Where's Australia's next media upstart?

Australian media institutions are seemingly content being fast followers, but the local market is ripe for experimentation.

Not too long ago, Australia could rightfully have been considered a hub for online media innovation.

Think about it. Long before the New York Times considered its ‘digital subscription’ plan, Crikey was already rocking it with a slew of paying subscribers. And unlike the Wall Street Journal - which adopted a pay wall back in the 90s - they were paying for something other than business news too.

And since the late noughties (2000-2010) outfits like Business Spectator, Delimiter, Mumbrella and others have been operating on lean, revenue diverse online publishing models that are now the staple for US firms.

It’s almost enough to make you wonder: who copied who?

But times have changed and the focus on media innovation has seemingly shifted across the Pacific.

In recent news, the content industry is booming in the US, with millions of dollars being splurged on online publishing firms across the continent. Meanwhile, in Australia, it seems that you can’t even hand out funding to ambitious new media projects.

According to one recent media start-up contest, there’s nothing out there that’s worth investment.

Case in point: Carnegie’s Den.

Working with Mumbrella founder Tim Burrowes, media investor Mark Carnegie, launched a pitching competition in the hope of finding - and then funding - the next big media success story with his new $120 million venture fund.

Along with Burrowes and Carnegie, the contest was judged by a star-studded line-up of media executives, including Network Ten’s chief digital officer Rebekah Horne and advertising entrepreneur John Singleton. The stage was well and truly set for a contest to unearth the next big thing in media; the next industry game-changer.

But then, the finalists were announced on Mumbrella, and even the site’s readers could pick that something was up.  

Graph for Where's Australia's next media upstart?

Out of a reported 200 that applied, only a couple of the firms were involved in media. And even then, they were working to monetise existing media rather than to create a business model around content.

So, who took it out?

Well, the contest was conquered by a cloud computing firm named CloudHerd. It tracks and auctions livestock over the cloud. And not to mock this highly successful and well-backed start-up, but, unless you’re branding the cattle with ads, it’s not something you could turn into a media business.

The trouble with media start-ups

Burrowes told Technology Spectator that there were media models amongst those that applied,however, their ideas were “not fully fleshed out”.  

“I’m not sure that we’re any clearer as to what the future of media is as a result of this,” he says.

However, Burrowes adds that it's becoming increasingly apparent that there's no silver bullet to solve the media sector's revenue woes. He says that successful publishers are using a diverse range of monetisation methods - including events, custom publishing and consulting - to make ends meet.

But, it’s hard to believe that there are no avenues available other than what’s already on the market.

There are plenty of untapped cross-sections between media and emerging technologies. And to this country’s credit we’re actually quite swift at adopting new tech, making Australia ripe for media experimentation.

The good news is that Australia’s media start-up sector is thriving. But for the most part it's flying under the radar and, unfortunately, trying to imitate and localise media strategies that are being pioneered in the US and abroad.  

The latest major flashpoint occurred a couple of days ago with the announcement of Bruce Guthrie’s The New Daily. It’s a news site backed by superannuation firms, that - much like The Guardian Australia - is aiming capitalise on the fact that our major publishers are all adopting a metered paywall model.

It’s great to have a new high profile addition to Australia’s media landscape and with a reported $6 million in seed funding under its belt, the potential is there for the site to be something truly special.  It launched this Wednesday, so its way to soon to judge. The site toys with some useful useability features, and also offers a service that gives readers access to more information and context with particular stories.

Time will tell as to whether it becomes a firm that leads the media innovation debate in this country. 

The New Daily is just one of a couple of sites that have launched this year. Unless you have come across it on social media, you may not have heard of Junkee, a new Australian Buzzfeedish pop-culture site, geared at turning a buck out of native content-based advertising.

“Because the barriers to entry are quite low, anyone can start a start-up - you see new local outlets and sites popping up all the time,” Junkee’s managing editor Steph Harmon says.

“That said, because Australia is such a comparatively small country, we don't have the scale and audience reach you need for an easy win. It's riskier.”

This risk tempts smaller players to faithfully follow the footsteps of international media giants rather than innovate around them – hence Junkee’s similarities with Buzzfeed. While Junkee may be following the site’s example, Harmon says it is trying to innovate with its core product – content.

Harmon pointed to a new kind of visually oriented feature piece from Junkee’s popular sister site, FasterLouder as one of the example of media innovation its parent company Sound Alliance is undertaking.

Harmon’s logic for focusing on content is that “start-ups get good publicity when they produce good content”.

“It's that simple,” she says.

It’s true. This journalist first stumbled upon Junkee after spotting a link on Twitter to an amusing article titled: Things that have more women in them than Tony Abbott’s cabinet.

That being said, it’s a lot easier to innovate with content then with business models. And it's a wonder how Junkee will fare as its rival, Buzzfeed sets up shop in Australia. It recently hired News.com.au's former visual story editor Simon Crerar to spearhead its charge into the country

Harmon already admits that her site is competing with Buzzfeed even though there is a whole ocean separating the two.

A legion of fast followers

So why are we content with being fast followers? Why aren’t Australian sites infecting the US and the UK rather than the other way around?

We have the money. In fact, plenty of it. The Walkley Foundation is currently offering a $40,000 grant for new media innovation. And the sky is really the limit if Guthrie’s New Daily has set a precedence for superannuation funding for new media projects. And as many sites have shown, we also have the talent. 

So are we’re not dreaming big enough? We’re stuck on this rather rational idea of safe bets that cater to our small market. But in the long term, it’s not that safe or even rational when you consider that overseas companies are targeting a global market by trying to redefine media business models.

Australian sites can punch above their weight in the global media landscape. Melbourne-based site, The Conversation, recently expanded to the UK and its doubtful that this is their only expansion plan. 

We did it before, so why can’t we do it again? Australia should be leading the US with media innovation – not the other way around.