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VICIOUS: Greensparty mega-donor media mogul treats journo staff brutally

Graemewood470It 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.”

Discussion

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  1. In what universe is Andrew Bolt “brilliantly successful Andrew Bolt” what a joke even a judge said he was a poor journalist his ratings are so low he is insignificant

    Posted by Alex | January 22, 2013, 16:45
  2. @Alex

    I might well ask you what universe you are living in?

    Whether or not you like him, as you obviously don’t, Andrew Bolt has the leading political blog in Australia and what’s more, his Bolt Report on Channel 10 out-rates all other political television shows most weekends.

    This may be a truth that you don’t like, but get used to it. He is the leading voice for common sense and truth.

    Posted by Road Runner | January 22, 2013, 17:59
  3. Some punctuation would be nice, Alex, if you intend criticising a quality operator like Bolt.

    Posted by Teacher Tim | January 22, 2013, 18:01
  4. Funding not in trust to guarantee jobs for five years?
    What a frickin’ tragedy!
    Welcome to the real world you sheltered workshop muppets.

    Posted by Toad of Toad Hall | January 22, 2013, 18:03
  5. If BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, a Big 4 bank or frankly just about any other major Australian company had treated its staff so shabbily, the Greens would be screaming blue murder about “bastard bosses”.

    No we know what it takes to buy the Greens’ silence – $1.6m.

    For once Lee Rhiannon was right – her party has been corrupted.

    Posted by Ian | January 22, 2013, 18:10
  6. Too funny, a bunch of wealthy old farts all marrried to each other trying to be relevant, neigh groundbreaking, in the digital age.

    Posted by Jim | January 22, 2013, 18:23
  7. Don’t worry, The Guardian failed in the UK and will go the same way here in Australia, for exactly the same reasons.

    Let’s see just how long it takes.

    Posted by profoundly_disturbed | January 22, 2013, 18:26
  8. If that smug, insufferable prick Mike Seccombe gets the arse, the TGM experiment will have been worthwhile.

    Posted by Snoopy | January 22, 2013, 18:27
  9. Has anyone considered that the entire endeavor failed because its content didn’t appeal to readers? The ABC and SBS would go the same way except they receive free tax dollars. Like so many enterprises from the Left, it goes the way of the dinosaurs once there’s no tax dollars to keep it afloat. Fancy that.

    Posted by LL | January 22, 2013, 18:44
  10. The Global Mail is a mini me for socialism. BTW Alex, in a universe where we pay our own way, Andrew Bolt is a shining light.

    Posted by Julian McLaren | January 22, 2013, 18:49
  11. Laughs at roadrunner and teacher tim (note the deliberate lowercases)…

    I am not saying that Andrew Bolt is not classy nor a journalist … I’m also not saying that the overwhelming bulk of his work involves appropriating another person’s web article and adding ten words of his as an intro or comment (with 50% of these using the works “I’m not saying/alleging that… ”

    … Oh – I guess that I am.

    Posted by jusdiss | January 22, 2013, 19:23
  12. Sounds like a typical inbred, Lefty, ALPBC dinner party – only they are trying to run a web site.

    Ditto on Seccombe, worse than David Marr. Who even knew that was possible?

    Posted by H B Bear | January 22, 2013, 19:28
  13. And jolly old Mike Bowers on Insiders is really just another grumpy old man ? Who’da thunk it.

    Posted by heinrich | January 22, 2013, 19:43
  14. So the luvvies at – what was the name of this on-line muppet colony again? – are having a tsunami of sobs at their exposure to real life beyond the sheltered workshop.

    Imagine the hurricane of hysterics that will accompany the forth-coming sale of the ABC!

    Posted by Gobsmacked | January 22, 2013, 20:48
  15. Like most lefties, they are they see themselves as visionaries but couldn’t run a chook raffle.

    Imagine if they were in control of the country? Oh wait…

    Posted by Greg | January 22, 2013, 21:19
  16. Julian McLaren, how does Andrew Bolt pay his own way. Have you looked at the financials for The Oz or 10 lately? He is only there to run mogul PR. Hardly journalism.

    Gobsmacked, you are referring to what would be a nightmare for the left. An Abbott government and a neutered ABC. But thanks for not raising the spectre of Rinehart vetting all the stories that come out of Fairfax.

    Posted by BobOfAlex | January 22, 2013, 21:42
  17. Well. Totally foreseeable, expected and inevitable.

    In other news water is wet and the sky blue. Which is probably more interesting than the majority of the tosh I read on my brief and regrettable forays to the Mail.

    RIP…..quicker please.

    Posted by Mark | January 22, 2013, 22:11
  18. I have never read the Global Mail and it seems that I have not missed anything.

    Posted by Giuseppe De Simone | January 22, 2013, 22:58
  19. I guess that’s what happens in fairy land.

    Turns out Wood hasn’t got the wood.

    Posted by James | January 22, 2013, 23:12
  20. Alex… Here is a quote by Theodore Roosevelt.

    To anger a Conservative, lie to him. To anger a Liberal, tell him the truth.

    Andrew Bolt’s success makes you angry, doesn’t it Alex?

    He is also back from holidays. Go visit the site. It’s where all the really smart people on the Internet go to read and to be heard. :-)

    Posted by J.H. | January 23, 2013, 0:25
  21. I gotta say, this is the best Feel-Good piece I’ve read all week! Nothing cheers me more than to read about the leftards tearing each other to shreds for no reason.

    Posted by Tom Servo | January 23, 2013, 1:33
  22. Who says Rhiannon is a FORMER communist? Show me where she renounced it.

    Posted by Jock | January 23, 2013, 7:39
  23. LMAO. Couldn’t happen to a more deserving group of people. Thanks for sharing this, you made my day.

    Posted by Grandma | January 23, 2013, 7:44
  24. You can argue many things about Andrew bolt. You cannot argue that he is not a success.

    Anything which needs to be propped up by taxpayers is by definition a failure.

    Posted by james | January 23, 2013, 8:43
  25. Seriously is anyone surprised? The answer is always content. Poor content low readership. It’s not a difficult consept.
    Stil worth a morning laugh though thanks for shareing.

    Posted by Scott | January 23, 2013, 9:25
  26. Bolt is a knob.

    Posted by Reggie | January 23, 2013, 10:20
  27. yer but he has a big one reggie.

    Posted by bazza | January 23, 2013, 10:40
  28. Reminds me of Air America, another big left-liberal start-up that went bust after a huge hoo-ha start up. Seems to be that a heck of a lot less people are interested in the leftist viewpoint that liberals believe there are. I guess liberals live in a bubble and only talk to other liberals thereby getting the the whole world comprises liberals — and conservatives are are weird, minor rump. Liberals haven’t yet worked out that although about half of Australia votes Labor many of those are socially conservative. Australia is a conservative country — 80% I’d guess.

    Posted by Walter Plinge | January 23, 2013, 10:45
  29. One more, rather rich self indulgent greenie who lives in tasmania. They sure did a great job of saving that state!

    Posted by cynic | January 23, 2013, 11:00
  30. Wonderful to see that the practice of Bolting happens in here *** LOL *** … But, I’m not saying that I’d take him more seriously on Australian issues if he renounced his Netherlands passport …

    Posted by jusdiss | January 23, 2013, 11:08
  31. Nick Olle…..former Latin America correspondent…..is Graeme Wood’s stepson?
    You mean Wood is married to Andrew Olle’s widow? Fancy that.

    Posted by Merv S | January 23, 2013, 11:14
  32. Hilarious – if I squinted just a little bit, I could assume that you were talking about the ABC!

    Posted by Dianne | January 23, 2013, 11:31
  33. The cash burn rate at TGM must be spectacular. The website probably cost a million, then paying a whole tribe of journos and senior management, along with the usual company tax, super contributions, workcover, and overseas living allowances, in addition to start up costs. Probably double the initial estimates for year one and nothing left for years four and five.
    Wood pushed the big red button, and wants to pay for Guardian content.
    Talk about scrape the bottom of the barrel.

    Posted by Keith | January 23, 2013, 11:35
  34. With Tom Servo on this and it IS comedy gold. You’d need a heart of stone not to wet the knickers laughing at the Night of the Long Naives

    Posted by JakartaJaap | January 23, 2013, 13:05
  35. Hi, I was one of the staff members made redundant, and I believe you are massively overstating Graeme’s involvement in the nuts and bolts of TGM operations (either out of ignorance or for the opportunity to take potshots at the Greens, who don’t seem to be your favourite people). The idea that he was our “boss” in any meaningful way is hugely misleading.
    Far more blame should be placed on the shoulders of the CEO and editor, whose micromanaging and lack of experience with online media made it a very frustrating place to work. It’s an insular and inert culture, and I hope Graeme has the good sense to halve those huge salaries and pour more energy and cash into hiring people who will doggedly pursue good stories and quick turnarounds. No matter who’s funding it, all you folk having a good old schadenfreude session here should be just as disappointed in the failure of a new “independent” outlet, unless you’re only interested in having your own point of view reinforced day in day out. It is really sad, and does nobody any favours.

    Posted by VVV | January 23, 2013, 13:23
  36. HELLO MODERATOR – feel free not to approve my previous comment. i don’t think it adds to the conversation here and I regretted wading in immediately! not the place to vent frustration.

    Posted by VVV | January 23, 2013, 13:41
  37. My favourite line in this article is the bit about “Murdoch’s astonishing acts of decency”

    You probably didn’t intend it that way, considering the brownnose nature, but it was pretty apt.

    Posted by James | January 23, 2013, 14:36
  38. I think this is a good place to vent frustration.
    I wonder if the staff at global mail have Aesop hand wash in the bathrooms like the press gallery is demanding in Canberra.
    The last thing the Australian media landscape needs right now is more internationalist socialist propaganda from the likes of the Guardian.

    Posted by Fred | January 23, 2013, 15:17
  39. The idea of licencing Gauardian content is equally stupid and obviously likely to fail as TGM. If a reader wants Guardian content they will buy the Guardian.

    Posted by Monica | January 23, 2013, 19:24
  40. The online Grauniad will fail just as TGM has. If deluded folks want left wing biased reporting and commentary, they can get it free at the Fairfax and ABC websites. None of these organisations will ever make a quid (Fairfax included) as they are all competing against the tax payer funded ABC.

    Why is the NEWS group successful? – because they provide bslanced reporting.

    Also, Rhiannon (Brown, O’Gorman, whatever) is not a “former” communist. She is, and always will be, an unrepentant Stalinist.

    Posted by old bloke | January 23, 2013, 20:58
  41. Bolt is a flaccid knob.Size becomes a moot point.

    Posted by Reggie | January 24, 2013, 13:33
  42. Dear vex I noticed you have not done a union article since December.
    Whats up,
    january has nearly finished.

    Posted by Long gone | January 24, 2013, 23:32
  43. If Wood has any chips left he might care to lay a few on VEXNEWS. Just give him an honorary position and whatever you do don’t put him in charge of the human resources dept.

    Posted by Gregoryno6 | January 24, 2013, 23:48
  44. Just another collectivist, leftist clique.
    No chance to compete with the ABC juggernaut. Fairfax, Crickey, TGM, all trying to take each other from the left… they simply cannot compete.
    It’s also true that leftists generally speaking, have no business acumen, and are bound to fail. They tend to see the world as they would like it to be, and live in a constant state of denial. Failure is their only outcome.

    Posted by LeftRightOut | January 25, 2013, 13:09
  45. Mr long gone – there will be a union story soon involving the corruption in the Vic ETU. There will be people ducking for cover and giving each up everywhere. The HSU is nothing !!

    Posted by Dog Rolling in Poo | January 26, 2013, 21:15
  46. THANKS DEAN….Good bye Grandma,coward,twoy,Graeme no good lazy watson,linda lovelace,white goods toss,G Carruthers,mandy.

    Posted by jimmy | January 27, 2013, 11:58
  47. Good on you Inga. But Kelly O’Dwyer…no,no,no….she should resign now so the L

    Posted by banna | January 28, 2013, 18:01
  48. (con’t)…..so the Liberals don’t have to spend a hocus pocus amount of time counting numbers to de select her.

    Posted by banna | January 28, 2013, 18:04
  49. The night of knives

    New leadership
    black spot

    A fresh start- time for change

    Posted by Freddy | January 31, 2013, 22:39
  50. M-inister
    Sports, Education, Gaming, entertainment
    P-aul Howe-s

    Posted by Geof | February 2, 2013, 23:04
  51. spotted. separation communication and ?

    Posted by long gone | February 2, 2013, 23:06
  52. Murdoch’s loyalty to staff? Bullshit. Henchmen yes, staff no. No point reading this crap after that opening.

    Posted by Oscar | February 4, 2013, 22:38

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