Context is king: The Global Mail’s adventures in long-form journalism

The Global Mail brings long-form journalism to Australia, but in the borderless age of the internet, what makes it stand out?

“Our audience is our only agenda” is the tagline of The Global Mail, the Australian online venture being funded for its first five years by entrepreneur Graeme Wood. Along with the aim to produce public-interest journalism with no strings attached (there is no advertising and no plans for any) it’s an admirable goal but one that has led to a lack of focus.

When asked by Radio National who she thought the audience was, editor Monica Attard said she thinks, “we will offer something for everybody … the entire operation is focused on public interest journalism”.

The site boasts impressive and compelling journalism but two months on I’m not convinced, yet, that the venture is offering anything vastly different to say, The Monthly. When we spoke, Attard strongly disagreed: “We’re a global website. We absolutely unashamedly place international news on the same footing as domestic leadership issues … I don’t know of anything else that offers this kind of daily diet in this particular format in Australia. So I think we’ve already distinguished ourselves there”.

But most people haven’t accessed news the way they used to for a long time. News, politics and entertainment have been remoulded into previously unimaginable combinations; the metaphorical walls between public and private, public affairs and popular culture are no more. Media scholar Mark Deuze refers to the contemporary mediascape as “networked journalism”, that is a networked practice of producing, editing, forwarding, sharing and debating.

Attard states The Global Mail is not tied to the 24/7 news cycle – “we’re bouncing off that cycle, but we’re not in that cycle” – this is, in my view, exactly what has led to the site’s main weakness as well as its main strength. While the site is running a scrolling banner with top stories from publications such as Time, Slate, and the New York Times, I cannot imagine too many people targeting The Global Mail for their daily news.

Monica Attard, managing editor of The Global Mail. Supplied

Having said that, as I argued in my book Watch This Space: The Future of Australian Journalism, the concept of a media ecosystem makes the most sense to me when I think about the future of Australian journalism. An ecosystem – a unit of interdependent organisms which share the same habitat – with journalism as a joint project between journalists and non-journalists, accidental journalists, celebrities, bloggers, the general public, politicians, and that ubiquitous man or woman on the street.

In many ways The Global Mail embodies such a concept through linking to other publications, being regularly aggregated by sites such as The Browser and its reliance on social media to grow an audience, as well as its mix of short and long form writing and other multimedia (although so far, unfortunately, it does not seem to be particularly multimedia). In other words, The Global Mail is harnessing collective intelligence.

Traditional boundaries in journalism are dissolving: between objectivity and subjectivity, journalism and writing, source and audience. The expression “content is king” is used when weighing the worth of a website, but in this era context shares the throne.

When I commented to Attard that long-form journalism is good for contextualising a story, she said a problem in Australia is that, “the definition of objectivity has become if you talk to the person on this side of the fence and you talk to the person on that side of the fence it means you’re objective, but that’s not the case. Not ever. Not even in the circumstance of a federal election campaign is that objectivity … Objectivity comes in terms of context and nuance. It’s the fine detail, that’s where objectivity lies and if you don’t have the room to do that it’s lost forever. "Long form is a means to set out the facts, analyse them in a non-partisan manner and dish them up via great storytelling. It should not involve tactics which, by design or not, wedge in order to influence.”

I agree whole-heartedly. The future of journalism in Australia depends somewhat on the rejection of two things: the siege mentality that often surrounds a debate and the assumption of only two sides to any story. A siege mentality stops people from thinking critically about how the mainstream media needs to adapt to remain relevant to differing audiences. And while journalism does need to take into account issues of balance, lack of bias and the translation of abstract ideas and specialist terms, conventions of news should not inevitably lead to oppositional propositions.

As UTS professor of journalism Wendy Bacon remarked, she will be disappointed if the site “replicates existing excellent overseas reporting but neglects domestic news and the Pacific”. Mike Bowers’ photo essays and the accompanying stories are starting to make a foray into domestic news, and it is of course still early days.

And as Attard herself admits, with the dual luxury of time and funding, The Global Mail is free to experiment.