The Global Mail: an inside job

This might seem like wisdom after the event. But I’ve actually been mulling over these thoughts on The Global Mail for a while. My reluctance to criticise the site until now, after it has lost its inaugural editor, might have had something with the hostile reception the site got on its first day. There were a lot of comments then on the side-scrolling design, adding to which seemed redundant. I decided to leave off, and just haven’t had a chance to say my piece until now. (and yes, hello blog, I promise to try not to neglect you). From the outset, let it be clear that I wish the next iteration of the GM all the best, and I write from a sense of frustration that a well-resourced new entrant has fallen so flat, so quickly. I write from a sense of disappointment, given the excitement I felt before the launch.

My problem wasn’t the side-scrolling design as such. It was more the way that this design combined with other features of the site, and the content, to suggest that the Global Mail was only reluctantly an online enterprise.

The site’s design suggested to this progressively less frequent reader that the brief was to make it look like a glossy magazine. When you combined that with the lack of a comments facility, and the lack of links and engagement with other sites in the stories, a distinct impression was formed. This was a website that was only grudgingly online. To me the presentation of the site framed the Internet as a necessary evil – a handy distribution method for a pretty old-fashioned product, not a medium with its own possibilities, which might be usefully engaged with. The lack of capacity for readers to make their own contribution suggested an aversion to the culture of online debate.

The stories reflected this mindset, I think. The photographic essays by Mike Bowers are gorgeous, and always worth a look. But otherwise too many stories were worthy-but-dull, with news and editorial values seemingly informed by a pretty wooly set of ideas about “quality journalism”. (Rumopur has it that there was tension over the rate at which stories were commissioned, so this may not have been the fault of the writers involved).

Too often they were at the weekend supplement level rather than approaching the gold standards of online longform journalism – The Atlantic, The New Yorker, TNR. One never felt sure as one does in checking those sites or their feeds, that one would learn something genuinely new, something which you will always want to shoot to instapaper.

So it seemed like GM combined unfulfilled aspirations to be a quality longform project with an apparent unwillingness to be integrated with the rest of the Internet. These went some way towards robbing the GM of the spark, cheekiness, willingness to experiment, competitive elan, doggedness and fight of more durable and interesting online news ventures. Crikey might have a ramshackle site but it also has shown itself able to compel readers with a different take on the daily agenda, and tweaked the noses of bigger players on the way. Think of Mumbrella or New Matilda, which speak for and to well-defined audiences. Think of On Line Opinion‘s sense of mission. Think of the personality that the more successful Australian blogs manage to project. Think of the best things that have happened at ABC Online in recent years – the Drum and ABC Open, which have harnessed the energy of outsiders. Then pop over to Alexa and do the traffic comparisons.

For all its claims to innovation in design, we never saw GM under Attard do anything really innovative as an online publication. There was no data journalism or visualisation, no experiments with interactive features, no live coverage, no standout social media work, no multimedia offerings.

It’s one thing to be away from the news cycle, it’s another to be so irrelevant that you’re not able to get any traction on the agenda. There seemed to be a desire to put foreign affairs and broad progressive issues on the public radar. But the Global Mail seemed too satisfied with itself from the outset to elbow its way into a place in the national conversation. The audience was taken for granted, not competed for.

When it started, it was claimed that its target market was everyone. This seemed impossibly vague at the time; in retrospect it seems like a disavowal. I think the imagined audience was clear enough – it was the editor and other like minds, who were committed to a similar normative old-media ideal of quality (which might just be redundant, if not obsolete) and a similar suite of soft-left causes. But this audience was just not large enough for the publication to have the desired impact.

Perhaps Attard’s background was not ideal for shepherding a new online outlet. She was a storied foreign correspondent with a long tenure in the ABC’s star system. Perhaps by their nature these things need hungry outsiders, who want to do more than dispense patronage to producing a kind of journalism which is exemplified better elsewhere. Perhaps the eye-popping level of support given to the venture was part of the problem – the whole thing just felt complacent from the outset.

It makes you think, though. When she was in the Media Watch chair, is the Global Mail what Attard wanted the Australian media to look like?

PS Tim Burrowes makes some related points, in the form of a list, on Mumbrella.