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The Webdiary story by Margo Kingston

Margo needs no introduction. This is her first public peep since retiring from Webdiary in December, the written text of the talk Margo gave at a Governor's leadership forum in Adelaide on Tuesday. Welcome back Margo.

Hello. When someone from the South Australian Governor's leadership forum called to suggest I have a chat on the media and 'democracy, citizenship and globalisation' I asked whether she knew I'd just failed – spectacularly – in making a go of my independent Webdiary, which I launched last August when Fairfax gave me the choice of ditching my vision or going solo.

Fairfax's slow but relentless rejection of my work since 2001, when they made me leave Canberra and warehoused me, or so they thought, in the backwater on the Sydney Morning Herald online with Webdiary, culminated, I thought then, in mid 2004, when its then editor vetoed the literary editor's recommendation to publish an extract of my book Not Happy John! At the same time he pulled an interview with me for the SMH Spectrum section on the book. Fairfax's Sunday papers then picked up the rights, but the Sunday Age editor, now editor of the SMH, reneged on the contract with my publisher and refused to pay, while the Sun Herald would not have published the extract without the last minute intervention of the features editor. The Sun Herald also cancelled without notice my weekly column as I was about to travel around Australia launching the book. I was told when I called after completing my column to tell them it was on its way.

Naturally I saw the writing on the wall for Webdiary. The latest redundancy round for SMH journos had just closed fully subscribed, but they agreed to my offer to take redundancy in return for a contract to write for, edit and publish Webdiary for three years. I knew that three years would be it, and invested half my redundancy package in employing my brother Hamish to organise and launch "Your Democracy", a website to experiment with citizen journalism with a view to moving Webdiary there when my contract expired.

But by early last year, the new publishing system which came with the contracted Webdiary, which enabled readers to comment directly through a comments box rather than by email, had overwhelmed me. Editing and publishing the ever increasing number of comments saw me chained to my computer seven days a week, unable to research or write my own stuff. So I asked for a couple of technical tweaks to cut down processing time. From a detached viewpoint, there should have been no problems with this. I was on less than half my permanent employee pay doing the same job without the permanent employer add ons, a job I'd done without supervision or a writ for nearly five years. It was very popular and a unique feature for the SMH online edition. It remained the sole mainstream media interactive political site, one which consciously and transparently sought to fulfil the journalist's code of ethics while allowing anyone with something to say the opportunity to do so, and to criticise me and question its framework and judgment.

Under Fred Hilmer, Fairfax became a short-term bottom-line-focused operation which saw journalism as an expensive and troublesome way of filling the space between the ads, and short term costs were the dominant factor in every decision apart from the size of mega executive bonuses. At first my request was dealt with by SMH online managers with no budget, so I disclosed my technical problems to readers, and lo and behold they came up with an idea I thought was breathtaking in its generosity and its advantages to Fairfax. Readers offered to edit comments on a voluntary basis and to construct a new site with upgraded technical features, also for free.

Wow! Here we had people wanting to help for free a profit driven big business to keep their Webdiary forum alive. I offered to take over hosting and technical maintenance of the site, which Fairfax had already outsourced as part of the changeover to contract, for the same cost as Fairfax was paying. So, no cost to them, and the prospect of an expanding service to boot! The SMH online people gave me the go ahead, but then senior management stepped in, vetoed the idea, demanded that the archive of a reader columnist be deleted without explanation to readers, and after an agonising backbreaking delay decreed that not only would they not give me technical support, but would backsource Webdiary, take over editorial control and remove Webdiary's growing number of reader columnists.

Why? I can only guess. They had no reason to do so on Webdiary's track record, apart from political pressure. Yes, my views as a small-l liberal were unfashionable, to say the least, but I also published many different views to mine without fear or favour. I had a loyal and active readership, so active after five years that I had become more an editor than writer, gradually stepping back to let Webdiarists to write and increasingly shape Webdiary's content.

I believe political pressure was in play, and also fear – fear of losing control. A direct relationship between journo and reader, with each party accountable to the other, cuts out the middlemen. It disperses power away from the heavies and the editors who over the years had given up editorial independence to line their pockets and protect their careers. Fairfax shifted to neoliberalism in line with the increasing power of John Howard's government and the big business which controls its agenda – indeed, as the very idea of big media independent of other big business imploded - and my work was finally shut out of the mainstream media. So much for reader power – my book, itself a collaboration with several Webdiarists, proved a bestseller!

Stuff happens.

My lawyer advised that it would be dumb to sue Fairfax - like any big business they would make it their business to destroy me financially, professionally and emotionally if I did so. So I advised Fairfax of my intention to terminate for material breach of contract and entered into a frightened period of keeping Webdiary going while trying to coordinate my volunteers, most of whom I had never met and who lived all over Australia, to build a new site to start up immediately I reached settlement terms with Fairfax. A legal stoush is like living in a parallel universe. It's a nightmare. There was no settlement - Fairfax offered a derisory sum in compensation - and somehow we started up our independent venture on the same day as I terminated the contract. Within a couple of weeks Webdiary's audience had moved across holus bolus to the independent Webdiary.

What to do for revenue? I poured all my savings into Webdiary over the next few months in the belief that we had to maintain momentum to have a chance of outside funding. I made major errors in committing too much money too fast to maintain and enhance quality, at one stage employing three people while trying to cover the deluge of big issues coming out of Canberra – the terror laws, IR and welfare reform – and working with the technical volunteers working on a permanent open source site (we were on a temporary typepad site) and trying to work out funding.

I cracked. My back seized up in early October and by early December I found it almost impossible to stand up, let alone work at the computer, despite being on anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants and mood stabilisers. I was also distressed about finding the money to keep going while we bedded down a preliminary offer of funding. On December 6 my back screamed NO! and I pulled the plug on December 7.

So, I was a failure. What use a leadership forum for me?

The lady from this forum said she wanted me to speak because I had been a leader in challenging and exploring the possibilities of online media for journalism. Oh yeah? I would have said no had not something wholly unexpected started to happen after I announced Webdiary's closure with this statement:

G'day. Webdiary will close at midnight tonight. Thank you to everyone who contributed and helped me try to make it work. Unfortunately I couldn't get funding in time to stop me going broke, and certain events have proved to me that my skin is not thick enough to survive in this game. When I decided to go independent I thought long and hard if I could accept failure in what was always a high risk venture. I decided I could, and I will. Webdiary's closure marks the end of my career in journalism. It's time to move on. I still believe that independent journalism is crucial to the future of Australia's democracy, and hope that what I've tried to do will help others have a go. Again, thank you to everyone who's participated in Webdiary since July 2000. It's been an experience I will treasure.

I have many excuses for failure. The timetable for independence was forced upon me, I had no expertise in technicals or marketing, my volunteers were all over the country and there was no time to get them together, I was psychologically unsuited to thinking about matters outside the journalism box, I was distraught at being betrayed by the company I'd put my heart and soul into for most of my career, I've been a stress head for too many years to rise to this latest challenge, I was scared stiff of losing everything, I was burnt out, blah blah blah.

Since December, I've been through depression and major league self-destructive behaviour and settled into putting all my effort into recovering my health. And I've done myself the favour of reframing what I've done. I've convinced myself that I'm not a complete failure. Sure I failed at finding a balance in my personal and professional life which would allow me to go on, but I really was a leader for a while, in a funny sort of way. How so?

If you're interested, have a look at the comments to my farewell piece and Hamish's riposte later on the same day, where he wrote:

I am not Margo, but I love my sister very much and am so proud of what she has pioneered. I've spent the last few hours on the phone to various people and it is clear that at the very least Webdiary is going to continue as a site run by amateurs - amateurs that is with a lot of experience and momentum and love of this community. For my part, I don't want what Margo has done to die, and I think all of us who feel we owe her something might also think that the best tribute right now is to continue proudly in our community. Thankyou so much for those emails sent to me pledging thanks and support for the future. It is clear many many people do not want us to go away. I'm now unemployed of course, and at this stage still have plenty of time. I'm not saying I'm going to try to replace my sister because I know I can't. I'm not her. The core team which ran the site a little while ago when Margo had some time out was David Roffey, Kerri Browne, Polly Bush, Craig Rowley and myself and that team still exists, along with many others. Keep posting comments, columnists submit your articles. We'll find a way to do this.

Three months later, Webdiary is still surviving, thanks to Webdiarists led by David Roffey, Webdiary's unflappable general manager and the prodigious Craig Rowley. Only Hamish stayed on as a paid full time moderator and publisher, financed by donations from many readers. Last month, after cold calling potential advertisers in a spirit of 'what the hell – I know nuttin about this stuff and its scary but let's try it anyway' – he scored a contract with Australian Ethical Investments which paid the bills for another month. Within a week, Webdiary's volunteers managed Webdiary's transfer to a permanent home produced by several volunteers at James Cook University and a Webdiary's designer Carl Baker. All free of charge. Three hundred people registered to comment on the new site. Donors pumped about $14,000 in to keep Webdiary going. And this strange little community of strangers organised Christmas Webdiarist drinks in several capitals.

It still mightn't survive – who knows? But somehow, some way, Webdiary's community of strangers has kept the thing going with their pieces and their comments and their volunteer work. And if it does not survive, I've come to believe that their commitment to participating in a civil political debate will manifest itself in other ways.

Webdiary, dubbed "Club Chaos" by Webdiarist Polly Bush some years ago, has taught me that that leadership need not be a top down, hierarchical, planned thing. One role of a journo in today's chaos and systemic, endemic corruption and McMansion fortress building and consumerism in a fearful, alienated Australia is to create a safe space for people to do journalism and express their opinions and converse with others about what's happening and why. I'd like to quote Margaret Wheatley here, from her book Leadership and the New Science (Berrett-Koehler, 1999). She begins with this quote from Eudora Welty, which encapsulates the key professional lesson I learnt from covering Hanson in 1998 and writing Off the Rails: The Pauline Hanson Trip (Allen & Unwin, 1999):

My continuing passion is to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other's presence, each other's wonder, each other's human plight.

Noting that "chaos and complexity have emerged as serious branches of science; the phrase 'order out of chaos' has moved into our lingo", she writes:

The systemic nature of life – the vast webs of interconnections so well described in the new science – has become part of our modern consciousness. Cyberspace and electronic communication have changed how we work together, do business, and relate to one another. Our digital world has increased the speed of life for many of us, and led to paradoxical feelings of connection and alienation. And the turbulence that relentlessly confronts organisations has led many companies to experiment with more fluid ands responsive forms of organisation.

In a web, the potential impact of local actions bears no relationship to their size. When we choose to act locally, we may be wanting to influence the entire system. But we work where we are, with the system that we know, the one we can get our arms around. From a Newtonian perspective, our efforts often seem too small, and we doubt that our actions will make a difference. Or perhaps we hope that our small efforts will contribute incrementally to large scale change. Step by step, system by system, we aspire to develop enough masse or force to change the larger system.

But a quantum view explains the success of small efforts quite differently. Acting locally allows us to be inside the movement and flow of the system, participating in all those complex events occurring simultaneously. We are more likely to be sensitive to the dynamics of this system, and thus more effective. However, changes in small places also affect the global system, not through incrementalism, but because every system participates in an unbroken wholeness. Activities in one part of the whole create effects that appear in distant places. Because of these unseen connections, there is potential value in working anywhere in the system. We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. I have learned that in this exquisitely connected world, it's never a question of "critical mass". It's always about critical connections.

I read a book about the web recently called 'Small pieces loosely joined'. I believe the web can, with financial backing, in time end the privileged position of a mainstream media which not only doesn't serve a useful purpose in our democracy, but actively works against it.

In my twenty years in journalism, I have witnessed the decay and near annihilation of a strong, confident journalistic culture in Fairfax based on scepticism of the powerful and sustained scrutiny of the actions of the powerful and the underlying reasons for those actions whatever their political colour business type. I have seen public debate degenerate into endless name calling by scream, and a systematic play by neo-liberals and their henchmen paid to win the ideological battle to dismember any sense of shared values or common cause in shaping our future. It is in the interests of those who would control us for their profit and power to do so. I have seen the disintegration of the concept of "public interest" in the big issues of our time – political, economic, social and personal. Instead, fear and 'us and them' rules, deliberately designed, it seems to me, to compel people to serve only their individual, short term interests because no one else will give a damn if they fall over. To me, Government has become malignant, and the idea of a 'public service' collapsed into yet more narrow, short term careerism and yes sir culture. The big political parties take our public funding while gorging on private donations which make them slaves to their paymasters. They see their job not as the person at the table representing the public interest, but as brokers between stakeholders who lie and spin to feed their desire for to be perceived as powerful and secure their financial futures. The concept of public life as duty or service has gone. The death of the vision thing was never more exemplified by John Howard's recent comments that for him running the economy – a nameless, faceless blob which now controls us rather than acting in our service – was like a running a race where the finishing line endlessly recedes. And the overall result, it seems, is not a clamour for change, either in government in the way things work, but an acceptance that this is the way it is, a collective turning of the back on our own power and our own complicity in the ills which beset us. And that's understandable. The role of professional ethics as a bulwark against corruption and system failure has been squeezed out big time. Think the law and accountancy for a start, and think journalism too. Not only are ethics now not helpful to a successful career, but they are a terrible burden around one's neck. To have them or to take them seriously is a recipe for despair and professional suicide.

Looking back now, I think Webdiary's success is due in part to the desire of many thinking Australians, from all walks of life and of all political stripes, to genuinely engage with each other as human beings on the issues that affect us all. There is unease about what's happening and where we're heading across the political divide. But politics is dirty and hits lots of red buttons. How can one create a safe space for such conversations which will avoid its disintegration?

The starting point is establishing trust, and to do that, you have to live the now empty rhetoric of transparency, accountability and independence of spirit. You have to put up your ethical constraints and ideals and be prepared to be held accountable to achieve them. You have to be prepared to state clearly where you're coming from and what your underlying values are, and why. You have to prove and keep proving your commitment to open discourse. And you have to take responsibility for the content of the space and be prepared to defend or change your decisions upon complaint or query.

The way to do this is to get your core principles and your mission statement very clear, publish them, and have them in your mind in whatever you do. And then, and this is the hardest thing to do in many ways, you have to let go. You have to understand that the power of the space is created by your ability to let your collaborators – your readers and contributors, decide what to do next and where to go. You have to cede control and allow Wheatley's 'connectedness' to do its work, whatever that may be and whatever form it may take. Asking your readers to trust you involves trusting them. And that's hard in a community of strangers. Very hard. Mistakes are made, mistakes which can have terrible consequences unless you are prepared to admit them and explain.

To me, citizen journalism has the capacity to not only keep the bastards in the media, politics and big business honest, but to transform the way we see the news (and even more romantically, to create the conditions whereby people of principle who really care about our future and that of our children are prepared to enter public life again).

Equipped with the ethical guidelines for good journalism, there is no reason why citizens with all sorts of expertise and experience can't worm their way into the closed club of media-politics-business and seek and get answers now hidden because the questions are never asked. Their accountability would come from the fact that their reports and pieces are themselves open to scrutiny and corrections from other readers through comments. And that before they become citizen journalists they must earn the trust and respect of other readers and contributors.

This romancing leaves unanswered the big question of course – how to fund such an operation. The biggest cost to me in terms of time and money was comments editing. I have been parodied and ridiculed relentlessly for my insistence on moderation of content and editing for style before publication. Waste of money, no need on the net etc. But for me, this is the essence of what makes Webdiary different. It's a big ask for people to expose themselves on the public stage these, days. To have the courage to make their views known requires them to feel a sense of safety, that they will not be personally attacked or rubbished for their efforts, and for them to believe that the space is accountable to them.

Creating such a space when the topics are the really big issues and the politics thereof is particularly difficult. As one reader said recently, just about all the issues on Webdiary are red-button ones, especially with an open-to-all forum like Webdiary. One of my fundamental beliefs is in the need for participatory democracy, and you can't believe in that and charge a price for entry, can you. Apart from the financial cost, the price is constant attempts by people and forces who hate the idea of a respectful space for people to, just sometimes, find common ground on a human level to shut it down by abusing the space.

Besides making the space safe, moderation also ensures its integrity by constantly proving that it is trustworthy. Running debates on whether certain posts violate the discussion guidelines and whether so and so should be banned etc keeps people feeling – no, KNOWING – that the framework is there and is in constant use. The aim is for more and more people to have faith in the space, to trust and respect it and want to be a part of it.

And that means money. I made a mistake in throwing everything I had at Webdiary early, rather than having confidence in the Webdiary community to let it start its independent life slowly. And in retrospect, a big reason for that mistake was my extreme aversion to asking people to help out, particularly financially. It was hard enough understanding that quite a few people were willing to spend hours and hours of unpaid time a week keeping Webdiary afloat without asking them to dip into their pockets.

Anyway, these are thoughts I've not yet fully worked through. My life is in transition. I don't have all the answers, or even most of them about how to help create a media dedicated to serve the nation rather than exploit its people for profit and power.

This is the first time I've spoken publicly about Webdiary since I shut up shop on December 7. I'm putting away financial worries for a year to regain my health, rethink my priorities and muddle through what I might do with this phase of my life.

As for Webdiary, my fingers are crossed as I watch from the sidelines. While I was writing this, I decided to offer my services as Webdiary's ombudsman. Before I spat the dummy I advised readers that I'd appoint someone to the job as soon as I could. Now that I'm no longer editing Webdiary, this seems like a positive thing to do to help its chances of survival. Having worked out Webdiary's principles and mission and ethics by osmosis for five years, I reckon I'm a good person to work through and give my opinions about current disputes among Webdiarists – and there's always a few as there is in any democratic forum - about its compliance with that core framework. I would do so as an interested, loyal and trusted member of Webdiary's community of strangers, who every day get to know more about each other, and about the Australian experience, through the words of others interested enough in our nation and brave enough to state their views in public and converse with each other as equals.


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Be well MK

Hello Margo, I have no time/means at the moment to participate but look after yourself.

I'm sorry I didn't know earlier you were in Adelaide, I work just across the road from Government House...

Thankyou Margo et al

I can measure the health of my daily life by whether or not I've got time to read thoroughly and respond to Webdiary. If I'm too busy to read it, I'm too busy.

This late response is an expression of gratitude to Margo for her work and passion. I admire people who can look squarely at the difficult bits in life and learn from them.

The difficulties confronting Webdiary were apparent for all of 2005. The financial and personal costs evident for Margo made me sad. Best wishes for a thorough recovery, mate.

We learn from our mistakes much more than from our victories (even though victories feel better).

The "new" Webdiary feels like a different space, with a different pace, but I enjoy the civility and goodwill which lives here. Thanks again, Margo, for the opportunity to participate.

The Sequel

Thanks for sharing this speech with us, Margo. It's great to have your thoughts provoking ours again. I appreciated very much the chance to meet you and the Roffeys last weekend too.

I note that Tony Phillips has nicely put into words what I tried to say when you spoke of becoming WD's ombudsman. WD probably needs someone in the role (although, unless I've missed a lot behind the scenes, we haven't done too badly lately), and if it thrives and grows, the role would be even more important – the People’s Debating Chamber would, after all, require a Speaker to keep people to standing orders! But I do wonder whether it is the best use of your time.

We have missed your journalistic skills and contacts. Hamish and the team are doing a sterling job keeping things going and finding things to post, and it has been wonderful to see others having a go, but it has to be said that the standard of content is not yet as high as it was before your departure. I don’t want to pressure you to do anything that would imperil your recovery. On the contrary, the nurse in me wants to wag my finger and tell you to be sure to take as much time as you need, because there’s nothing better for converting acute conditions into chronic ones than getting back into things too quickly. But if you are feeling ready for a little something, then it would be good to make it something that will have maximum effect.

So, because you said you were very interested in “process” these days and because you encouraged me to ask questions, I’m going to be quite direct. (But they are questions for you. I don’t expect answers and especially not public ones.) Will the ombudsman role enable you to do what you can uniquely do to part the curtain between people? Or is there some other task that would promote more of the “critical connections” but still be manageable health-wise and still satisfy creative urges? Things which occur to me which might have a greater rippling effect are writing more about “process” or teaching a (slowly paced) online course for citizen journalists – which might result in more questions being asked of the powerful and improve WD’s content at the same time. I’m sure some of us would be prepared to pay for such a thing, but I’ve no idea how much work it would be.

Forgive my impertinence. I really don’t want to push you harder than you should be pushed at the moment, but I don’t want to see your talent unused either. It seems to me that, at present, there isn’t a great need for an ombudsman because of all the work that Margo Kingston has put in previously!

PS I sent this to Margo prior to posting it. Unfortunately, she replied saying her back won't allow her to do much for a while yet.

Dear Margo

Dear Margo, it definitely is nice to hear your voice again. Having used "your" forum for at least four years under various guises it has been an interesting journey. Sadly for me I felt your direction was leading you to an abyss of sorts at least three years ago and wrote comments to that effect. It is so easy to see in others a route you have taken yourself. You describe yourself as a failure, and without trying to share your mantle in this forum I have done likewise. I reached the abyss 6 1/2 years ago and spent two years freeing myself from my dead shell. I too was a glorious exhibition of a business bomb. I too crashed into business independence only to retreat under mental and physical illness. I too, I too, I too etc....

 Where we differ is in your brother Hamish. I had no brother, much less one capable of standing in my rather silly shoes. Hence this forum is a part of you that continues to exist and I suspect in no small part because of Hamish. Not wishing to detract from all "your" contributors, who are of no small help. So may I wish you good health and a quicker return to it than I, who took at least six years. And continuing in my gratuitous endeavour, I can't think of a better Ombudsman than Hamish. He seems to enjoy his position in the shadows relative to yourself, but I suspect there is in him gold to be discovered.

Heroic Business Failures

Webdiarists, I am very tired of the fallacy of the bankrupt businessman as hero/heroine. The rules of survival in business are broadly understood, at least well enough to be taught in universities. The rules of the road are similarly known. Nobody would support the claim (to paraphrase Michael de Angelos and PF Journey, no offence intended to either) that ‘any driver worth her/his salt in this country has at least one fatal crash under his belt’ or that ‘any successful driver will you that you have to have a head-on at least once, if not more, before you can be successful in driving’. These are naturally absurd claims, and deserve no serious consideration.

Like other members of this community I want to lend my comfort and support to Margo. Her poor health and financial loss are very great concerns, and I wish her to recover herself and to regain her confidence. These wishes do not alter the realities concerning the history of the Webdiary as a business. Margo had at least the courage to risk her own capital, and in failing to lose it only. Many of the failed ‘businesspeople’ that I have encountered, moral pillars to a wo/man and quick to brag that failure later made them great, have been happy to leave the  stage owing large amounts of money to people who have offered their confidence and trust, and who are subsequently financially disadvantaged, upon occasion terminally, as a result. It is a brave person who risks their own money, so hard to earn and so easy to lose. Margo is that brave.

The rules of business remain the same nonetheless. Webdiary is not exempt. If it wishes to survive then conventional business paradigms must be observed. Perhaps appropriately qualified Webdiarists might exercise their minds on a strategy for success and a suitable business model. I have recently sent mine to David and Hamish, and encourage others to do so. Incidentally: Rupert Murdoch was quoted in an article I read recently as saying that media mogul extinction loomed, with his generation the last. His reasoning emphasised the birth of a BLOG per second and absent business models. It is a significant challenge.

Hamish: Your thoughts are being considered carefully Steve. I know they are given in good spirit and thankyou.

dishonest John

Steve, I know your post is not directly aimed at my friend, but I would like to say that Kim Gritten does not fit that mould of so-called successful business men who left a trail of debt. Indeed, I have been to many of his functions where those who attend are those who he stuck by and kept his commitments to at the cost of his own hard-won fruits. It is because he did this that they still deal with him today. I understand that he paid the debts of his partners who ran out and left him holding the can.

So I hope you can see that not everyone who has had a failed business is a dishonest John. If anyone had the moral fibre to give good advice to Margo, then Kim Gritten fits the bill.

I Think I'm In Love, Sincerely

Margo, there are those who do suffer in the support of a good cause. You are one of those people and it is a great pity that you had to bear so much alone.

It is easy to fall back on pithy sayings but at least one is pertinent: what does not kill you makes you stronger.

I have valued your work, and you personally, since I had the good fortune to stumble across your WD.

Welcome back in whatever way you are comfortable with, big or small.

With all my love and best wishes for your financial future and your health

It's good to hear from Margo again

The only constant in life is change.  Your bravery in giving a damn has given heart to others who, as you know, carry on the work in their own way.  It's important to be true to yourself.  Thanks for the update. 

Onya Margo

Margo, you are a visionary and you'll bounce back because it's in your blood. There is a desperate need in Australia for Jenny's small group of committed people to kick back against these bastards. Somewhere down the line you'll be just the person we need to help finish the job you started.

Message from Kim Gritten

Hello Margo, I am reasonably new to WD, but a friend of mine told me about WD and said it was a breath of air in a clouded society, his name was Kim Gritten. Kim is currently overseas, and when I mailed him a copy of your article he was so moved as to call me from the US. He asked me to write the following...

Margo, when I was in business I went broke, but I got up and went again and capitalised on the lessons learnt, later on I went close to going broke again, but I put everything into it and capitalised on the lessons learnt again and survived. Whilst everything this time round is not perfect, I can honestly say that my businesses are successful, because they operate efficiently even when I am away like now. It is clear to me that the most important ingredient that makes my businesses successful is people who love to work for me and appreciate me, and the fact that I recognise their loyalty and devotion. We all have a common goal, and it's not money although it is the result, the goal for my team is security in life, an enjoyable work environment, and a respect for each others needs, dreams and life style. I look back now and see that what appeared to be failures were only part of the refining process, and if I had not pushed on then to endure those moments and not learn from them would have been wasting my purpose in life. Indeed If I had not pushed on I would be living an unfulfilled life.

Webdiary is Margo Kingston and what you think is failure is just refinement for the next step. The biggest mistake you can make now is if you don't get up and give it another go, the fact that the site has continued without you is testimony of a successful step in its character, a character that has been achieved because of who you are, and those who love what you have done, indeed you have achieved the goal, now all you have to do is let it grow at its own sustainable rate. I know that you have stepped back for a while, but now it's time to step up, living on the edge is never comfortable, but it does bring out the best in people... besides, I would love to see your old employers eat humble pie, when WD becomes the axe at the root of the tree... my best wishes ... Kim Gritten.

no such thing as failure

Any businessman worth his salt in this country has at least one bankruptcy under his belt. I always recall a retired Fairfax journalist named Mardi Kerr who when asked what it takes to become a success in Australian society replied:" a criminal record is always a help" - but one shouldn't go that far.

Webdiary in it's first incarnation was just ahead of it's time.

A day later

Hamish, thank you for acknowledging my post. To us “sometimes posters” acknowledgment from other posters is gratifying, but acknowledgment from the powers that be is rather exciting.

I've pondered on the question of what citizen journalism is meant to be and have created a few quandaries for myself in the process. Before I address those I want to say that I value what Richard Tonkin, and, by the way, Bryan Law, have done; but I still view their efforts as collating information as opposed to breaking stories. Those efforts, which are paramount and invaluable, make them experts on their respective topics, just as Marilyn Shepherd is an expert regarding the many infelicities of DIMIA. However, at the end of the day, we are left with an immense database but no real story.

So my first quandary is whether, as a Webdiary journalist, I make my research open to the readership or do I keep it quiet? Obviously, I keep it quiet. Webdiary has a plethora of political and social persuasions which cannot be relied upon to not tip off those that might be the target of said investigations. Fairly obvious stuff. So....

Do I cultivate contacts within Webdiary who may be sympathetic to my story? If so, does that not risk degrading the idea of a community whilst setting up an exclusive club? As much as I'd like to stick it to C Parsons, he is as much a member of the Webdiary community as I am, in fact more so, and should not be excluded from its exploits. Therefore...

Webdiary should encourage budding journalists from outside her embrace to bring their stories forward. Such stories, after being vetted by an experienced journalist (hello Margo), could be printed here. Obviously, at the outset, Webdiary would only receive stories rejected by the mainstream media but, hopefully, in time, exclusives might show up in the “inbox”. Wouldn't that be fab!!

At the end of the day, it would be wonderful to see Webdiary as a bit of “all of the above”. I'd love to log on to a site that offers the latest news and a chance to debate it; all of it underpinned by the credibility of proper investigative reporting. Kind of like a real newspaper, but interactive.

Well, that's my time in the field of dreams. I'm off to the blood and snot of WMD and anti-Semitism. If I'm not back in a few days, please forward my mail and eat my breakfast.


Lit 4 lit's sake

Yep and there are still lurkers who read but can never think of anything meaningful to contribute.

I always had the declamatory preference to quote better minds than mine (97.65% of sentient life-forms on earth) anyway.

So for the aleatory sake of lit.  For lit's sake, here's some lyrics:

You'll be sorry when the sun has roasted
You to
Lobster Red, nothing said,
When Yellow has turned Green to Brown,
By four & multiply by nine,
Describe your divisions, anatomical derision,
Lobster head & Lobster feet

Yum Cha

Hi Margo, any successful business person will you that you have to fail at least once, if not more, before you can be successful in business.

You have qualified already and on your way to success. Don't give up.

You need to come back and inspire all of us again. It is not the same without you. The Yum Cha is awaiting.

Time out is never time lost

Margo: Just because things did not work out quite as you would have liked does not make you a failure personally. As so many have told you, you are not a failure in their eyes, far from it. But while all those messages may be comforting I suspect they do not necessarily help you avoid the mindset. I am not a psychologist but I do know from bitter experience that there are dangers in that mindset if it is allowed to hang around for too long. Burdening oneself with a sense of personal failure can do enormous long term harm to one’s emotional well being and sense of self worth. It can be life paralyzing and the forces of evil always love to see that happen to those they perceive as a threat. Have a little wallow if you need to but not for too long if you can avoid it.

You express the important messages you want to convey so well and with such ease. I wish I could do that, but I am no journo. But I can ask questions, I can write letters, I am tenacious and I know I can make a difference on the things that matter to me – as I have done it in the past. Your piece reminded me that I have not been as involved as I once was, and I changed that last night. So thank you for that.

And by the way, I mostly failed English at school – there’s that word again – but I have never let that stop me. Take good care of yourself and you’ll get there. Time out is never time lost.

And to Hamish, on the future and role of Webdiary. I came across a quote last night on the Animals Australia home page and attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has". I not only believe that, I know it to be true. I believe Webdiary already connects thoughtful and committed citizens citizens together. If those of like mind on important issues went on to work together, then Webdiary and Webdiarists could be a catalyst for change that is so badly needed in so many areas.

Just a thought.

Hamish: Thankyou Jenny. I agree.

return of the writer

What a genuine pleasure it was to see a Margo Kingston posting again on this site, and how pleasing it is the site is still here to receive it. Now, more than ever, Webdiary is needed. (Bit of media concentration anyone, yes James you can have one, and you're always invited Rupert...)

Margo what you have created here, and the energy your own passion has awakened, is very special, and many would have buckled under the strains long before you did. I note you are thinking of offering your services as ombudsman, this is generous but I fear it would be a misuse of your talents. Not that you couldn't do it, obviously you have and can. More my question is, why go back into the cauldron of approbrium, especially when, precisely because it's you, the arguments may actually be more personalised? Basically you don't need that shit and you've done your turn. Of course you know far better than I what might be best for you at the moment. However, I believe what Webdiary needs is your talent as a writer and a journalist.

Call me Ricardian but your skill, your knowledge and your reputation are there as a writer and reporter. All citizens can discuss and report but journalism is a calling and some are exceptionally talented and some are skilled and you are both. Webdiary has an ethos of equality of respect towards contributors but that doesn't mean some writing is finer than others and that we don't all take pleasure in it when it occurs.

I think it would be symptomatic and fitting of Webdiary, its history and ethos, if the person who created it, and gave to it, was to come back to it as "just another Webdiarist" who contributed when and where she felt she could, with no pressure this time.

That said welcome back with bells on in whatever capacity you care to take on.

A Birthday Gift

I tried very hard to get to Webdiary yesterday, my birthday, but it was not to be. I'd had a voluntary break from politics over Christmas by choice (more or less), then recently an involuntary one, where I found myself with no time to thoughtfully contribute.

Finally I found time today. And what a surprise. I read your entire article Margo, and it left me, well, reasonably close to tears. Only now do I fully understand what you are trying to do here.

Yes, many of the topics which find a home here are "hot", but all can be debated. I understand now why there are other subjects which could only cause heated arguments, whatever the importance I personally place on them.

I believe that what Webdiary is providing is a space for normal, intelligent people (strangers who can still be called a group) to speak their minds about current subjects - and to be heard. I have always thought that if enough people learn to communicate one with the other - and this is being done by debating the many subjects of real concern found here - we may one day attain critical mass, and therefore be able to influence the course of events. I guess I have always believed that "we the people" do have this ability even though our government and its minions in the media try to have us believe otherwise.

Margo, what you have done, and are still doing with the help of many others, is very, very valuable. I am glad I finally logged in again just in time to read your excellent essay.

I can only echo other contributors' comments. Thank you for what you have done, and for the opportunity to contribute as part of a team, working together to regain our democracy, which appears to be in tatters right now - no matter how often Howard tells us than any particular issue (the latest being whether Charles will ever be our king) is "up to the people of Australia to decide".

One day he and his despicable cronies, with their despicable policies, will go and we will regain the country we all love, but don't like very much at this time, and wish with all our hearts to have returned to its democratic roots. And it will be people like you who have helped us to move forward.

Thank you.

Scott Dunmore

I only became aware of the existence of Webdiary post Fairfax a few days ago. Timely as it turns out. Other comments express many of the sentiments I feel and I will not repeat them except for the single element that stands out like a beacon. The sense of community that I felt with all the old regular contributors regardless of their stance on different issues, even the trolls who were the subject of much soul searching and debate.

When Webdiary was pulled I suspected foul play but had no way of knowing the circumstances or of the emergence of the independent version. I  experienced a deep sense of loss.

Discovery of the "new" Webdiary" did not instill a desire to contribute immediately however. Sure, many of my old friends were up there but somehow it didn't have the same feel. Hopefully I'll get used to it but I sincerely hope also that we can find time for levity and humour. Life without it is dreary.

Some time ago we had a debate on the future of Webdiary, the form it should have and features which would enhance it. I can remember posting a rambling diatribe, composed in a state that can best be described, euphemistically, as "tired and emotional". My vision at the time of what Webdiary could be was that of an open university; I used Persig's  phrase "church of the mind". On re-reading it the next day I was embarassed but now think that I should not have been. From what I can gather others have had similar thoughts. I envisaged Webdiary as a global entity and suggested that approaches be made to specific business people who were of a philanthropic nature. As I understand it, your involvement with Webdiary is now  peripheral so maybe this should be directed at others. So be it

One other point  which others have touched on. Describing what happened as failure I sincerely hope is misplaced humility. Regardless of the direction your ambitions take in the future, that which you have achieved thus far is more than most people will in their lifetime and take heart in the fact that you are blessed with more friends than you know.

Please indulge me. Can I say hello to all with whom I have crossed swords, concurred enquired of and  informed me in the past, Dee, Marylyn, Solomon, Roger, MES, Ian McP, Jack and others who do not immediately spring to mind but will be instantly recognised.

Any it's great to see you again.

Margo - you are a winner

Margo, you are not a loser, you are a winner. You fought against the corporatisation of the SMH and stayed true to your principles and beliefs. That is what counts in life. Do not judge success by money.

Your contribution to independent web-based political awareness in Australia is invaluable. I am an engineer by trade, almost by definition apolitical. Since Howard's senate majority, Webdiary has really opened my eyes to what is going on in Australian politics and society.

I hope you regain your strengh and pull through what must be a very difficult time. You will recover. In the meantime the Webdiary community will continue to bark in the face of corporatism, public ignorance and indifference.

More later when I've read the rest of your piece.

Webdiary's new challenge

Thank you Margo. Welcome 'back'.

Your paragraphs on the decay of journalism and public life during your twenty year career sum up exactly why Webdiary is so crucial for journalism in this country.

With small-l liberalism being trashed into oblivion, 'intellectual' being a dirty word, virtually every mainstream media voice compromised in some way, Labor and the Coalition being eroded by machinism, the implosion of the Democrats as a centrist party and the rise of fringe parties like Family First, sources like Webdiary and Crikey are critical in rebuilding engagement in public life and institutions, and staking out a 'home' for the lost 'centre' in Australia.

Webdiary must not only survive but take new, bold steps into the public battlefield. I agree with some of what Mark Ross was saying - Webdiary needs to get serious and start building its 'citizen journalism' credentials. Opinion is good but not enough. Without being too unfavourably comparative, Webdiary needs to turn from pure discussion forum into gadfly, and take on the Goliaths of the establishment in the way Stephen Mayne, Christian Kerr, Hugo Kelly and others have done at Crikey, - ie causing controversy, taking a few overdue scalps, and demanding attention.

Good to hear your voice again

A splendid talk, Margo, highlighting issues on which you are still a force. It's good to hear your voice again. Keep getting well.

some thoughts

Margo...very glad to have you back! And now...some scattered thoughts on your speech, from an occasional Webdiarist and independent scholar.

Contra this site's critics, I would have to say that I am heartened by the slowly increasing numbers of independent thinkers with genuinely useful input I see here and, to cite only one, I would have to say that the writings of Irfan Yusuf exemplify what is most valuable in Webdiary – independent thought/unique perspective and (particularly) commonsense with bullshit-detectors markedly in evidence. All of which, sadly, are lacking in almost everything on offer in our mass media today. And, if this site can continue to attract contributors of such quality, it cannot but go from strength to strength...

Still, as you rightly said, "stuff happens"...and I can fully understand your need for the break from Webdiary - particularly since its critics so evidently failed to understand the model – and, rather than accept the notion of a pluralistic community, insisted upon identifying you with the totality...which they invariably viewed through the lens of its most outspokenly left-wing contributors. Enough said, eh?

But, given that Webdiary is STILL going - very much in the way you envisaged – several months after your resignation, I'd have to say that "failure" is hardly the way ANY dispassionate observer would view your contribution. I know this hasn't worked out the way you'd hoped but, I do think you should finally put all thought of "failure" behind you – because the actual result, so far, is actually a tribute to your faith in this community and, as I said earlier, to my mind the site has actually improved during this fraught period, with many new commentators with genuinely NEW (and important) things to say...

And...as someone who is attempting to run an independent website myself – tackling the manifest blindnesses and stupidities of the academic humanities from a constructive and totally external position (see http://www.thenewhumanities.net), I'd have to say that such outsider activity is a basically thankless task...at least in the short term. On the other hand, it does have its compensations...because we're actually contributing to building something positive, rather than simply playing the game as given. Our real hope – and he powers that be's worst nightmare – is that the current order will fail, under the weight of its own stupidity and hypocrisy – and that people like us, who've tried their best to think things through in some depth – and have paid the price for doing so – will end up contributing to the next phase of social evolution, flawed as that undoubtedly will be...whilst our detractors will be dismissed by history as the greedy fools they undoubtedly are...

All the best to you, Margo...and, welcome back to the community that you so selflessly offered us.

Nope, no failure!

Glad I was right on that point! Welcome back, and thanks for writing so well and so honestly. But - would one expect anything else?


Thank you for my mind, Margo

Following along the lines of Solomon Wakeling and others, I would also like to say that if WD be a "failure", I should be the author of such a "failure".

The failure, if any, rests at the door of cowardly Philistine thugs and morons, including those high-up at Fairfax. Anonymous cowards who so lacked the courage of their own convictions that they were fearful of the flimsiness of these before even the sort of perfunctory scrutiny a small but broadsheet-principled entity like WD would have imposed. The watchers being watched? whooaa!

Here was the real failure; a failure of courage on the part of those who hobbled Margo and WD.

What were they hiding? What price self-respect?

And besides, the WD thing is an unfinished book, still being written.

For my part, my mind is clearer for the WD experience. I am a more confident person for being better-informed through the process of having my own ideas and questions affirmed or attacked by people by people who have endeavoured to develop their critical reasoning and expressive skills and sought to increase their knowledge also. That's apart from having access to information that the tabloids for some strange reason baulk at presenting even-handedly to the public.

Finally, thanks to Margo and Richard for briefly inviting me into their lives, with a fab meal courtesy of Richard at his astounding "Guv Hindmarsh" pub- Adelaide's answer to "The Basement"- followed by some deep and occasionally dark conversation with both later.

I therefore got to witness the address Margo relates above, immediately after one by Flinders Uni politics Prof. Dean Jaensch, whose contribution was also so sombre as to actually set the tone for what came next.

It was not comfortable to see someone you respect – a battler – who has tried ever-hard to do the right and conscionable thing, so baulked by the long and even malicious bigoted intransigence of others with darker agendas, so as to appear actually physically worn down. And as Margo reminded me, people like me whose own ignorance sometimes overflowed into written hostility only added to the stress imposed by the punishing work regime and the heavies. Sorry for that, if you are reading this, Margo.

Besides, even if WD DID go offline, its influence would still be felt for years, as setting the paradigm for a broadsheet on-line operation.

Don't forget people like Antony Loewenstein and Tim Dunlop, to name just two, who have gone on to do their own thing in this new field, who first learnt about ethical on-line writing right here.

Besides, I personally don't think the need for principled broadsheet online commentary and commentary sites has passed just yet. Quite the opposite. With the politicians threatening even more havoc with the ABC this very day, the job is actually becoming harder for those who want to keep democracy healthy.

Fiona: Hi Paul – agree with you completely – and all the more reason to keep the flame alive here on Webdiary.

A poultice for the soul.....

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breath were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little.....

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Tennyson, Ulysses

Fiona: Chris, a fitting tribute, and a wondrous aspiration for us all. Tennyson certainly had his moments...

They'll come ... with a bit of a push

Having had the honour of witnessing the presentation of this speech and spending some time with you, Margo, I can only admire the guts and honesty it must have taken to stand there and speak those words. To have been through what you endured and then to bare your soul to a (mostly) previously unaware audience showed everybody there that you have come through your ordeal with your integrity as intact and as strong as ever.

To establish any community that is going to endure in the long term takes more time than we would like to think is necessary. The fact that Webdiary is enduring while you've retired to the sidelines is a testimony that you've far from failed ... maybe the level of success you want to achieve hasn't happened yet, but the process you've initiated is far from complete in its evolution, and I've no doubt you'll see the results that you hope for.

On the other side of the coin, the cultural Darwinism of the current media climate has cost our society dearly, and this also is not as clear to many as it will become. The fact that so many people have lost their rose-coloured glasses shows the need for what you've done, and as the parking-lot that is replacing paradise becomes more apparent you're going to see so many more join the communities that are currently existing as cultural outposts. In the realms of political media, there is no other community like Webdiary, and the "Field Of Dreams" principle should hold true

The trick is going to be how to get enough people off their gluteus maximi to achieve enough of a critical mass in population to ensure that something like Webdiary survives its adolescence. Part of the trick, I believe, is for people to learn that they have to do it for themselves instead.

It's last night of election ads before blackout here and the Liberals are slamming ads through The Simpsons. There's modern-day media politics for you. This is the cultural environment that Webdiary holds a candle to and without it we're stuffed.

Hang on to hope, Margo... personally I can't wait to see whatever it is that you decide to do next!! In the meantime, let's see how what you've created continues to evolve.

Bring on more failures!!!!!!

Margo, if that's what you call failure, we definitely need more failures in Australian public life!

What is Webdiary?

Even though I've read your charter, I still have trouble defining what Webdiary actually is.

There are those, mostly silent, who come here to learn. For them Webdiary is an education.

There are those, mostly vocal and destructive, who come here to sneer. For them Webdiary is a sport.

There is a great majority who are here to engage in the exchange of ideas and information and it is this group that I appreciate the most. Nevertheless, I sense that Webdiary needs to be more than a simple discussion group.

So what of the citizen journalist? Unfortunately, I see no journalism emanating from Webdiary. I see only commentary and opinion, which is often informative but almost never stimulating.

Clearly, we need a story. Something that can be broken on Webdiary by one of us and then picked up, or ignored, by other outlets. We need new information, not just a distillation of what's already out there. We need to think of Webdiary, not as a blog or a forum, but as a media outlet in her own right.

Can we do that? Does anybody want to try?

Hamish: we want to try Mark. I think there has been some journalism, notably by Richard Tonkin and Dale Mills, but however much we talk about it, citizen journalism depends on individual initiative from Webdiarists. To take the extra steps - make phone calls, develop contacts, even just subscribe to media release lists then follow them up - these are habits not every citizen has. I think we need to encourage it. If it helps, feel free to say, "I am a journalist for Webdiary, may I ask you a few questions." I'd love to hear more of people's thoughts on the impasse you identify.

Hey Margo

Hey Margo,

Good to hear that you are giving talks to people who clearly recognise your contribution to Aussie journalism. I hope you have given yourself enough credit for that and it sounds like you are getting there.

What you have been through really only has one result and that is having to change the way you do things otherwise the burn out would turn into an end.

Congrats on being able to recognise that and face the needs your body and mind were asking for. That's an enormously hard decision and it certainly feels like failure but the reality is it's actually the turning point towards success. Clearly not always in what you thought you wanted to do, but in other capacities and professions. Particularly personal life which is the most important.

My experience is that being able to fight your way through the blackest times is hell itself but once you see some light it becomes easier and it sounds as if you are on that track. Cliches abound here!

As an example of the thinking of today's dailies (hard copy) the Brisbane Courier Mail has just changed the size of their paper to tabloid after forever as a broadsheet. They seem to think that is the biggest news up here so that tells you where their standards are.

Daily hard copies will keep losing support and the owners/editors know that and perhaps that's one reason they wouldn't help you when you deserved it. You're right, you were/are a threat to their jobs and they defend that with all they have.

As to being an Ombudsman/person on WD. Who better? Not too sure what that role means actually as my experience with government employed Ombudspersons is dismal. If it means being the peacemaker between WD contributors then who else has the background to be able to assist without fear or favour?

You have a loyal brother who is a nice guy which is rare anywhere let alone on a web site, and plenty of readers who won't comment but they show themselves through the WD stats, both now and before you left.

Enough drivel from me. Just keep up the good fight and I hope to see more of your writing, not necessarily at WD but in other areas too.

An Oxymoron

Dear Margo,

I missed that talk but wish I hadn't. There is one thing girl that you have to remember.

Margo Kingston and failure in the same sentence is an oxymoron and you need to come to grips with that. It was and is your guts and decency that keeps people like me probing and asking and wanting to know what the hell our democracy has come to.

I truly think Fairfax is madly schizoid. They hire the best like McGeough, Marr and Wilksinon yet spoil it all with Devine and Henderson.

The best stories are still covered in the SMAGE in many ways yet in others they let people like you go. It makes no sense.

Crazy is what they call me too, but Margo dear, I am still here and still angry and asking.

Now I have the answers to many of my questions and they are ugly.

You take care of yourself but it would be the greatest mistake to call yourself a failure.

Love always.

Greetings, Margo

As always, Margo, it is a pleasure to observe the way you put a dent on subjects that are hard to write about. It is ever so easy to preach, however, your actions practise what you say...

May your contribution continue to be productive and courageous.

Love always.

A true Aussie battler

Good to hear from you again, Margo. Again thanks for the opportunity to play a small role in Australia's democracy. They say that a butterfly's wings can tip the balance to form a cyclone. The winds of change are blowing thanks to people like you. You are a true Aussie Battler!

What failure?

Well if it was a failure it was a spectacularly beautiful failure. Many people's successes aren't equal to this kind of failure. You helped create a community and fill a void. I was devastated when you quit, even though I'd been attacking Webdiary not long before, because I knew what you had created was rare and I hated to see you throw it away. To be burnt-out and disillusioned at your age isn't such a bad thing, but I'm 22 and I'm already losing faith. Sometimes it feels as if there are few real role-models out there, but you are one. To see a talented person like you quit, is painful to watch. That is not to say you owe anyone anything - what you most owe a duty to is your own health and sanity and I wish you all the best in this period of your life.


Just saying hello.

For my own reasons I loathe Fairfax. How to destroy 40 year relationships is what they are good at.

But Fairfax is now covering the important issues - with lots of reader comments (100s) - mostly about if to have sex on a first date or last nights TV ratings.

Marvellous Margo!

I was very moved by your account, Margo.

You have left an indelible mark on Australia. Hopefully others following will have your courage, your conviction, your deep concern about your country and its people.

Good luck with your new year. We'll do our best to rid our country of the Howard scourge while you recover.

Kind regards.

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