Public interest journalism takes a kangaroo leap forward

Review by Alex Klaushofer.

Today brings the launch of Australian news websiteThe Global Mail, one of the best-funded public journalism initiatives the digital age has seen to date.

With a mission to provide independent, quality journalism – strapline ‘our audience is our only agenda’ – and generously bankrolled by Australian web-preneur Graeme Wood, the site’s approach is determinedly uncommercial.

The idea for the project came when Wood and former ABC journalist Monica Attard came to a common conclusion about the state of foreign affairs reporting; ‘I think that the quality of public interest journalism is at the lowest ebb that I’m aware of,’ Wood told the website Crikey. “That’s a result of financial difficulties that media organisations are suffering, so as the quality goes down … there’s demand there that’s not being met.”

Attard, a former ABC journalist, was concerned that foreign affairs reporting was suffering from the crisis hitting the industry just as international affairs, with the Arab Spring, were getting particularly interesting.

The resulting Sydney-based site – which went live Down Under on what was yesterday in Greenwich Mean Time – may become for Australia what ProPublica is to America and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to Britain.

My first visit to the home page brought me a triptych of three very different images – an arresting, if slightly confusing, introduction. The three stories they illustrate are clearly carefully chosen for their range: an investigation highlighting the failings of Australia’s register of health workers and the implications for patient safety, an analysis piece on Obama’s re-election prospects by veteran commentator Michael Maher, and a report by Middle East correspondent Jess Hill examining the opposing worldviews of Egypt’s Salafis and Sufis.

All the pieces are beautifully written and replete with the kind of colour and detail that has become increasingly rare in foreign affairs reporting in recent years. They are also, in terms of both pace and choice of subject, noticeably less news-driven than their British counterparts. With galleries of pictures following the copy, it’s clear that high values have been placed on images, so much so that at points it almost feels as if you’ve stumbled into a photography or graphics-led site.

Yet the site, while undeniably elegant, is not easy to navigate, with pieces arranged in a multi-column magazine format that involves repeated clicking to keep up the flow of reading. This makes a refreshing contrast to the busy, at-a-glance appearance of so many info-heavy news sites, and arguably helps to foster the kind of thoughtful approach to news consumption that the site aims to serve. Nonetheless, it remains an open question how easily it will win readers away from other international news sites in an increasingly crowded digital marketplace.

All of which points up the issue which will determine the long-term success of The Global Mail. It will doubtless take time for the website to establish its particular approach to foreign reporting, and for the country-based correspondents – Hill is one of five – to break exclusive stories on their patch. And the challenge facing all foreign news providers of finding an editorial balance in terms of geographical coverage is heightened by its status as a website potentially potentially appealing to a global audience.

Meanwhile, the website’s shakers and movers seem enviably unconcerned with revenue-generation, and have no plans to either get advertising or charge readers. In a pre-launch interview with long-established Australian newspaper The Age, Attard bristles at questions about The Global Mail’s financial viability: ”What’s the hurry? We’ve got a solid five years’ funding, during which time I reckon a bunch of hugely intelligent people will come up with a way to make money, with an operation as small as this, with no legacy to carry on our back.’