Margo Kingston's Webdiary and Club Chaos
A small but remarkable event in Fremantle: the launch of Margo's Independent Webdiary and a Club Chaos meeting across the street....
On 23 September 2005 Project SafeCom has the honour of helping to launch Margo Kingston's Independent Webdiary in Western Australia - at the Fremantle Film and Television Institute - and have the first face-to-face Club Chaos meeting at Clancy's Fish Pub in Fremantle.
23 September 2005: Report of the Webdiary and Club Chaos' Fremantle launch - with a speech by Carmen Lawrence MP: "I welcome this venture as the latest example of Margo Kingston's commitment to the ideal of quality journalism, a vital component of healthy democracy."
22 August 2005: Margo Kingston's Webdiary goes independent - Creating and building an independent, credible alternative media - a vital task in my view - will depend in part on citizen journalists. This media will need to revolutionise the standard reporting style to counter its co-option by the powerful.
The What, When and Where:
Sometimes it's as if the gods play with Margo Kingston. Just think of the timing of Margo's exit last month from the Fairfax contracting and hosting arrangements at Sydney Morning Herald - and the fact that we all seem to be increasingly driven into the corner with an already limited press freedom in Australia.
Last year's report card on Australian press freedom ranked Australia way further down, at 41st place, than ever before. SMH reports in October 2004: "Australia could only manage 41st position in RSF's third annual index of press freedom, lagging behind some former Eastern bloc nations, including Hungary (28), Czech Republic (19) and Poland (32)."
Expectations for this year's annual ranking by Reportiers Sans Frontieres are not hopeful, with the case of the two Herald Sun journalists Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus facing prison over their rightful refusal to reveal their government leak sources.
The state of Australian media is abysmal, and there are dark clouds ahead also for Fairfax, according to Do Not Disturb, a recently published reader edited by Robert Manne on the question whether the Media is failing Australia. In the book former Fairfax editor Eric Beecher writes about the governing structures of Australian media outlets, and he states about Fairfax:
The unfortunate truth is that Fairfax directors have a fatal conflict of interest because commercial performance and quality journalism have become disconnected carriages on a train that is rapidly heading off the rails. And the sound that will be heard when that train derails won't just be screeching wheels and grinding metal, it will be the sound of the best journalism in Australia hitting the dust (p 21).
And as if that's not enough, wait for the next chapter, when Howard implements more of his squeezing of Australian media with the changes to the cross-media ownership laws.
So Margo - now divorced from Fairfax - takes in a new and entirely unique position in what we believe to be the new media landscape with Webdiary. As we wrote before recently:
Margo believes in patron-driven citizen journalism, and Webdiary is her church where she both practices and preaches it. In her own words:
Creating and building an independent, credible alternative media - a vital task in my view - will depend in part on citizen journalists. This media will need to revolutionise the standard reporting style to counter its co-option by the powerful. One important principle needs to be to admit what we don't know as well as what we do, and to ask citizen journalists to work with professional journos we trust to piece together the truth - or as close as we can come to it. In this direct partnership between journalist and reader we need to be quick on our feet, highly adaptive, and very innovative. We need to decide not to help big business media use us to swell their profits without thought of their corresponding duties to us. We need to support media, big and small, which WANTS to be open, transparent and accountable to readers and which DELIVERS on that desire. We also need to get under the radar of the media-is-just-another-business players (the vast majority of big media) and build our news, analysis and opinion coverage from the bottom up. TRUST is the word. Big word, that one.
ABC The Media Report: Margo, Unplugged
Thursdays at 8.30am, repeated at 8.00pm
1 September 2005
Guests on this program: Margo Kingston, Editor, Webdiary
Margo Kingston has a unique position in Australian journalism. She's one of our most senior reporters but over the last three years her focus has been a weblog on public affairs - Webdiary. Until last week, Webdiary was the property of Fairfax but no longer. After spending most of her career at the company, Margo Kingston is unplugged. We find out why she left and what she plans for Webdiary.
Richard Aedy: Last week, Margo Kingston, who'd been with Fairfax through most of her career, left the company. She's taken Webdiary, her weblog and online community about public affairs, with her, and she's now operating as a stand-alone. But why's this happened?
Margo Kingston: Because Fairfax was no longer willing to support my vision for Webdiary, and I was determined that my vision would continue. Fairfax's actions involved a breach of a three-year contract to write, edit and produce, publish Webdiary, so the decision was terribly hard because I'm now penniless, and operating on a dream, and I haven't got any skills in marketing or revenue or business management or anything like that. So it was a decision that I really, really wish I didn't have to take. I've been through my grieving process about leaving Fairfax, and I'm looking forward now, but I believe that Fairfax incorrectly understood the nature of the new interactive mediums, the desire and demand of readers to have a seat at the table, to have direct accountability. And I think actually that involved a fundamental mis-reading of the key speech that Rupert Murdoch gave to Editor and Publisher in April, where he said we really have to understand that communities will develop around our online operation. And Fairfax has given me a community that I built on the SMH proudly for the SMH. I'm very grateful to them for that, but I wish they'd let me keep doing what I was doing.
Richard Aedy: It's more in sorrow than in anger that you've gone.
Margo Kingston: Despair. It's in despair. But now I'm through the despair and now looking ahead, because 1) I've got no choice; but 2) As Stephen Mayne wrote to me on the new site, when you go independent there is this incredible lightness of being, in the sense that you're free. Now I know that I can look readers in the eye and say "I'm directly accountable to you. I will publish your complaints and explain if I've done anything wrong and I will strive to the best of my ability to maintain the ethics that I need to maintain, to maintain your trust." So in that sense, Webdiary, as an independent entity has more credibility. So I'm going with that.
Richard Aedy: I know it's early days, but what's been the response of your Webdiary community?
Margo Kingston: The real fear I had was that my right-wingers wouldn't come across, because the last thing we need is yet another leftie enclave or again another right-wing enclave. The great majority of the response, to my surprise, has been "Good on yer", "Glad you're free", "This will be better", "Let's get on with it", "It's about time, why didn't you do it earlier?". And I've really been quite shocked by that.
Richard Aedy: Well let's talk about the vision you have for Webdiary.
Margo Kingston: Well I wouldn't talk about it in terms of vision.
Richard Aedy: There's been a difference in philosophy then between you and Fairfax, so what do you want it to be? How did you feel that they were constraining that?
Margo Kingston: Well I'd like to talk about more of it in terms of the dream, and my dream is to be part of a rapidly growing and increasingly important independent media. For me, it's a really, really big responsibility that it works, because if it works, other journalists will join the independent media movement, and my dream is that my readers will really want the work that is being produced by them and by me on Webdiary, and we want it so much that we will build a decent relevant model to such an extent that we can employ our own journalists and operate pro-am. So we have professional journalists working with citizen journalists in all areas of expertise. I'm really old-fashioned, even though I'm operating in the new media, my image of it is making it solid again, making it respectable and responsible and accountable and trustworthy, and a paper of record. We can do all this online.
Richard Aedy: You want to go back to hot metal! You're actually a romantic about this, Margo.
Margo Kingston: Oh, absolutely.
Richard Aedy: But the crucial thing about what you're doing is it's not just you, it's community involvement, everybody can kick in.
Margo Kingston: Well it's really formed by people's interests, although people do tell me when I'm on a bit of an obsession, like I did have a very big obsession with SIEV X and the readership dropped, and I just said to people, "Look the readership can drop as far as I'm concerned, because this is really important", and then when I moved on to other issues all these people wrote in and said, "How dare you? Because we went to you for SIEV X". You know, you've got to go with your own judgment. I mean I'm an Editor that is not relying on consumer surveys; I place myself as Editor as someone with strong opinions and interest in certain fields. It's a debate about facilitating and enhancing democracy, it is a pro-democracy site. However readers bring in their particular topics and relate it to the core ethos. Readers say whether something's rubbish or not, and readers increasingly are saying "We would like you to investigate this", or "Is there a way we can investigate it?" and that's where the potential of the new site is, that's where I want to take it. And I envisage our readers being able to build up really interesting databases, profiles, that journalists can use.
Richard Aedy: Do you think you can break things?
Margo Kingston: Break stories?
Richard Aedy: Yes.
Margo Kingston: Oh, I have broken stories. Why wouldn't I be able to break stories now? Well, I can't say I'm from The Sydney Morning Herald, I've lost my Sydney Morning Herald gallery pass, all I can say is I'm Margo Kingston, Editor of Webdiary. So I've got a disadvantage there in breaking stories. But I have complete confidence that Webdiary will break stories, and the reason for that is that we'll be looking at investigating stories that no one else is bothering with, and there are so many stories where that's not happening.
The other basis of the hot metal solidity image for the new media is I found it really distressing over the years that newspapers have ceased being papers of record, and I want to build up speeches and key transcripts and key quotes and what they said then, and now, and I want to follow stories daily. Readers are doing it for me now; they're going to court cases and reporting them back. All we've got to do is stuff like Dan Gillmor's doing, and have an education process and have a process where readers can consult me or other journalists that want to help, about their ethical obligations etc. Once they learn it, they can fly, and they want to. They want to.
Richard Aedy: We should say that Dan Gillmor's the fairly well-known journalist in the United States, worked for a big paper in San Jose in the heart of Silicon Valley, and he's essentially gone off and really done what you're starting to do.
Margo Kingston: Well he's written a book about it which I haven't read but I'm going to read very quickly, and he's started templates on a charter that a citizen journalist - you know, if you want to sign up to be a citizen journalist on Webdiary, you've got to have your values in place, and you've got to know what the basics of journalistic practice are, get every point of view you can, check your sources, da-da-da. I believe citizens want to be empowered; I believe they're dissatisfied with the service so-called they're getting. I think many, many of them, it doesn't matter if they're right, left or centre, believe that the media is no longer on their side, that the media is part of an insider club which is conning them, and they want to help get their democracy back, and I'm relying on their energy, and on what they want to do.
Richard Aedy: Now Margo, at the heart of what you're dong is a big cultural change, in the journalist as authority. You're giving up that authority.
Margo Kingston: Oh well, some might say that, but I'd say I've got total authority. I've got total power. What I choose to do with that power is to disperse it, and I love doing that, I find that empowers me even more. But this is my Webdiary; this is Margo Kingston's Webdiary.
Richard Aedy: I'm wondering if one of the reasons that Fairfax declined to continue with this is that they couldn't see a way of monetising it, and I'm wondering if you can see a way of monetising it. How are you going to keep the wolf from the door and pay your bills?
Margo Kingston: Webdiary's very cheap. They were paying me 48-grand a year gross. I'm working 90, 100 hours, and I'm a really senior journalist, I'm putting high-grade judgment in. Fairfax wanted to turn it into one of their standardised blogs to save money on hosting etc., and pack it with ads. They were experimenting; I've got photographs of this, with embedding ads in comments. I do not accept that. One of the things that Fairfax and Murdoch are doing now, and this has been developing for a while, is that they do not see they have any duty to readers, they are wanting to develop an interactive media so they can milk revenue from this audience. And use their free creativity. That will not work. The only way readers will want to spend time on their creativity is if they get a return, and the return they have to get is respect, accountability. And the right to talk back.
Richard Aedy: I think that's true. I don't think we have a quarrel, but what I am wanting to now is how are you going to make a living wage out of this?
Margo Kingston: Oh well, I've deliberately avoided your question because I have no idea. Webdiary's been in trouble for quite a while. There have been offers of donations and things like that. Now that's a short-term fix, but I'm not going to put a donation box in until I know what the structure of Webdiary is, and there is no way the structure of Webdiary can be me making a profit, because you can't skim profit off your readers' work. So it has to be in the context of a living wage. As soon as I get a structure, donations will come in, to help subsidise. I'm paying two people to look after the temporary site, to look after the comments, etc., selling assets, all that sort of thing. Short-term, my exit strategy is one year after the opening of the new Webdiary, if I haven't got a revenue model to earn a living wage the next year, I either close it or say to Webdiarists, I'm leaving this operation, would you like to take it over. I can manage myself by selling assets in that year, so I'm putting off exactly how the money will work, because I want it to be right.
Richard Aedy: There has been some use of sponsor journalism, by other sole traders, especially in the United States. Would you look at something like that?
Margo Kingston: Oh look, if readers want to donate to enhance Webdiary that's fine. Like as soon as I can get over this begging-bowl thing, like Stop me going broke, please, I'd be looking for funding for an FOI fund, where readers will decide where they want to FOI, and we'll put up all the FOI documents, we'll be able to document the obfuscations and so on. I tell you, if I could put to a reader the person I'd like to be CEO, I'd like Tom Burton to leave Fairfax and be the CEO of Webdiary. And if he did agree to that, he was the person who made The Sydney Morning Herald online the greatest site in Australia, where no one cared, including the suits. He's the one who did it with band-aids, and great people. We could get a real visionary here who could actually take on the big boys, if readers are willing to get together and fundraise, or some rich person comes along, or whatever, some foundation, and says, "We'll give you some capital", I could get two or three great journalists in the mainstream, who are just dying to do the work properly again.
Richard Aedy: Who would you want?
Margo Kingston: Well I'd want Tom, naturally, and I would want my sister, Gay Alcorn, former Washington correspondent for The Herald and The Age who's now editing Insight for The Age. I believe she'd come. I could offer her half her pay, she'd come, but I can't even do that. If someone wants to give me a go, and put some money down, I could get a fantastic team, we can take them on, and we can get press gallery passes. The other thing I'm really going to do, is develop groups on the ground around Australia to do their own community newspapers, do their own reporting, pull the local in with the main Webdiary which is the national. I mean I want people all over Australia to connect on this and to learn from each other.
Richard Aedy: Well good luck with it over the next year, and let me know when you're going to try and schedule some sleep!
Margo Kingston: Thank you very much.
Richard Aedy: Margo Kingston's Editor of Webdiary. And we did ask Fairfax to put their side of the story, but the company declined.
The First Freo Club Chaos Meeting
Margo Kingston's Home for Wayward Cowboys and Cowgirls / the establishment attracted an array of serfs and fiefs of all persuasions / with a self-service beer dispenser...
Club Chaos is the nickname for the loose and sometimes chaotic collective of Webdiarists who helped build and grow Webdiary at the time of its residence at the Sydney Morning Herald, and later at Margo Kingston's Independent Webdiary. Webdiarist Polly Bush is credited with naming Club Chaos. See her piece below. The first non-virtual meeting of Club Chaos in Western Australia will take place - over a drink and dinner of course - at Clancy's Fish Pub in Fremantle, and who knows, apart from webdiarist Jack Smit also other webdiarists such as Sean Hefferon, Khristo Newall and John Wojdilo may be there to help the meeting getting underway!
Carving up Club Chaos
From Margo Kingston's Webdiary
A long time ago in a far away land reigned the establishment Kingo's Club Chaos, sometimes now referred to as Ye Olde Webdiary. This makeshift saloon bar quickly became a refuge for the damned and a retreat for the restless, evolving into Margo's Home for Wayward Cowboys and Cowgirls.
Most of the time the pub was rough, divey and thick with smoke, with Kingo in command of mixing the drinks.
As the crowd grew in numbers renovations became inevitable. Like the ol' suburban pub, the expanding clientele needed to be dazzled with wanky trendy trimmings.
This was no easy task as patrons varied completely in thought, word and speed. The best solution seemed to be to carve up the saloon bar into different themed rooms and activities.
The new set up coincided with the bitter climate following the bolstering of Chief Poo bah Howard's feudal power. But rather than Club Chaos becoming a shelter for the disgruntled, the establishment attracted an array of serfs and fiefs of all persuasions.
Due to the increasing volume in numbers, Kingo was forced to install a self-service beer dispenser. While this new self-service deli-card system seemed easier to manage, Kingo still had to run around filling up the kegs each day.
Occasionally she'd chuck a beer at an ungrateful customer, but a lot of the time she simply dished out the plonk and cleaned up the slops tirelessly, often until stupid o'clock. And if she didn't throw a beer at a demanding patron it didn't really matter - invariably one of the bar's defenders would happily take up the brawl and play bouncer.
As the renovations began so too the themed rooms created themselves.
The neo-cons set up a Speed Dating room, with A.Mills declaring a crush on K.Cinosa, while Greg Hynes got hot under the collar in the Gay Marriage Mud Wrestling Pavilion.
The Cigar Room was an acquired taste, but nonetheless excessively popular. It was here where Antony Loewenstein, sporting his 'Chomsky-Rocks!' jim-jams, sparked up intricate discussions on the Middle East which carried on well into the night and beyond.
In the Corner of Electoral Accountability, Kerryn Higgs, Joo Cheong Tham, Graeme Orr and Craig Rowley riled at all that is rorted.
Robert Bosler's Magical Mystery Tour was always a trip hippy experience, with dozens of people sitting around pondering the existential meaning of coffee cups.
Occasionally a stranger would waltz into Club Chaos, declare they had "never been to a place like this before" and then proceed to belt out a big band number, causing a Mexican wave across the delighted crowd.
Meanwhile, from the Sun Terrace, Harry could be found reclining, sipping on a gin and tonic, toasting the Swiss, chewing on Sydney rock oysters and chomping on a bit of Chomsky.
At least in some parts of the new club the song remained the same.
Indeed, Jack Robertson was still speaking in tongues at the bar. Jack was what Russell Crowe is to the movies, what Mark Latham is to politics - the beloved resident bad boy of Club Chaos. He could be heard ranting for miles, recently likening Howard to Derrida, placing a parallel Cornelia Rau in a concentration camp, and writing Stephen Mayne poetry.
Spookily, Marilyn managed to transcend every room simultaneously at once. While admirable for her relentless advocacy, she had a habit of regurgitating statistics on detention centres, even when no one had broached the subject.
"Can I buy you a drink Marilyn?" you'd ask, to which she would respond:
"We don't have the right to murder Iranians. Anyway it can't be too bad in Iran can it, as we spend more than $300 per day each to drive them insane in Baxter because "they aren't refugees fleeing persecution". This is based on the principle that being stoned to death or hanged by the neck in the street is not persecution. Really boys, go and buy some toy soldiers and play war games with each other." Uh-huh.
Kingo's New Club Chaos maintained the surreal with the old and the new.
The renovated system created far more scope for the crowd to interact with each other directly. There was however, a bit of a tendency for the wolves to descend if a bone was thrown, which would send the beer flying from all directions.
Consensus reaching moments still occurred, with happy group hugs in the pub and a round of twister.
Ultimately, the renovated club continued to attract a merry mix. The tapestry was all the more rich for the diversity of colours produced by the ever-expanding family of Club Chaos. Even with the wankers.