WHEN someone from the South Australian Governor’s leadership forum suggested I speak to it on ‘the media, democracy, citizenship and globalisation’ I asked if she knew I’d just failed – spectacularly – in making a go of my independent Webdiary, which I launched last August when Fairfax gave me the choice of ditching my vision or going solo.
Fairfax’s slow but relentless rejection of my work since 2001, when they made me leave Canberra and warehoused me in the backwater of the Sydney Morning Herald online, culminated, I thought then, in mid 2004.
The SMH editor Robert Whitehead vetoed the literary editor’s recommendation to publish an extract of Not Happy John! and pulled a piece on the book from the Spectrum section. Fairfax Sunday papers then picked up the rights, but the Sunday Age editor reneged on the contract with my publisher and refused to pay, while the Sun Herald would not have published the extract without the last minute intervention of the features editor. The Sun Herald also cancelled my weekly column as I was about to travel around Australia launching the book. I was told when I called to advise that my piece was on its way.
Naturally I saw the writing on the wall for Webdiary. The latest redundancy round had just closed fully subscribed, but they agreed to my offer to take redundancy in return for a contract to write for, edit and publish Webdiary for three years. I knew that three years would be it, and invested half my redundancy package in employing my brother Hamish to organise and launch Your Democracy, a website to experiment with citizen journalism with a view to moving Webdiary there when my contract expired.
But by early last year, the new publishing system which came with the contracted Webdiary, which enabled readers to comment directly through a comments box rather than by email, had overwhelmed me. Editing and publishing the ever increasing number of comments saw me chained to my computer seven days a week, unable to research or write my own stuff. So I asked for a couple of technical tweaks to cut down processing time.
From a detached viewpoint, this should have been no problem. I was on less than half my permanent employee pay doing the same job without the permanent employer add ons, a job I’d done without supervision or a writ for nearly five years. It was very popular and a unique feature of the SMH online. It remained the sole mainstream media interactive political site, one which consciously and transparently sought to fulfil the journalist’s code of ethics while allowing anyone with something to say the opportunity to do so and to criticise me and question its framework and judgment.
Under Fred Hilmer, Fairfax was a short-term bottom-line-focused operation which saw journalism as an expensive and troublesome way of filling the space between the ads. Short term costs were the dominant factor in every decision apart from the size of mega executive bonuses. At first my request was dealt with by SMH online managers with no budget, so I disclosed my technical problems to readers, and lo and behold they came up with an idea I thought was breathtaking in its generosity and its advantages to Fairfax.
Readers offered to edit comments on a voluntary basis and to construct a new site with upgraded technical features, also for free.
Here we had people wanting to help a profit-driven big business – for free. So I offered to take over hosting and technical maintenance of the site, which Fairfax had already outsourced as part of the changeover to contract, for the same cost as Fairfax was paying. So, no cost to them, and the prospect of an expanding service to boot!
The SMH online people gave me the go ahead, but then senior management stepped in, vetoed the idea and demanded that the archive of columnist Anthony Loewenstein be deleted without explanation to readers. After an agonising, backbreaking delay, Fairfax decreed that not only would they not give me technical support but would backsource Webdiary, take over editorial control and remove Webdiary’s growing number of reader columnists.
I can only guess. They had no reason to do so on Webdiary’s track record, apart from political pressure. Yes, my views as a small-l liberal were unfashionable, to say the least, but I also published many different views to mine without fear or favour. I had a loyal and active readership, so active after five years that I had become more an editor than writer, gradually stepping back to let Webdiarists write and increasingly shape Webdiary’s content.
I believe political pressure was in play, and also fear – fear of losing control.
A direct relationship between journo and reader, with each party accountable to the other, cuts out the middleman. It disperses power away from the heavies and the editors who over the years had given up editorial independence to line their pockets and protect their careers. Fairfax shifted to neoliberalism in line with the increasing power of John Howard’s government and the big business which controls its agenda – indeed, as the very idea of big media independent of other big business imploded – and my work was finally shut out of the mainstream media.
So much for reader power – my book, itself a collaboration with several Webdiarists – proved a bestseller!
My lawyer advised that it would be dumb to sue Fairfax, because like any big business it would seek to destroy me financially, professionally and emotionally if I did so. So I advised Fairfax of my intention to terminate for material breach of contract and entered into a frightening period of keeping Webdiary going while trying to coordinate my volunteers, most of whom I had never met and who lived all over Australia, to build a new site to start immediately I reached a settlement with Fairfax.
A legal stoush is like living in a parallel universe. It’s a nightmare. There was no settlement – Fairfax offered a derisory sum in compensation – and somehow we started our independent venture on the same day as I terminated the contract.
Within a couple of weeks Webdiary’s audience had moved across holus bolus to the independent Webdiary.
What to do for revenue? I poured all my savings into Webdiary over the next few months in the belief that we had to maintain momentum to have a chance of outside funding. I made major errors in committing too much money too fast to maintain and enhance quality, at one stage employing three people while trying to cover the deluge of big issues coming out of Canberra (the terror laws, IR, welfare reform), work with the technical volunteers constructing a permanent open source site (we were on a temporary Typepad site) and try to get funding.
I cracked. My back seized up in October and by early December I found it almost impossible to stand up – let alone work at the computer – despite being on anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants and mood stabilisers. I was also distressed about finding the money to keep going while we bedded down a preliminary offer of funding. On December 6 my back screamed NO! and I pulled the plug on December 7.
So, I was a failure. What use a leadership forum for me?
The lady from this forum said she wanted me to speak because I had been a leader in challenging and exploring the possibilities of online media for journalism. Oh yeah? I would have said no had not something wholly unexpected started to happen after I announced Webdiary’s closure with this statement:
G’day. Webdiary will close at midnight tonight. Thank you to everyone who contributed and helped me try to make it work. Unfortunately I couldn’t get funding in time to stop me going broke, and certain events have proved to me that my skin is not thick enough to survive in this game. When I decided to go independent I thought long and hard if I could accept failure in what was always a high risk venture. I decided I could, and I will. Webdiary’s closure marks the end of my career in journalism. It’s time to move on. I still believe that independent journalism is crucial to the future of Australia’s democracy, and hope that what I’ve tried to do will help others have a go. Again, thank you to everyone who’s participated in Webdiary since July 2000. It’s been an experience I will treasure.
I have many excuses for failure. The timetable for independence was forced upon me. I had no expertise in technicals or marketing.My volunteers were all over the country and there was no time to get them together. I was psychologically unsuited to thinking about matters outside the journalism box. I was distraught at being betrayed by the company I’d put my heart and soul into for most of my career. I’d been a stress head for too many years to rise to this latest challenge. I was scared stiff of losing everything. I was burnt out. Blah blah blah.
Since December, I’ve been through depression and major league self-destructive behaviour and settled into putting all my effort into recovering my health. And I’ve done myself the favour of reframing what I’ve done. I’ve convinced myself that I’m not a complete failure. Sure I failed at finding a balance in my personal and professional life which would allow me to go on, but I really was a leader for a while, in a funny sort of way. How so?
If you’re interested, have a look at the comments to my farewell piece and Hamish’s riposte later on the same day.
Three months later, Webdiary is still surviving, thanks to Webdiarists led by David Roffey, Webdiary’s unflappable general manager and the prodigious Craig Rowley. Only Hamish stayed on as a paid full time moderator and publisher, financed by donations from many readers. Last month, after cold calling potential advertisers in a spirit of ‘what the hell – I know nuttin about this stuff and its scary but let’s try it anyway’ – he scored a contract with Australian Ethical Investments which paid the bills for another month. Within a week, Webdiary’s volunteers managed Webdiary’s transfer to a permanent home produced by several volunteers at James Cook University and a Webdiary’s designer Carl Baker. All free of charge. Three hundred people registered to comment on the new site. Donors pumped about $14,000 in to keep Webdiary going. And this strange little community of strangers organised Christmas Webdiarist drinks in several capitals.
It still mightn’t survive – who knows? But somehow, some way, Webdiary’s community of strangers has kept the thing going with their pieces and their comments and their volunteer work. And if it does not survive, I’ve come to believe that their commitment to participating in a civil political debate will manifest itself in other ways.
Webdiary, dubbed “Club Chaos” by Webdiarist Polly Bush some years ago, has taught me that that leadership need not be a top down, hierarchical, planned thing. I’d like to quote Margaret Wheatley here, from her book Leadership and the New Science (Berrett-Koehler, 1999). She begins with this quote from Eudora Welty, which encapsulates the key professional lesson I learnt from covering Hanson in 1998 and writing Off the Rails: The Pauline Hanson Trip (Allen & Unwin, 1999):
My continuing passion is to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.
Noting that “chaos and complexity have emerged as serious branches of science; the phrase ‘order out of chaos’ has moved into our lingo”, she writes:
The systemic nature of life – the vast webs of interconnections so well described in the new science – has become part of our modern consciousness. Cyberspace and electronic communication have changed how we work together, do business, and relate to one another. Our digital world has increased the speed of life for many of us, and led to paradoxical feelings of connection and alienation. And the turbulence that relentlessly confronts organisations has led many companies to experiment with more fluid ands responsive forms of organisation.
In a web, the potential impact of local actions bears no relationship to their size. When we choose to act locally, we may be wanting to influence the entire system. But we work where we are, with the system that we know, the one we can get our arms around. From a Newtonian perspective, our efforts often seem too small, and we doubt that our actions will make a difference. Or perhaps we hope that our small efforts will contribute incrementally to large scale change. Step by step, system by system, we aspire to develop enough masse or force to change the larger system.
But a quantum view explains the success of small efforts quite differently. Acting locally allows us to be inside the movement and flow of the system, participating in all those complex events occurring simultaneously. We are more likely to be sensitive to the dynamics of this system, and thus more effective. However, changes in small places also affect the global system, not through incrementalism, but because every system participates in an unbroken wholeness. Activities in one part of the whole create effects that appear in distant places. Because of these unseen connections, there is potential value in working anywhere in the system. We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. I have learned that in this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of “critical mass”. It’s always about critical connections.
I read a book about the web recently called ‘Small pieces loosely joined’. I believe the web can, with financial backing, in time end the privileged position of a mainstream media which not only doesn’t serve a useful purpose in our democracy, but actively works against it.
In my twenty years in journalism, I have witnessed the decay and near annihilation of a strong, confident journalistic culture in Fairfax based on scepticism of the powerful and sustained scrutiny of the actions of the powerful and the underlying reasons for those actions – whatever their political colour or business.
I have also seen public debate degenerate into endless name calling by scream, and a systematic play by neo-liberals and henchmen they pay to win the ideological battle to dismember any sense of shared values or common cause in shaping our future. It is in the interests of those who would control us for their profit and power to do so.
I have seen the disintegration of the concept of “public interest” in the big issues of our time – political, economic, social and personal. Instead, fear and ‘us and them’ rules, deliberately designed, it seems to me, to compel people to serve only their individual, short term interests because no one else will give a damn if they fall over.
To me, Government has become malignant, and the idea of a ‘public service’ collapsed into yet more narrow, short term careerism and ‘Yes sir’ culture.
The big political parties take our public funding while gorging on private donations which make them slaves to their paymasters. They see their job not as the person at the table representing the public interest, but as brokers between stakeholders who lie and spin to feed their desire for to be perceived as powerful and secure their financial futures. The concept of public life as duty or service has gone.
The death of the vision thing was never more exemplified by John Howard’s recent comments that for him running the economy – a nameless, faceless blob which now controls us rather than acting in our service – was like a running a race where the finishing line endlessly recedes. And the overall result, it seems, is not a clamour for change but an acceptance that this is the way it is – a collective turning of the back on our own power and our own complicity in the ills which beset us.
And that’s understandable. The role of professional ethics as a bulwark against corruption and system failure has been squeezed out big time. Think the law and accountancy for a start, and think journalism too. Not only are ethics now not helpful to a successful career, but they are a terrible burden around one’s neck. To have them or to take them seriously is a recipe for despair and professional suicide.
Looking back now, I think Webdiary’s success was due in part to the desire of many thinking Australians, from all walks of life and of all political stripes, to genuinely engage with each other as human beings on the issues that affect us all. There is unease about what’s happening and where we’re heading across the political divide.
But politics is dirty and hits lots of red buttons. How can one create a safe space for such conversations which will avoid its disintegration?
The starting point is establishing trust, and to do that, you have to live the now empty rhetoric of transparency, accountability and independence of spirit. You have to put up your ethical constraints and ideals and be prepared to be held accountable to achieve them. You have to be prepared to state clearly where you’re coming from and what your underlying values are, and why. You have to prove and keep proving your commitment to open discourse. And you have to take responsibility for the content of the space and be prepared to defend or change your decisions upon complaint or query.
The way to do this is to get your core principles and your mission statement very clear, publish them, and have them in your mind in whatever you do.
And then, and this is the hardest thing to do in many ways, you have to let go.
You have to understand that the power of the space is created by your ability to let your collaborators – your readers and contributors- decide what to do next and where to go.
You have to cede control and allow Wheatley’s ‘connectedness’ to do its work, whatever that may be and whatever form it may take.
Asking your readers to trust you involves trusting them. And that’s hard in a community of strangers. Very hard. Mistakes are made, mistakes which can have terrible consequences unless you are prepared to admit them and explain.
To me, citizen journalism has the capacity to not only keep the bastards in the media, politics and big business honest, but to transform the way we see the news (and even more romantically, to create the conditions whereby people of principle who really care about our future and that of our children are prepared to enter public life again).
Equipped with the ethical guidelines for good journalism, there is no reason why citizens with all sorts of expertise and experience can’t worm their way into the closed club of media-politics-business and seek and get answers now hidden because the questions are never asked. Their accountability would come from the fact that their reports and pieces are themselves open to scrutiny and corrections from other readers through comments. And that before they become citizen journalists they must earn the trust and respect of other readers and contributors.
The aim is for more and more people to have faith in the space, to trust and respect it and want to be a part of it.
And that means money. I made a mistake in throwing everything I had at Webdiary early, rather than having confidence in the Webdiary community to let it start its independent life slowly. And in retrospect, a big reason for that mistake was my extreme aversion to asking people to help out, particularly financially. It was hard enough understanding that quite a few people were willing to spend hours and hours of unpaid time a week keeping Webdiary afloat without asking them to dip into their pockets.
Anyway, these are thoughts I’ve not yet fully worked through. My life is in transition. I don’t have all the answers, or even most of them, about how to help create a media dedicated to serve the nation rather than exploit its people for profit and power.
This is the first time I’ve spoken publicly about Webdiary since I shut up shop on December 7. I’m putting away financial worries for a year to regain my health, rethink my priorities and muddle through what I might do with this phase of my life.
As for Webdiary, my fingers are crossed as I watch from the sidelines.