The Null Device
Australia's mainstream press landscape has, for a while, been a somewhat depressing sight. For one, most of it is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and is nakedly biased in a way that the Times and the WSJ would never dare be. The major non-Murdoch papers are owned by the Fairfax group, and have spent the last few years trying to boost their circulation by ramping up the tabloid sensationalism; a cursory glance at the front page of The Age reveals a surfeit of celebrity/sex-life/body-image stories more worthy of a free commuters' daily. (Fairfax' other titles hardly fare better; a few years ago, the top article on the WA Today website was “Man gets penis stuck in pasta jar”). And there's always the spectre of Australia's right-wing mining oligarchs, concerned that they may, at some point, stop getting their way, buying up the remaining non-Murdoch papers.
Which is why the recent rumour of The Guardian, the centre-left-leaning British quality daily of note, setting up an Australian joint venture has me excited. The Guardian already has a US online-only venture, which publishes US reportage and columnists (some of whom started off online in the 1990s, like former suck.com writer Ana Marie Cox) from a broadly progressive perspective, and, of course, the UK newspaper's output is readable for free on its website. If anything, there is probably more need for such a publication in Australia than in the US, where that space overlaps with existing titles such as the New York Times.
The Guardian haven't confirmed this rumour, though the article in the Evening Standard suggests that it will be headed by Saturday Guardian editor Katherine Viner (who is moving to Australia to run it) and will be a joint venture with Australian philanthropist Graeme Wood (who has set up a non-profit media site, the Global Mail.
The big hope will be that the Guardian's brand as a media outlet, and experience with running a mainstream paper, will be act as enough of a catalyst to forge a progressive media voice with broader reach than the various eddies and skerries of the inner-urban online commentariat (think Crikey or New Matilda), which are easy to dismiss by people who don't live in Fitzroy or Newtown as something you have to vote Green or own a bicycle to read. There are quite a few journalists and commentators in Australia whom such a venture could recruit from such media. And if Gina Rinehart does fill the Fairfax papers with right-wing demagogues, there may be a ready audience willing to jump ship.