It is rare that a Crikey article pleases us so much that we feel the urge to share it with our patriotic readership.
But this exceptional effort on the demise of the Global Mail, Greensparty mega-donor Graeme Wood‘s first online media frolic, lurking behind their paywall, wants to be free and is republished without permission. Graeme Wood is the largest ever campaign donor in Australian history, slopping out $1.6 million to the Greensparty in a move that even worried their own Senator Lee Rhiannon, the former communist.
Crikey’s Matthew Knott, no doubt urged on by management relieved the freebie competitor for lefty eyeballs is running into serious trouble, comes in from the long run to report on the well-sourced miseries of the staff at Wood’s Global Mail.
It shows that – while lefty multi-millionaire wannabe media barons decree at dinner parties that they crave a voice of compassion and justice that can right all of society’s wrongs through crusading reporting – in truth – they can be far more guilty of outrages than a Rupert Murdoch would ever dare be. Murdoch’s loyalty to his staff – and astonishing acts of generosity and decency – is the stuff of legend in News Corp and is an important part of its magic.
By contrast, Graeme Wood, mega Greensparty donor, seems rather less loyal, leaving young idealistic staff who relocated half way around the world in the lurch in an appallingly brutal way.
Not everyone agrees with Rupe’s conservative columnist, the brilliantly successful Andrew Bolt, but he has long argued that the problem with much of the far-left relates to their pre-occupation with seeming rather than doing. When it comes to seeming, Graeme Wood is all kumbayah sweetness and light, when doing, he puts Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap in the shade.
His latest plans apparently involve licensing the Guardian’s brand and content to operate an Australian online version. Not a bad idea, as it goes, but like all ideas, they require strong execution to succeed. Read this and you’ll see whether the Greensparty mega-donor has what it takes.
Fear and loathing at The Global Mail: what went so wrong?
MATTHEW KNOTT | JAN 22, 2013 12:57PM
A “culture of bullying, nepotism and incompetence”: insiders from Graeme Wood’s philanthropic journalism start-up The Global Mail talk to Crikey about what went so wrong so quickly.
When Jess Hill was offered a job as The Global Mail’s Middle East correspondent she knew she had to take it. Yes, it meant upending, with six days notice, the life she and her husband had created in Sydney. Yes, it meant leaving a secure, rewarding job as an up-and-coming producer in the ABC’s radio current affairs division. But this was an opportunity not to be missed.
Led by five-time Walkley Award winner Monica Attard, the digital start-up promised a heady cocktail of feature stories, foreign correspondence and investigative reporting. There would be no ads, no paywall and no need to chase donations. Funding was supposedly secured for at least five years through a $15 million gift from Wotif founder Graeme Wood, who famously handed the Greens $1.6 million before the 2010 election. In an era of failing business models and mass redundancies, Australia’s first serious attempt at philanthropically funded journalism appeared to be an unequivocally good news story.
Yet, less than 12 months later, The Global Mail’s founding editor is gone; so are half the original full-time reporters following a rash of resignations and redundancies late last year. Most left angry and demoralised by what they describe as a culture of incompetence, nepotism and cruelty. The journalists’ union is liaising with sacked staffers about taking a case to Fair Work Australia.
“I got into journalism to expose this sort of thing — not to stand back and watch it happen,” one former reporter said. Crikey spoke to several ex-staffers — who were forced out or left voluntarily — and the opinions were remarkably similar.
Many are especially aggrieved by the treatment dished out to 29-year-old Hill, whose Mid-East post was made redundant less than two weeks after having brain surgery to remove a tumour. Sharona Coutts, one of the staffers removed in a pre-Christmas purge, said: “I don’t think there’s any justification for the way they treated Jess Hill. It’s a scandal.”
Hill spoke to Crikey first about the experience. “I think it’s a total outrage what’s happened at The Global Mail. This investment was the most exciting thing to happen to Australian media in years, and I think people should understand why it hasn’t worked.”
Launched to great fanfare last February, TGM has been a troubled enterprise since day one. The site was burdened by a sideways scrolling design that confused many readers and made the site unusable on certain web browsers. After an early burst, traffic soon plummeted.
“It was mismanaged from the very beginning,” said a former reporter who asked to remain anonymous. “We should have started carefully by prudently nurturing a reputation instead of launching with the New Year’s Eve fireworks and then sputtering out into a pathetic Catherine Wheel.”
Insiders who spoke to Crikey agree Attard was not a perfect editor. While her journalistic record was formidable, the ABC veteran had never managed a large team and was a newcomer to online media.
Still, most staffers were dismayed when she was removed as editor less than three months after the site was launched. The coup, insiders say, was led by CEO Jane Nicholls (a former People magazine editor) and approved by Wood. Attard declined to comment when contacted by Crikey.
“The way they knifed her was so brutal and so lacking in due process that a lot of us never recovered from that,” one former reporter said. “There was such a lack of trust.”
Alarm bells, however, really started screeching in June when Nicholls announced via email that Lauren Martin, the site’s former copy editor, would take over as editor. The job was never advertised, quashing many staffers’ hopes that a world-class editor with extensive online experience would be hired.
“A building full of married couples and old friends in the late stages of their careers doesn’t exactly equate to a visionary tinderbox.”
“I thought, ‘this is a disaster — she is not qualified’,” Hill said. “I was amazed that with so much journalistic talent on the market in Australia this job had just been gifted to someone whose prior career highlight was editing the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette.” The Gazette, servicing the US resort island of Martha’s Vineyard, has a weekly circulation of around 8500.
Staffers were also alarmed because Martin is married to Mike Seccombe, the site’s business and politics writer. As Crikey has documented extensively, it’s far from the only personal entanglement among senior staffers. Nicholls, the CEO, is married to national affairs correspondent Bernard Lagan. Nick Olle, the site’s former Latin America correspondent now based in Sydney, is Graeme Wood’s stepson. Sam Bungey, hired as deputy editor in August, had worked with Martin and Seccombe at the Vineyard Gazette. Photography director Mike Bowers — described independently by several insiders as a volatile and influential figure in the organisation — is close friends with Seccombe and Lagan from their days together at The Sydney Morning Herald. Board member Brooke Twyford, who conducted the review that led to the December sackings, worked with Nicholls at Time Inc in the US.
Even former staffers critical of Attard’s leadership style say things deteriorated following her departure. They tell of a lack of ideas and editorial direction, emails going unreplied for days and of frustratingly long turnarounds between stories being filed and published. Even reporters who describe themselves as progressive complain an opinionated, stridently left-wing tone began to dominate many pieces.
“I could not get any serious guidance from anyone about what they wanted or what they expected from me,” one former reporter said. “I couldn’t get responses to my stories. I’d email and ring, but it all came to nothing. There seemed to be an open door for some staff and a closed door for others … I’m still shaking my head in disbelief at the whole thing. I don’t know how Graeme allowed this to take place.”
Despite these problems, Hill was enjoying covering big stories — the uprising in Syria; Egypt’s transition to democracy — and learning from luminaries such as The Guardian correspondent Martin Chulov. Then, in late October, she suffered a grand mal seizure on a flight from Yemen to Beirut. Tests later revealed it was caused by a benign brain tumour that required surgery. A week after being discharged from hospital she received an email saying her position as Middle East correspondent was being terminated.
“I was absolutely beside myself,” Hill said. “I still had staples and stitches in my head and I was on steroids; my vision hadn’t even fully returned yet. Despite all this, I had already started planning Middle East stories for the new year. I was totally committed to staying in the region.”
With Hill under instructions from her doctor to rest for a month, her husband rang Nicholls and begged the CEO to allow Hill until after Christmas to decide whether to take redundancy or a position in Sydney. It was to no avail. Upon her return to Australia, Hill says she heard “numerous stories from employees, both former and current, about what they described as a culture of bullying, nepotism and incompetence at head office”.
“A building full of married couples and old friends in the late stages of their careers,” she concluded, “doesn’t exactly equate to a visionary tinderbox.”
After deciding not to take redeployment, Hill says she was offered two redundancy options with less than 24 hours to decide. The first offer, more than double the monetary value of the latter, prohibited her from speaking publicly about the experience. This was never an option: “I just couldn’t have looked myself in the mirror if I’d taken a gag.” The latter, she says, essentially consisted of paid-out annual leave and 30 days’ notice pay with a deduction of “overpaid” sick leave taken while recovering from surgery.
Hill, who disputed the final package, says she has not received any response from Nicholls over the past month despite many emails and phone calls. “I’ve found Jane Nicholls’ treatment of me and several other colleagues to be shockingly callous,” she said from Sydney. “I can’t remember a more difficult time in my life — and the brain surgery was definitely not the most stressful factor.”
“It was a great opportunity for someone to do something new and different. Instead we ended up with a bunch of refugees from 1990s Fairfax.”
Other reporters who had signed three-year contracts — namely former Pro Publica scribe Sharona Coutts, ex-Age reporter Sarah-Jane Collins and former ABC Radio presenter Stephen Crittenden — were made redundant at the same time. Coutts, who received two commendations at last year’s Walkley Awards, was let go six weeks after moving to New York to work as the site’s US correspondent.
It didn’t escape anyone’s notice that none of the blood running through the publication’s corridors was spilt by those with close personal connections to management. “The people who stayed are not the star performers,” a former staffer said. Reporters Gordon Weiss, Joel Tozer and Michael Maher had left voluntarily in previous months. It should be noted that Aubrey Belford and Ellen Fanning, who both remain on staff, were nominated for Walkleys last year.
Nicholls declined Crikey’s requests for comment. “TGM prefers to let our journalism speak for itself,” she only said.
So why did it happen? How could a publication with five years’ guaranteed funding cull its staff numbers in year one?
Although wage levels varied wildly, there’s no doubt the publication’s salary bill has been significant. Some writers are paid in the range of $140,000, with senior managers said to be on salaries more than twice that amount. The website redesign — which took five months — is also said to have been expensive.
It’s unclear, however, how much money has been spent and how much remains in the kitty. Crucially, despite publicly promising secured funding, Wood has reportedly not placed the money in a trust. If true, this would mean he could reduce the site’s funding — or scrap it altogether — at any time. Wood did not respond to an invitation to comment.
The future for the site remains just as opaque — especially given last week’s announcement The Guardian would launch an Australian website bankrolled, in part, by Wood. Does this spell the end, or a resurrection, for the site? Nicholls suggested the latter last week by tweeting that TGM staffers are excited about the sites collaborating together. Meanwhile, the flow of stories to the website has reduced to a trickle. Six stories and two blog posts have appeared on the site this year, most written by freelancers.
“It’s depressing,” said one journalist who left late last year. “It makes me really angry. It was a great opportunity for someone to do something new and different. Instead we ended up with a bunch of refugees from 1990s Fairfax … The dream of what it was going to be ended long ago.”