My return to journalism via Twitter was enabled by several readers and contributors to Webdiary, which I’m told by online media academic Axel Bruns was the world’s first Mainstream media interactive blog.
I’m now committed to telling my story in journalism in a professional memoir, which will comprise part of a PhD. In A collaborative thesis by @margokingston: Stories of citizen journalism with Webdiary and @NoFibs, I launched a new No Fibs series where I hope Webdiary and No Fibs readers will tell their stories, which I will reference in my thesis. No Fibs’ chief sub-editor and arts editor Michael Burge wrote the first post in the series, Voyage to the new news world.
Webdiary has been largely ignored in academic literature on the rise of blogging and interactive mainstream media journalism, because, Axel Bruns told me, it was too far ahead of its time. Webdiary began in 2000 and became independent before the Webdiary community took it over after my my retirement in late 2005, before Twitter. He believes its model, under which I wrote and collaborated with readers and fostered new talent through publishing readers contributions and appointing columnists, may still be unique.
Tim Dunlop, who joined Webdiary early and became one of its star contributors before he launched his own blog, The Road to Surfdom, when he went to the United States, was the first to review Webdiary’s place in political journalism history. In late 2012, before my accidental rerun to journalism, he interviewed me for his book The New Front Page, which became the first chapter in his exploration of how online media is changing the face of mainstream media journalism.
Tim and his publisher have kindly given me permission to publish that chapter. My vision and beliefs have not changed, and I see No Fibs as the Twitter-based successor to Webdiary.
I hope the chapter brings back memories for Webdiarists, and informs No Fibs’ readers and contributors on my philosophy and practice of online interactive political journalism.
I hope you enjoy it, and that it triggers contributions to the series. Enjoy!
This is an edited extract from The New Front Page: New Media and the Rise of the Audience by Tim Dunlop (Scribe, $27.95) (Kindle Edition)
She agreed to do it, but in return asked to be able to write her own column, something she had been denied up until that point in her career, despite being in demand for appearances on various radio and television programs. McGeough agreed, and so Kingston began another stint as chief of staff in Canberra.
In early 2000, before her column could be organised, something unexpected happened: Fairfax’s head of online media, Tom Burton, offered the Canberra-based Kingston an online column. ‘He was head of smh.com.au and he was very cutting edge and always wanting to experiment,’ Kingston recalled. Burton rang and asked Kingston if she wanted to have an online column, to which she responded, ‘What’s that?’ She told him that she knew nothing about computers ‘and all that’ and she really had no idea what he was offering. ‘He told me, Look, it’s all done for you. We’ll call it Webdiary if that’s all right with you, and you just do it when you feel like it. Just write something and then press this button and it’s published.’
The whole concept bewildered Kingston, from the lack of a deadline to the push-button publication process, but she was keen to have a space somewhere within Fairfax where she could express an opinion, so Burton’s proposal, as alien as it seemed on one level, was attractive. ‘Tom said, We’ll put your email address at the bottom and people can email you with their response, and I said, No, I don’t want that. I had to have a silent number after Hanson as there were a few very weird people and so I didn’t want to have any reader involvement. Tom said, I want to just try it out and see what happens. And once it started and I got my first emails, I thought, I’ve got a chance to do something here.’
American journalist Dan Froomkin wrote the following in a 2009 piece for the Nieman Journalism Lab. He tweeted a link to it in 2012, saying that this was still a lesson the industry needed to learn:
If we were to start an online newspaper from scratch today, we’d recognize that toneless, small-bore news stories are not the way to build a large audience — not even with ‘interactive’ bells and whistles cobbled on top. One option might be to imitate cable TV, and engage in a furious volume of hesaid/she-said reporting, voyeurism, contrarianism, gossip, triviality and gotcha journalism. But that would come at the cost of our souls. The right way to reinvent ourselves online would be to do precisely what journalists were put on this green earth to do: Seek the truth, hold the powerful accountable, expose the B.S., explain how things really work, introduce people to each other, and tell compelling stories. And we should do all those things passionately and courageously — not hiding who we are, but rather engaging in a very public expression of our journalistic values.
It is a startling quote because what Froomkin describes is what Webdiary put into practice a decade ahead of his explanation. What he describes, and what Webdiary delivered, is the sort of journalism that fundamentally alters the relationship between the media and its audience; the sort of journalism that breaks the fourth wall between journalists and citizens, the force field that keeps the two separate. This is an approach that, depending on your point of view, is either going to save journalism or destroy it.
Webdiary went live in July 2000 and I stumbled across it accidentally. I was in the midst of writing a doctoral thesis in which I was trying to say something useful about the role of intellectuals and citizens in public debate. The discussion wasn’t limited to Australia, and I was drawing on all sorts of political philosophy and sociological understandings of what exactly an intellectual was, but I was struck by the way in which the Australian literature made light of the possibility that we could even have intellectuals. The tone was set by Donald Horne in The Lucky Country:
Australia has never had a cultivated leisure class and lacks one now. There are no periodicals or quality press, so that people get away with expressing things that would not be tolerated in more sophisticated societies; politicians go unsatirised. Intellectuals, in the sense of creative thinkers who are publicly influential, simply do not exist in Australia.
In fairness, Horne’s view was probably more nuanced than that single quote implies, but it was the unnuanced version that persisted in the literature. ‘Australian intellectual’ was often presented as an oxymoron.
What I hated about that was not just that it was demonstrably wrong, but also that it reeked of the sort of colonial, cringing attitude that extended to public debate as a whole. If our betters thought that our intellectuals were dumb, second-rate hacks, imagine what they thought of the rest of us. My thesis was aimed at coming up with an understanding that not only challenged this outdated view of intellectual life in Australia, but that also rethought the whole relationship between intellectuals — those with either expertise or some other privileged access to public discussion — and the rest of the population.
But even as it stood staring me in the face, I completely missed the significance of Webdiary. In fact, I was quite suspicious of the whole notion, from the moment I read the first piece Kingston posted:
Welcome to my Canberra diary. I’m allowed to say what I think whenever I like, and lucky you can interact if you like. The downside for this indulgence is that all the words stay forever so I can be judged for my sins.
If this weird idea survives, I’m going to lobby for the … techheads to add a program called ‘MPoll’, where I’ll ask a question and you can vote (and suggest your own). I’ll send the results to whoever is responsible for the question or the answer and publish their response, if any.
What did she mean we could ‘interact’ with her? What did she mean she could write what she liked? If she was allowed to say what she thought in Webdiary, what was she saying in articles published elsewhere?
Looking back on it now, I realise I didn’t trust her. Here was a journalist telling me that she was starting the sort of project that thesis-me, citizen-me would consider a good and desirable thing, but I simply didn’t believe her. I can distinctly remember being quite cross about the whole thing, as if she were trying to put one over on me. It is perhaps a measure of the disadvantage that all new journalistic endeavours begin with, given the low standing the profession has with the public at large, that they first have to overcome this trust deficit just to get people to pay attention, let alone give them the benefit of the doubt. And I know this seems to contradict what I wrote earlier about people presuming that what they read in the newspaper or see on the nightly news is the truth, but that is the paradox. The media is so embedded in a particular understanding most of us have of our society that we do tend to presume that they are, within certain parameters, telling the truth. How could they be allowed to lie to us? we wonder. On a day-to-day basis we don’t give the matter much conscious thought; but when something comes along that forces us to really think about what they are doing, our scepticism is engaged.
Talking to Kingston and others associated with Webdiary, it became apparent that the site was a seat-of-the-pants operation, especially in its early days. It is also hard to overstate just how marginal online journalism was in the scheme of things at Fairfax (or at any other news organisation). ‘I didn’t have a clue about it,’ Kingston said. ‘All I knew was that Tom [Burton] ran this funny thing. I mean, I never looked at the Herald online site. No journo did. It was on its own, with these wild people doing these wild music things, and a rugby column or something.’
Kingston’s online editor at the time, Stephen Hutcheon, concurred. ‘Online wasn’t taken seriously. We started out as a bunch of ne’er-do-wells, lost souls, burnt-out subs, and copy kids eager to break into journalism.’
In fact, truth be told, Webdiary was in large part Fairfax’s solution to a perceived problem — Margo Kingston. Management saw her as a maverick, and there was a desire to rein her in. As Hutcheon explained: ‘Ever since I’ve known Margo … she has pushed that line of demarcation to the extreme. While it didn’t worry me as much, it pissed off a lot of the senior editorial management at the time. And to be fair, they were the ones that fielded the complaints.’
Kingston understood how she was viewed: ‘There were clearly complaints about my coverage coming from politicians because I was playing hard.’
But despite Fairfax management’s view of Webdiary, Kingston embraced her new ghetto. From the beginning, she was almost painfully transparent about what she was doing. She knew that ‘by some strange and mysterious quirk of fate’ she had been given ‘this rare and extraordinary opportunity to write and edit my own work and to be totally responsible for every aspect of it and to have complete freedom to write what I liked’. But she also knew that this meant she had to have ‘a very strict policy’ on ethics. ‘I wanted readers to know that if I got something wrong I would correct immediately and that any conflict of interest I would disclose and that I would hold myself accountable if someone picked up something that I hadn’t done.’
Over time, Webdiary began to win me over. It did so because of Kingston’s openness. She engaged. She published comments — even lengthy articles — from her readers, and she argued with them in good faith. She did her best to address their concerns. The key was that she grasped the difference between online and conventional newspaper journalism: the relationship with her audience.
There were plenty of times when I thought she was wrong about things, but big deal. We were there for the discussion, not to have our prejudices pandered to, and so she pushed back against what we said and allowed us to argue with each other. The interactions weren’t always satisfactory; I was never happy, for instance, about her willingness to allow anonymous attacks on those of us who wrote under our real names, and I told her as much many times as I began to use the site more frequently. But the experimental nature of what she was doing was well understood by those involved, and so lots of slack was cut. It was close to exactly what Froomkin argued would be the ideal if journalists were starting an online paper from scratch today: ‘not hiding who we are, but rather engaging in a very public expression of our journalistic values’.
When I interviewed Kingston in 2012, I asked her if she had previously thought much about the relationship between journalists and readers. ‘I feel that I was woken up about it,’ she said. ‘I was always what would be considered a romantic journalist, [believing] that we were there on behalf of the people. But I didn’t actually live it, and the evidence of that is when Pauline Hanson gave her maiden speech, I thought she should be ignored. But then I forced myself to experience the audience by covering her in depth, and I wrote the book about it. The question I got from the Hanson campaign and all those weird things that happened was, can we actually find a space for civil discourse between opposing views?
‘Once I understood that, and once people started writing in to Webdiary, I just thought, okay, I’ve a got a chance to put this theory into practice. I thought journalism had to change.’
But at the same time as she was becoming comfortable with the form, Kingston was also being blindsided by how much people mistrusted journalists, something that became apparent once she started interacting with readers at Webdiary. ‘I was shocked. And I think it was because I subconsciously exempted myself. I felt that I was definitely okay, that people would trust me. But they didn’t.’ This conflict goes to the heart of the media’s image of itself as a profession, its understanding of its role in the formation of public opinion, and, most importantly, its understanding of the source of its power, as both a gatekeeper deciding who gets to participate, and as interpreter of the national conversation. Once you let the audience in as an equal player, much of that power dissipates.
That was precisely what brought Kingston’s role as chief of staff in Canberra and her role as sole organiser of Webdiary into irreconcilable conflict. A large part of what her managers didn’t like was that she discussed with her readers her opinions about which questions journalists should have been asking. ‘The Peter Reith telecard affair was probably the earliest case, up close and personal, of where I’d get the readers involved in the actual internal workings of the bureau,’ Kingston told me. (In the incident Kingston is referring to, Peter Reith, the minister for workplace relations, gave his son the pin number to his parliamentary telephone account, and the son, and some others who gained access to the pin, ran up a bill of some $50,000 at the taxpayers’ expense.) ‘I went in hard on that. Very, very hard. And some at Fairfax didn’t like it … I’d say on Webdiary, “The Herald has just sent this list of questions to Peter Reith. This is what he needs to answer.”’
I was stunned to hear that a media organisation was concerned about a journalist ‘going in hard’. I asked Kingston, isn’t that what you’re all meant to do? Isn’t the job to go in hard? ‘Well,’ she replied, ‘that’s the theory, but it’s not the way it is.’
Kingston came under pressure to stop running with the story. ‘In retrospect, that led to me resigning as chief of staff, because it got so tense. I got so overwhelmed having to do full-time chief of staff and Webdiary that I had a bit of a meltdown. I needed to take time out.’
It seems the only reason she kept her job at this stage was that Tom Burton intervened on her behalf, suggesting she could be deployed as part of the online team, where she could contribute and learn the ropes. ‘But from the minute I got to Sydney,’ Kingston recalled, ‘I didn’t learn about any of the online operation. I just focused on Webdiary, and that’s when it became my full-time job.’
Historically, it is important to understand that Webdiary was seen as a marginal site within a marginal division being run by an increasingly marginalised journalist. The involvement of readers in generating the content only added to its marginality. The site had few friends within Fairfax, and I was surprised when I asked Kingston about the sort of response she received from her peers, other journalists at Fairfax. ‘None,’ she said. ‘They didn’t read it. It wasn’t in the psyche. I honestly think it was considered irrelevant. Not where the big game was.’
Still, some momentum had begun to develop. Kingston was working in close proximity to the online editor and other staff, and there was inevitably interaction between them. They began linking to Webdiary content, including content written by its readers, via the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald website. (For instance, a piece I wrote on dairy deregulation was linked off the front page, and it generated some interest — including an exchange between me and former Labor politician Mark Latham that ended with him declaring that I was an agrarian socialist!)
Kingston pointed out that traffic to the site was relatively small but, ‘It became almost a completely transparent space. I’d say, “I think I’d better do something about this, what do you reckon?” I’d write a comment piece, but then the readers would go off and blast me, or come up with a different view, and there’d be a debate.’
It wasn’t easy. The technology, by today’s standards, was primitive. There were no simple control panels on the backend, as there are today on various blogging programs, allowing people to easily format a piece for online publication. All the coding had to be done by hand, a big ask for someone without the technical training. What’s more, all of Kingston’s contact with readers happened via email, as there was no comments facility; that technology was not yet invented.
Despite all this, the site was breaking new ground. The Tampa incident, in particular, changed Kingston’s understanding of what was possible. ‘I’ll never forget Tampa. It was just brilliant. I’d post all this stuff, maybe five huge posts on Tampa, and I’d sit there till midnight and be ready to go home and there’d be another pile of emails coming through.
‘Who am I to say I have to go home and sleep? Besides, I know if I do that, I come back in the morning there’ll be a hundred and fifty waiting for me.’
Kingston saw Webdiary as the only place in the mainstream media that was giving voice to dissenting opinion on the topic. ‘I felt such a responsibility because it was crystal clear that the people writing in wanted to be on the public record as dissenting. Because they were in such a minority.’
This was a confronting position to take, and it caused concerns at Fairfax. I must say, too, that to me, as a reader, the pages and pages of complaint about Tampa that Webdiary published did end up looking like a fairly mindless, anti-Australian barrage. I was sympathetic to the contributors’ views, but I nonetheless felt strongly enough about the tone and volume of what was being published to email in my concerns about it. I made the point that the ‘all Australians are racist’ sentiment that pervaded much of the material Kingston was publishing was self-serving and that maybe people could be a bit more focused in their approach.
The email was published, but was pretty soon buried and forgotten.
What is interesting is that despite sharing so many principles and practices with independent blogs, Kingston felt that she was still very much a part of the newspaper and the mainstream media. ‘I was consciously trying to develop something that would allow integration to the paper,’ she told me. ‘I never saw myself as part of the blogging world. I saw myself as part of The Sydney Morning Herald.’
I suggested to Kingston that, from an outsider’s point of view, this differentiation between what she was doing and the blogosphere was odd. Her response was unequivocal. ‘Well, there had to be [a distinction],’ she said. ‘We’re a big company. We are read.’ But while she was very aware of her site being part of The Sydney Morning Herald, she was nonetheless willing to use the relative freedom it provided her within that mainstream structure to pursue journalism in a way that was, it has to be said, groundbreaking.
Yet by 2004, Webdiary was accumulating the sort of management concerns that no employee is likely to survive long term, despite the fact that the site was increasingly attracting a decent readership and was providing readers with access unmatched elsewhere in the mainstream media.
As well, Kingston was in constant demand for media appearances: not only did she have her regular spot on Phillip Adams’ radio show Late Night Live, but she was a sought-after guest on programs such as Lateline.
Pressure was coming from all sorts of areas. Kingston had published a post in which journalist Antony Loewenstein and Greens member of the New South Wales upper house Ian Cohen each wrote about their response to the fact that Palestinian scholar and activist Dr Hanan Ashrawi had been awarded the Sydney Peace Prize. Both articles wrote in favour of Ashrawi receiving the prize, and the issue provoked an outcry on Webdiary (and throughout the media generally). Much to Kingston’s surprise, the pieces by Loewenstein and Cohen disappeared from the site. At first she thought it was a technical glitch, but she was eventually told they had been pulled. The reason she was given was that The Sydney Morning Herald had received complaints from a number of prominent Jewish readers saying that the pieces were anti-Semitic. According to Kingston, she was told that in such circumstances the first reaction is to remove the offending pieces. She was stunned. After some robust discussion, the pieces were reposted, but the incident was indicative of the resistance she was meeting.
Fairfax management was also receiving complaints about Kingston from within the federal government, including from the office of Prime Minister John Howard. Going into the 2004 federal election campaign, Kingston was touring the country promoting her book Not Happy, John, in which she made the case that the Howard government was undermining Australian democracy through deceptions associated with the Iraq War and other examples of what she saw as curtailments of free speech.
Although her publishers had, at Kingston’s suggestion, set up a website dedicated to the book — the first time an Australian book had been promoted in this way — Webdiary nonetheless became ground zero for discussion of the book and its thesis.
Not happy, Margo, was the response from Fairfax management. ‘They’re dealing with an activist reporter who they have control over, so of course they’re getting fucking complaints from Howard,’ she told me. ‘I mean, wouldn’t you [complain] if you were Howard?’
As Crikey commented at the time, ‘The Herald editors just wish Margo would go away … Kingston has been marginalised and by marginalising her you also marginalize your readership base. Lord knows she’s not an easy person to live with and many have been toe to toe with Margo, but … constantly pissing in the readers’ faces is not a way to ensure a long term future.’
Fairfax and the government were not the only ones applying pressure. ABC management told Phillip Adams to drop Kingston’s regular ‘Canberra Babylon’ piece from his show. When Adams refused, the ABC told him that at the very least he had to include someone else who would ‘balance’ Kingston. Eventually he was forced to end the segment on the grounds that Kingston was no longer based in the national capital and that therefore there was no longer a ‘Canberra’ in Canberra Babylon.
To add to her problems, Kingston’s health was deteriorating. She had for years nursed a chronic back problem, and this was getting worse. Webdiary was taking more and more of her time, especially dealing with the comments. Then, during the 2004 election campaign, Fairfax decided to close Webdiary.
Naturally, Kingston wanted to keep the site open, and she asked management how that might be possible. They told her that they were willing to allow her to take a ‘seachange’ package, an arrangement that would become common a decade later as Australia’s newspapers cut staff in the wake of falling revenues. Essentially, this meant that she went onto a contract at a greatly reduced wage and was more or less restricted to work on Webdiary, something she was willing to do to save the site. One bright spot in all this was that management also offered to install a comments system, which everyone thought would make it easier to deal with reader correspondence. ‘Famous last words!’ Kingston told me in our interview.
Comments flooded in. In a way that would become familiar to those involved in online media well into the future, including to me when I was running a blog for News Limited, the moderation of comments became the most taxing and time-consuming part of the job. ‘It just got completely out of control,’ Kingston explained. At one point, she actually used her own money to employ someone to help her, but this was clearly not a long-term solution.
So, in the tradition of the approach that was her hallmark at Webdiary, she asked her readers if they had any suggestions. She was inundated with offers.
Kingston sighed as she recounted this. ‘We put a proposal to Fairfax that the community would run it and manage it and we would just contract Webdiary to them[Fairfax]. It made sense. It actually saved them money, and the online people at Fairfax said yes, but then it was no from senior management. I finally got jack of it.’
But it wasn’t quite over yet. In early 2005, management sent her a memo saying that they thought Webdiary was too much work for her and they had a plan to help. They would introduce a new raft of bloggers, using software that would be uniform for all of them, and they would employ moderators to handle the comments. There were some conditions, however. The code of ethics Kingston had developed for Webdiary had to go. Equally galling, the regular contributions she published from among her readers would no longer be accepted. This violated the interactive nature of what Webdiary had become, especially as Kingston felt that part of her success had been in nurturing new writing talent. ‘I used to say to my editor and others at the Herald, “Look, I’m actually developing a stable of extremely talented writers; why don’t we select a piece I like, or the paper likes, and publish it in the paper?” They just thought that was ridiculous.’
The biggest change was that Kingston would no longer be able to post directly to Webdiary. Everything she wrote, under this new proposal, would have to go through a vetting process.
Stephen Hutcheon later explained that there was nothing unusual in this. ‘These days, it’s difficult to do that because so many people are filing or tweeting or posting at any given moment. Back then, the velocity of new material hitting the website between major updates was relatively small and such editorial oversight was possible. ‘Anyway, she didn’t observe that instruction. I went into her post to edit something she had written — as was my right — and that was the end of a beautiful experiment that was ahead of its time. She pulled the pin and went indy.’
Kingston’s departure ended the first full-scale attempt by a mainstream Australian media organisation to come to terms with the disruptions caused by the new online technology. And as tempting as it is to view it as a noble experiment that didn’t quite get off the ground, I think we have to be careful not to impose in hindsight a shape and intention that was never really there. It is a teachable moment in the history of Australian media — it was certainly an important development — but it was also an idiosyncratic experiment.
As Stephen Hutcheon put it to me, ‘Based on what we know now, I think you can describe it as a trailblazer. I’m particularly proud of many things we did. Not the least was the Grass Roots project during one federal election, where we worked with large groups of students from UTS to file stories from their own electorates about local issues. That was awesome. And difficult. And a bit patchy. But it was innovative.
‘I think Margo was unique in terms of her passion, and the rest was just happenstance — the right place, the right time, the right person, the right boss.’
I asked him if he thought that it was a missed opportunity for Fairfax, that they might’ve had their own Huffington Post on their hands, and he said, ‘There were lots of lost opportunities in the early 2000s. That said, Fairfax did continue to develop its online operations as a separate business, insulated from print. Perhaps Webdiary could have become a HuffPo, but that’s with the benefit of hindsight.’
The story of Webdiary cannot be separated from the personality of Margo Kingston. It was as much about Kingston’s relationship with the management at Fairfax as it was about anything intrinsic to online media. Fairfax made mistakes. A braver, less conservative organisation might have found a way to make it work. At various points in the process, they did attempt to accommodate this brave new world that was evolving right before their eyes, but ultimately they weren’t up to the challenge. Stephen Hutcheon told me that ‘there wasn’t much appreciation at the time about the trailblazing role [Kingston] was setting in what we now know as crowdsourcing, social media and community engagement. We’re talking about the early 2000s and Big Media still thought it was bullet-proof from digital disruption’.
Whatever you think about Kingston’s work and what finally happened to her, she was 15 years ahead of virtually everyone else in Australian journalism. As the debates continue throughout the world about the future of the profession, as hands are wrung and oracles — I mean social-media experts — are consulted, few are saying anything more than what Margo Kingston was saying, and practising, at Webdiary. She made mistakes — of course she did. She nonetheless figured out some key answers years before anyone else was asking the questions. She deserves enormous respect for that.
Kingston was a gatekeeper who considered it her job to let uncredentialled, unknown, unfamous, ordinary citizens in on the national conversation, rather than to lock them out. To this day, there is no one in the Australian mainstream media who has been willing to play that role to the same extent.