Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Tales from the trenches

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I spoke at the Centre for Advancing Journalism's seminar Tales from the Trenches last week. This is what I meant to say about The Tribune and why we have some level of success, but may have been stammering a bit too much to be comprehensible. 

Hello, my name is Jane Gilmore, I am the founding editor of the King’s Tribune.

As you can probably tell, I am a bit nervous, I don’t do a lot of public speaking, so I hope you’ll bear with me while I try to get the shaky voice under control and let's all hope that I don’t throw up right here in front of you.

For those of you who don’t know the Tribune, it is a small independent magazine site, focussing on politics, media and social justice issues.

The Tribune started because Justin Shaw, my deputy editor, won the air guitar competition at our local wine bar. I like to think this is the first of many things that makes us unique.

Over the celebratory ales afterwards I suggested to the owner of the bar that he should start a newsletter for the bar (which is called The King of Tonga) because it would be a great way of increasing engagement with his customers. He told me it was a splendid idea and I should totally do that. So I totally did and thus the King’s Tribune was born.

The very first King’s Tribune was a double sided A4 page we had printed at Officeworks.

I found a copy of it a few months back, and it’s truly, embarrassingly awful. The writing, editing, layout, everything about it was terrible. Every single rookie mistake you can possibly think of was right there on that double sided A4 page.

It was, however, a huge success at the time. And the reason for that, was I think, the thing that has been the key to our somewhat erratic success ever since then.

It’s a concept that’s so basic they don’t even teach it in journalism 101 because you should already know it before you get that far. And yet, the lack of it seems to be behind so many failures in journalism, sometimes at the highest level of the profession.

Know your reader.

With that first edition of the Tribune it was very easy to know all our readers, most of them we not only knew them, we knew what they liked to drink and what they were like when they’d had a few too many. We knew what they would want to read about and how they would want it written and that was what we gave them, amateurish as it was.

We moved out beyond the bar within a few months and turned into a local paper for likeminded folk around Elwood and St Kilda.

Again, we were writing for people we knew, people like us and it was easy to know who they were and what they wanted.

Two years later we hit the internet and our readership expanded beyond any idea we’d had of it in the beginning.

Even so, I can still clearly remember a time when I knew most of our subscribers, not so much by name, but by their twitter handle. We’ve never had a marketing budget, everything has come from social media, and most of it started on twitter and spread from there to other forums. (This, by the way, is still true now and is our only form of advertising).

So in the early days I knew our readers pretty well. They were people I talked to all the time, I knew what their interests were, usually because they coincided with mine which was why we started talking in the first place.

The days of knowing all our subscribers by name are obviously gone now, but I still (I hope) have a good sense of who our readers are and why they continue to subscribe.

I know that they’re politically aware, well-informed, intelligent, I know that they're snarky and hilarious and opinionated.

Most of all, I know that they’re, proud and enthusiastic supports of independent journalism. There’s a reason for that enthusiasm.

Knowing your reader is not just knowing who they are and what they want to read, it’s knowing them well enough to like them and respect them

It’s the unshakeable belief that you are one of them, not something separate, or worse, superior to them.

The internet is a large and wonderful place, I wouldn’t discount the possibility that a market exists for writing that condescends to and sneers at its readers, but I think it’s probably a niche market and there’s certainly an oversupply of writers to cater to it.

There’s an even larger supply of writers who are wrong about what they can do. Some of the glaringly wrong assumptions I see all the time are:

If you write on any given topic and don’t believe that at least some of your audience know more than you do about that topic, you’re wrong.

If you think you can write on any given topic and hide your own opinions or feelings about your topic, you’re wrong.

If you think you can write for an audience you believe are ignorant, irritating or unworthy of respect and hide this from them, you’re wrong.

English is a marvellously complex and sophisticated language, the subtleties of the words you choose, the things you say and the things you don’t say will give away far more than you know about who you are and how you think. If you think you are exempt from that, you are wrong.

I believe Phoebe, who does the Lady Melbourne fashion blog is speaking today. I’m not a particularly fashion conscious person, but I’ve read her blog and the thing about it that was immediately obvious to me is that not only does she know her readers, she like and respects them. She shares her ideas and discoveries with them, with the expectation that they will all enjoy the sharing. She is a part of her own audience and you can see that in every post she makes. I believe this is one of the keys to her success

It’s not a style of writing, it’s a way of thinking, and you can’t fake it.

One of our most popular writers Tim Dunlop, also does this very well. He rarely uses personal pronouns, but the underlying sense of his writing is that if he did he would say “we”, not “I”.

In the area in which I publish, primarily political writing, the press gallery is a good example of how to do it wrong. Their idea of “we” is themselves, the so-called experts, their colleagues. They write in terms of “you”, being the audience, as something less than the “we”. You are often wrong. We are not wrong, you're just too uninformed to be able to understand us.

The rise of independent media is driven, in its most basic form, by the idea that the “we” is the audience and the writers and the publishers. We’re all in it together.

For a small publication, one that is completely dependent on the loyalty of subscribers, I think this is the most vital concept to grasp. In any relationship, whether it be a personal one-to-one or between a Prime Minister and the entire nation, loyalty is the key to keeping the relationship strong. It will forgive and survive mistakes, but contempt will kill it dead.

There are a number of business models for running profitable online content, but all of them, whether your readers are your customers or your product, depend on producing content that readers value. You can only do that consistently if you are your own reader and you know yourself and your audience well enough to respect and love what you do and why you do it.

Which brings me to the next thing that I think is vital in creating a successful online business. You have to have a stubborn, some would say idiotic refusal to give up. In the face of all the evidence that says that making a profit will almost certainly never happen, that it takes over your life and your thoughts in the way that only a true obsession can, you have to love it too much to be able to walk away.

I think it was at least the first 4 years that I would keep telling myself that I’d give it 6 more months, if the Tribune didn’t at least get to break-even I’d stop. And every time I’d get to the decision point, I’d think, oh, well, we’ll just give it 6 more months.

I’ve stopped doing that now. I have another job as well as The Tribune, it pays my rent and sometimes it's paid to keep The Tribune going. I have just accepted now that this is the way it’s going to be, and all the time, and effort, and sleepless nights and occasional tears are completely worth it.

I may stop one day, but I tell you what, on that day they’ll be taking The Tribune from my cold dead hands.

Another point, one that frustrate me no end, is that your audience is unlikely to be solely male. This is particularly frustrating when you are writing and publishing about politics. The Tribune has published a couple of articles about the gender imbalance in the media. One by Chrys Stevenson on print media and an accompanying piece I did about online media (and a follow up piece a year later). In every case, as is repeated all over the world, men dominate the by-lines of news media. Obviously this has nothing to do with women’s ability, interest or knowledge of news and politics. When I did the first study of online media I had assumed that I was not part of the problem and I was horrified to discover that The Tribune writers were 60% male. At the time our subscriber base was also slightly distorted, about 65% male. I made a deliberate decision to correct the imbalance in our writers, without ever assigning traditionally “soft” topics to the female writers. A year later our writers were 50/50 male/female. And so were our subscribers. Both those things are still true now.

One final thing that might be valuable for writers in the audience, your first reader, your conduit to your wider audience, is your editor. So know your editor. Any editor who has too much time on their hands is doing it wrong. In whatever form your writing takes, if you are a writer who can reduce your editor’s workload you will find it easier to get work. Submit on time, understand who their audience is, pitch to their style, come up with ideas so they don’t have to, make sure you understand the brief if they give you one and stick to it. These are all things that I know are said over and over again to writers but they are also the mistakes I see over and over again. And finally, please please please, proofread your work. Spell checkers cannot be trusted.

I had an article come in a few years ago during Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership that contained the phrase “in the prime minister’s count, this is too many”. But he left the letter O out of the word “count”.

Yes, hilarious, until you realise how close I was to publishing it. I’m talking seconds from going live.

That writer, fairly or not, is now flagged in my mind as risky. I might publish him again, but only if I know I have the time to very carefully check his work, and time is something I almost never have.

So, I guess the summary of what I’ve spent the last 10 minutes saying is know your reader, know, yourself and love what you do. They all seem very obvious, too obvious perhaps to say at a forum like this, but sometimes it's the basics that we forget that can bring us down.

Thank you for listening and I think we can all feel good that I didn't throw up in front of you.


Jane Gilmore

Jane Gilmore is the editor of The King's Tribune.

Follow Jane on Twitter: @JaneTribune