Thursday, February 03, 2005

Mayne's million dollar chance

Today's newspapers are all over the Crikey story. Mark Day in The Australian, describes Mayne as a gadfly,

"who pioneered a new form of journalism on the internet. Crikey broke all the rules of traditional publishing, regularly reporting rumours without checking and frequently getting things wrong."
... Day takes the opportunity, as he so often does, to deliver a backhander to all journalism on the internet.

But elsewhere he wants to take some of the credit for Mayne's deal:

"So it was in October last year when Stephen Mayne, owner of the gadfly Crikey email newsletter and website was approached by The Australian's Media section to talk about his internet publishing venture. " [...]

"He was asked by Media: what next? [...]

"Media duly set the bait, reporting him as saying: 'I have to decide whether to hire an editor or take on a partner. I wouldn't expect any offers from any of the major publishers, because we play the outsider game so aggressively'."
The Age and Sydney Morning Herald have been a little more straightforward in their reporting. The words are mostly Mayne's, though.

To his subscribers there is nothing new in any of these reports. Subscribers were the first to learn about the deal - subscribers are always the first to learn anything there is to know about the Mayne family, whether it's about Mrs Crikey's reaction to some new project or Grandad Mayne, the oldest living columnist in the world, reporting on the 20th century - Mayne's family have always been part of Crikey.

And that's part of the charm. It's hard to see how a corporate owner can take Crikey to the "next level" whilst retaining the folksy appeal mixed with the gossipy tartness that Crikey has established as its signature.

The key to Crikey, which is often overlooked, is the daily email newsletter, delivered twice a day to the reported 5,300 influential subscribers in Australian business, politics and the media.

The web site is relatively unimportant to this model. It's simply an archive, and despite Stephen's alternative strategies of locking it for subscribers or attempting to leverage advertising opportunities by opening it to all, it's difficult to see how this would have any real long term value.

The problem is the nature of Crikey's coverage. Unattributed insider gossip makes entertaining reading today but it's hardly a permanent, valuable record of events for tomorrow. If you're not doing original reporting, or serious analysis, then where's the long term value of your material?

They've made some effort to address this recently by developing a roster of contributors who can liven the mix of stories across sport, entertainment and politics. News stories sold as scoops with anonymous sources and fake bylines have short shelf lives so Crikey has outed popular political columnist Hilary Bray as Christian Kerr and sent Hugo Kelly to Canberra as political correspondent.

It's a good move, but I'm not sure it has worked. Kelly is in direct competition with the rest of the Canberra press gallery, and Kerr seems to have gone off the boil since dropping the Hilary Bray persona. The latter may pick up, but having Kelly in Canberra is probably not the right decision.

Nevertheless, Mayne's occasional analysis, particularly of business issues, is always good. But this just points to another problem which is that Mayne himself is the real star turn at Crikey and without him it can often be fairly dull.

Mayne has always been an entertaining writer and energetic self-promoter. His six year-old treatise on is a delightfully gonzoesque rant about life inside the Kennett bunker circa 1998. In fact, I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that Mayne is one of the more talented Australian journalists of his generation.

And that presents a problem for Crikey under the Beecher management. Despite keeping Mayne on as a writer for the next 18 months, the challenge will be to develop Crikey as a publication independent from and no longer reliant on, Stephen Mayne.

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