Inside Story

New media’s idiosyncratic survivor

Crikey emerges from its dispute with Lachlan Murdoch with a familiar figure at the helm

Margaret Simons 18 May 2023 2231 words

“You kind of get to have your cake and eat it too”: Crikey’s editor-in-chief, Sophie Black.

Eighteen years ago, when former Fairfax editor Eric Beecher bought the news outlet Crikey from its founder Stephen Mayne, he was able to say that its method of delivery — as an email newsletter — was unique in the world. He also would have liked it to arrive in inboxes with a thud, “like a newspaper hitting the veranda.”

Those words are a measure of how quickly the media landscape in Australia has changed. Today, such a thud would puzzle most of the target audience. For the remainder it would have a slightly embarrassing whiff of nostalgia.

Web-based news media has become the norm. The death of print has been predicted so often it has almost become a joke, but nobody doubts that hard-copy newspapers will end the second they stop turning a profit. That day grows closer as the generation that understood the significance of the thud on the veranda dies out.

Crikey, meanwhile, is in modest good health. It drew international attention late last year after Lachlan Murdoch sued over an opinion piece that described the Murdochs as “unindicted co-conspirators” in Washington’s Capitol riots. Murdoch abruptly dropped that action last month after News Corp’s depositions in Dominion’s case against Fox News attracted adverse publicity. Crikey claimed it as a win — not only for it, but for free speech.

Just three weeks earlier, Crikey had gone back to the future, appointing Sophie Black as editor-in-chief. Black is among the first journalists to have had a journalistic career entirely in online media — and mostly with Crikey. She worked there for ten years between 2004 and 2015, first as deputy editor, then as editor and editor-in-chief.

This time she replaces former Sydney Morning Herald editor Peter Fray, who exited the Crikey job after, somewhat worse for wear, he heckled ABC award winners at the Walkleys, suggesting that Crikey had broken their story first. He followed that up with a tweet describing the ABC as a fraud, but later apologised for his conduct.

It was a striking display of a characteristic that Black acknowledges is “baked in” to the Crikey personality — its self-image as a perpetual larrikin outsider, of the media yet outside the media.

And yet, despite the successive waves of change that have devastated many newsrooms, and despite the flat spots, missteps and not-infrequent self-indulgence, Crikey is still with us — the idiosyncratic survivor of the new media age.

Why? And what happens next under its new editor-in-chief?

Mayne, a former media adviser to the colourful Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett, founded Crikey in late 1999. The weekday newsletter had already become part of the undertow of public life when Beecher took over, serving a niche audience of politicians, investors, journalists and news junkies with a mix of insider gossip, comment, analysis and speculation.

Although most media outlets were making their content available online for free, viewing the web as little more than a promotional opportunity, Mayne had charged a subscription from the very beginning. Today that looks like a stroke of genius.

Beecher’s Private Media Partners paid just $1 million for the business: a small amount but a significant milestone, for this was the first time an internet-based news service had changed hands for real money. Google had only just established itself as the world’s dominant search engine. Nobody had heard of social media. Facebook and Twitter only became accessible to the public the following year.

This was the time of the brave little blog-based startups, many of them not-for-profits run on a wing and a prayer and the enthusiasm of their founders. There was On Line Opinion, New Matilda, Tim Dunlop’s Road to Surfdom and group blogs including Club Troppo and Catallaxy.

A rhetorical battle of “bloggers v. journalists” was raging, with some suggesting that web-based citizen journalism would make professionals redundant. Few foresaw that the live blog would instead be taken over by mainstream media and become a staple, reinforcing the place of established mastheads at the centre of public dialogue. Independent bloggers mostly faded away, were recruited by the mainstream or switched to Twitter. Crikey lived on.

So what has changed since Black last worked for Crikey in 2015? “Less than you’d think,” she tells me. Some contributors — Guy Rundle and Bernard Keane among them — have been at Crikey for all of that time. Their combined output would, if grouped together, make several thick books.

As for the Lachlan Murdoch imbroglio, both Keane’s column that provoked the writ, and the way the publication handled it were “emblematic of what Crikey is about,” says Black. “A great cracking story for us is one that reveals the way power works in this country, and this was a story we were at the centre of.”

Murdoch accused Crikey of using the case to get publicity and subscribers. Private Media’s chief executive, Will Hayward, puts a different slant on it. “I thought the worst thing that could ever happen was that he sued us, we lose and no one cares.” Once the company decided to stand up to Murdoch and refuse to take the column down, he thought it was essential to “go big.”

Crikey took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times urging Lachlan to follow through on his threats and issue a writ. The battle immediately became international news, and the Australian media — which prefers to ignore Crikey — had to report it too.

Black acknowledges a “Lachlan bump” in subscriptions but says they had already been growing over the previous three years. That’s the amazing thing: Crikey is actually doing quite well, in a niche kind of way. It has been doing quite well for some time.

When Black left in 2015, subscriptions seemed to have hit a ceiling of around 12,000. Nothing the team did resulted in any further growth. Today, though, around 26,000 people pay $199 a year (with some getting discounts on that) to access the email newsletter and website.

Hayward won’t disclose profit figures but agrees that a back-of-the-envelope calculation of around $5 million annual revenue is in the ballpark. “A bit less than that because some subscriptions are discounted.”

But the dream of selling advertising on the basis of a small but influential audience has receded. Today, more than 95 per cent of Crikey’s revenue comes from subscriptions. Advertising is almost non-existent.

And the “Lachlan bump”? Around 5000 more people have subscribed since Murdoch sued. On top of that, a GoFundMe appeal to help cover legal costs raised $588,735 from 6700 donations. The court is now deciding whether that amount should be deducted from Crikey’s costs before Lachlan has to pay its bill. Crikey would prefer the money go to the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, and for Lachlan to pay full tote odds.

Financially, in other words, the bump was substantial but not game-changing. More important, perhaps, was the reinforcement the case gave to what Crikey likes to think of as its unique cultural position.

As a result of the growing subscriber numbers, says Black, Crikey is better resourced than it was when she was last editor. She reckons she has at least two more staff reporters to work with, bringing the editorial staff — including Black and Gina Rushton, who edits day to day — to seventeen. There is also a healthy budget for freelance contributors, though Black won’t say exactly what they pay. (Apparently not everyone gets the same rate.)

Since 2015 the wider world has changed too — as has social media. Staff reporter Cam Wilson “can write almost full-time on the phenomenon of fringe groups and conspiracy theories online,” says Black. “That has really struck me in terms of a marker of time and how much things have accelerated and changed.”

Day to day, the Crikey content is still divided between analysis, news reporting and obstreperous — and often long-winded — opinion. There is certainly more original content these days. Investigations editor David Hardaker has broken stories about Scott Morrison’s QAnon mate — before Four Corners covered the same ground — and Hillsong’s finances.

This week, climate editor Emma Elsworthy has explained the extent to which environment minister Tanya Plibersek is constrained by legislation in approving coalmines. In previous weeks, reporter Maeve McGregor has given a very different slant to reporting on the inquiry into the prosecution of Bruce Lehrmann.

Last year, Guy Rundle’s take on the death of Labor senator Kimberley Kitching was not only a tour de force of lyrical reporting but also the media’s only attempt to thoroughly explain the factional background to allegations she had been bullied.

All this is content you wouldn’t read anywhere else. And yes, there has also been gratuitous and overly long pontificating and over-hyped stories. But those are hardly unique faults.

And yet Crikey could so easily have failed. Before Black left in 2015, she was editor-in-chief not only of Crikey but also of a raft of small, online-only specialist publications started by Beecher in what Black today describes as a “fail fast, throw it up and see what works model.” There was a property newsletter, a daily arts review, a women’s issues newsletter and more. Most of them comprehensively failed.

The only survivors are Crikey itself, the Mandarin, which specialises in public service news, and SmartCompany, which targets entrepreneurs. According to Hayward, the three titles each account for about a third of Private Media’s profit/loss result, but Crikey is by far the biggest employer of journalists.

Perhaps the highest cost of the failed ventures was in opportunity. When they launched, Crikey had online-only news publishing to itself, and a subscription model the mainstream outlets were only just coming to terms with. The Guardian soon arrived in Australia, as did the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, the Daily Mail and youth-oriented Vice Media, which licensed its Australian web operation to Nine and a television channel to SBS.

If Beecher had invested in Crikey at that time rather than diverted energy into short-lived niche publications, it might have mounted more serious competition to the newcomers. Instead, for a long period, Crikey languished while the Guardian established itself and went from strength to strength. “I think that folding some of [the niche outlets] was an acknowledgement that Private Media needed to be more focused on the things that worked,” says Black. “I think it was stretched too thin.”

And yet BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post are now gone from the Australian scene. Vice Media filed for bankruptcy protection in the United States earlier this month, having made almost all of its Australian staff redundant in 2020. And Crikey is still with us.

These days, Private Media Partners is owned by a spider’s web of small shareholdings, including former employees, the publishing company Allen & Unwin, and the family of Beecher’s co-founder in Private Media, the late Di Gribble. The biggest investors include John B. Fairfax, once the proprietor of the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, and Cameron O’Reilly, son of media magnate Tony O’Reilly. Beecher is the largest shareholder with about 40 per cent, owned directly and through family companies.

Beecher is, in Black’s words, “very much chairman of the board” and not a visible presence in the newsroom most days. Stephen Mayne, best known these days as a shareholder activist, is no more than an occasional contributor.

On the day Murdoch dropped the case against Crikey, says Black, the most powerful feeling in the newsroom was relief. “It had been a lot for the reporters and those involved to carry.” Now she wants to capitalise on the experience. She sees “a real opportunity coming off the back of what’s happened with Murdoch to crystallise a sense of independence.”

She won’t be drawn on differences in style between her and her predecessor, Peter Fray — nor on the circumstances of his departure. But others observe that she lacks the braggadocio of old-school editors. “She is born of new media,” says one. “And that’s a very different vibe. It’s a more democratic vibe.”

She conceives Crikey as “almost like an old-fashioned campaigning newspaper, sitting outside media and observing it. I think that’s a pretty invaluable space that we’ve carved out over twenty years. It has been there since Mayne started it, and it means you kind of get to have your cake and eat it too.”

Years ago, Crikey was refused permission to go into the budget lock-up because it was not “real media.” It was there this year, but still treated very much as a poor relation. Crikey doesn’t get the “drops” of news stories and documents from the powerful, says Black.

“But I don’t think that’s a bad thing for the most part. It means we do things like the Murdoch campaign, like the fantastic campaign that Crikey ran on Scott Morrison’s lies. There’s an edge there. There’s a freedom where we are unimpeded in so many ways. And I think that lies at the heart of what makes Crikey unique and invaluable and what makes it so much fun.”

So what lies ahead? “We’ve got a subscription base who are invested, literally, in our independence and in supporting stances like the Murdoch case,” says Black, “and we want to feed that interest by continuing to cover issues around the public interest, free speech, freedom of information, and the way defamation law is weaponised in this country consistently and rigorously.” •