry Spurr, which Graham defended as being in the public interest.
Public interest? Hmmm. Only if that is construed as meaning Spurr’s input to a report on the state and betterment of Australia’s schools needed to be diminished and dismissed. The left long ago conquered the nation’s primary and secondary systems, so any and all efforts to reclaim that ground in the name of rationality and rigour had to be defeated, as the left is wont to put it, by any means neccessary. New Matilda pillaged Spurr’s private emails, just as it went after an Abbott daughter’s scholarship from a private art college, again with purloined emails. The seed stock of the website’s venom was picked up, bulked up and beaten up by larger media outlets, no doubt happy to have kept their own hands clean while being equally eager to distribute the grubby fruits far and wider. Preferring the gag to debate, smear over substance, that’s how the left rolls — and now one of its most virulent practitioners is on the Press Council. Antonio Gramsci’s “long march” through the institutions has attained yet another of its objectives. All who fail to share the perspectives in which New Matilda frames the world, beware!
Make no mistake, the Graeme Woods and Morry Schwartzs of this world have every right to buy pulpits for their kept creatures’ views. It is, after all, their own money. Free speech is a wonderful thing, and the only remedy for silly speech is more speech, as it is for “offensive” speech. And this is where counterparts on the conservative side are missing in action. Where is the right’s Wood, the right’s Schwartz? The simple answer: grumbling about leftist dominance of the media while sitting heavily and resolutely on their wallets.
Give it to the left: it knows that you get what you pay for, and what its patrons are buying is credibility and exposure. One lives in hope that, one day, the very conservatives with deep pockets prepared to toss some spare change in the general direction of their principles might be joined by an auxilliary of well-heeled fresh recruits. If Graeme Wood can shred money in what he believes is a noble cause, well anyone might.
Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online