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Waltzing New Matilda Away

The nature of so many stories changes depending on who's telling the tale. This is not only due to the nature of the recorder of the yarn, but of the person who observed events unfold - different eyes, ears and minds will look at the same situation and often see a completely different set of events. For example, there's a town up the Murray from Adelaide called Morrook. The tale in the Big Smoke was that this place was one of several communal habitats set up in the early 1890s as incentive for would-be followers of Billy Lane to forgo life in the New Australia iof Paraguay to have another go at life in Old Australia.

The bloke in the front bar of the Morook Community Club whose family had been there since those beginnings had never heard of this before. He told of paddlesteamers bringing people that couldn't find work in the city, dropping twenty families at a time along the riverbank, to live under a single roughly made roof as they grew crops for the cityfolk to eat, and of how many of these battlers were eventually given land of their own. Either way, the community spirit of this place is stronger than in most. As one local lady told me 'If you're in trouble in Morook and you sing out, there's a lot of people behind you."

I'd come to the place (last weekend) amidst a roving pack of around 60 musicians. They're all in a group called the Weekend Warriors, who go up to the one-bar town twice a year to put on music festivals Rockers, Blues(wo)men, the odd Country and Western singer and even,(gasp) the occassional folkie take turns to give their music to the townsfolk, visitors and each other. They hope, apart from sharing the camaraderie of the music, to put a bit of money back into a rural community now struggling (especially now they're forced to lease water from the barons) to afford to grow a vine. It'll be a couple more years, everyone reckons, before the idea truly begins to bear fruit. Everyone's happy to be nurturing the seeds they've planted, confident of the harvest to come. I have no doubt they'll succeed.

Always a keen writer (used to wag school one day a week to write for the Portland newspaper) I'd given up my previous notions of intrepid reporting. In actual fact my "career" ended the first day of one financial year, when I rolled up for work a little "local rag" to find the doors locked, the boss (and my last forntight's pay) long gone. Really, though, I'd lost the taste the day I was rooting around the glovebox of a car in the wreckers' yard to find out who'd had the prang. Looking up from my endeavours I noticed one of the driver's teeth embedded in the steering wheel. I thought to myself "so, this is journalism?" I could hear the voice of my Portland Observer mentor, a lovely lady named Jane Belfield (a former PNG correspondent for the ABC) who muttered about the editor from within the cloud of cigarette smoke around her typewriter, and was kind enough while subbing my slips to give me ideas. Her advice? "If you love to write, don't become a journo" That day in the scrapyard I decided she was right.

I came across Webdiary pretty much by accident, and didn't know that such a world existed. I'd been flailing around the net with a horror of Halliburton in my mind, and a mate who listened to Phillip Adams a lot suggested I contact Margo Kingston. Margo made me feel that I wasn't alone in my thoughts, and coached me into creating a Webdiary piece. Then she pushed me off the deep end into a thread-pool of scary-sounding people that seemed to know each other well, who argued things out and debated amongst themselves. I loved it and stuck around. This was in the last months of Webdiary's residency at the Sydney Morning Herald, and my second piece was published in the first week of the website's independence. I watched Margo try her damnedest to make the place something that would be self-sustaining and financially independent. By the end of that year, in which I believe she would've been able to make a go of things if not for the horrendous ill-health she'd been experiencing, Margo decided to hang up her green eyeshade and give the game away.

That was when Webdiary had just had its fifth birthday. On July the 4th of this year we're turning ten. The site's been run by volunteers dedicated to keeping the doors open to this home of citizen journalism- moderating comments, asking people to contribute threadstarters, scribbling a few paragraphs themselves, doing their best to maintain The House That Margo Built according to the manual found in the attic. I'm proud to now be one of such folk, and consider my endeavours here as a way of passing along the good karma that was so generously given to me and so many others.

Communities can take longer to evolve than many people realise. My family run a music pub in Adelaide, hosting as many different kinds of melody as we can squeeze into the place. My parents' dream had been to create a musical waterhole at which those who came for refreshment could hear each other’s noises and hopefully join in a new sound. 17 years later we're noticing that a sense of community is growing increasingly stronger. It might take a few more years to hear what we're hoping for. That's ok. There are three generations working in the place now, some of the youngest tribe of Tonkins already able to pour quite a decent beer.. and the developers have found out the hard way that we're not going to be driven away by the antics that pave the path of "progress".

Sometime you see flashes of what can happen. On the day of writing this my father and I had the pleasure of sitting down to lunch with a couple of blokes from the Guilford Four and Birmingham Six, the local producer of Today Tonight, some fairly maverick local lawyers and a a folksinger friend. The conversation was rolling pleasantly enough, until the Scotsman looking after the boys asked us if we'd heard of a Scots minstrel (and internationally respected activist) named Alistair Hulett. Alistair worte a lot of great songs, and one of his greatest was a song about the forming of the community of Australia

The road’s at your own feet
Travel it lightly and travel it well
And don’t speak of success
Or christen it progress
Til the swaggies can all waltz Matilda as well"

Sadly, Jimmy Dancer waltzed Alistair away from us all last year. The moment of sadness today that passed between those of us that knew him created relationships that I'm sure will last for years. With the same sentiment for a singer and his songs, the travellers knew that they were amongst friends in our house.

Margo Kingston created an online community, turning her site into an interactive "blog" at a time when blogs didn't exist. People came to talk with her, and she helped them to talk to each other. Sometimes these days Webdiary can be a fairly quiet place (even though its readership still consists of many thousands), and then without warning an issue will bring back familiar voices, arguing the contributing factors, debating the merits of outcomes, drawing on both knowledge of the subjects and each other in a way that would never happen anywhere but "at Margo's". Phillip Adams has this to say about her and Webdiary:

"Trad journalism was rarely rad journalism. In these last days we romanticise the old days to a ridiculous extent, smearing the unreliable lens of memory with Vaseline. Most journalists were content to toe the proprietorial line - as rigid as the party line - or simply add to the pages of dross. We remember the heroes of the profession because there were so few of them. The real warriors of the press gallery, the unstoppable investigators of political or corporate naughtiness and the fearless foreign correspondents were the exception, not the rule. Now trad journalism, for good and ill, seems terminal - and hope lies elsewhere...in a new era of truly independent work. Which is when and where Webdiary and Margo Kingston came in, recruiting energetic outsiders - community journalists - to keep the bastards honest. As my generation expires. going down in our sinking ships, it's this new mob who'll have to find new ways - including those elusive 'new business models - to save society from itself. What Kingston showed was there's no shortage of talent."

It's amazing really, how far the words of community journalism can travel. Not long after I latched on to Cheney's corporate antics in Australia (according to the likes of Mr Adams and author Tony Kevin contributing new knowledge). I saw a much bigger picture painted by Jason Leopold's netreporting from the US of some of things Dick said about Iran when on a '97 Down Under Tour de Force. Thanks to Webdiary I'm now proud to call Jason a friend. Degrees of separation aren't necessarily as they appear! This man has worked as the Los Angeles bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires and as a city editor and reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He is a two-time winner of a Project Censored award for his investigative work on Halliburton and Enron.

"Independent journalists," he says, "and the non traditional outfits that showcase their work iare a crucial part of the media landscape and have proven time and again that they can compete with the mainstream publications--and in many cases do a much better job of reporting the news. It was, after all, independent media that first questioned the veracity of intelligence leading up to the invasion of Iraq and to this day continue to hold government officials accountable for what amounted to an illegal war. If not for independent publications like Webdiary, the public would likely be deprived of the truth. I've worked in independent media circles for nearly a decade and I can say confidently that if these platforms did not exist, I would not have had the opportunity to publish my work elsewhere."

Long into the future the past ten years will be regarded as the pioneer era of the internet, and the early innovators compared to the Wright Brothers flying the first airplane. What would Orville and Wilbur have done if they knew how prolific their invention would become? Knowing the size of the harvest, I reckon they would've taken out a really massive seed-loan from the bank, enough to establish a garden and nurture the crop.. and waited for time to work its magic. Maybe a media industry centred around community journalism can't yet get far enough off the ground to fly more than a short distance. Maybe it won't be until commercial media fully embraces cyberspace that non-corporrate e-organs become truly necessary as alternatives to commercial counterparts perused daily on I-Pads? Who knows.. viewed in the longterm, we're still at a beginning.

May all those who've waltzed at New Matilda and Webdiary always dance, knowing that the rhythm in their steps will be heard in future melodies. And if a wandering swagman "on the wallaby" happens to find find the track to "Ours", please feel free to say g'day.., the door's always open, and the fire still burning...

(First published on newmatilda.com during its last week.)

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a temps perdu

Ten years, eh?

Richard's thread starter was a good thumbnail and a good snapshot of a lot of Web Diarists and the motives for participating.

 For my part, I got to do some uni study, including politics subjects, as a mature age student, about the time WD's first tentative steps were taken.

I'd already taken out a subscription for the Age and was following current affairs a lot, but was particularly impressed with the way pint sized Margo handled a Rightie comentator on Latteline one Friday night, so kept a closer eye on her reports for Fairfax, as well as what she was introducing in the way of topics. Finally tempted to offer anideas on a topic, I sent it to Margo rather than include directly as a comment- she included in the comments section and a blogger was born.

2001 was the year it took off tho.  and some very smart people were contributing, the likes of Don  Arthur, Tim Dunlop, Brian Bahnisch and many others who also branched out into blogging, with some even ending up ran their own blogs.

At the end of the year, the Asylum Seeker issue, including the shady doings involving the SIEVs, Tampa and "Children Overboard",  coincided with the truly explosive 11/9 attacks and culminated the 2001 election win for Howard, as suddenly Margo found herself drowning in comments to moderate as well as thread starters as well as doing her day job as politics chief of staff for Fairfax in Canberra.

The only blog I can think of that has carried heavy trasffic like that is Larvatus Prodeo, and that is a collabarative effort involving half a dozen people give or take; Margo eventually had to yield and bring  others into the operation of the WD, but as Richard Tonkin said above, the sheer effort must have blunted her, because then Fairfax, becoming more right wing after another change of editors, moved to the Right and Margo was left with a butchered WD archive and a shonky deal for ownership of WD that cost her big as she gave WD a run outside the protective umbrella of Fairfax.

 Not surprisingly, Margo's health eventually broke and others took up the gauntlet, people like Hamish, Margo's brother;  David Roffey, Fiona Reynolds and eventually Richard himself.


WD was a virtual one of a kind ten years ago but now exists and shares its audience in an ocean of commercial and enthusiast web sites, as well as Facebook and the like.

 Also fracticidal strife and bitterness concerning some topics also has taken its toll. I have to say I have been as involved in some of these stoushes as anyone and not always to my my own credit.

No regrets.

So the landscape has changed. But as long as there are serious issues that require a sane person to "keep up with them, I'd hope there will be a place for WD and other blogs like it, unless something better can be developed.

 And I am greatful for having got the chance to  look at current affairs much more closely, thanks to the miracle of the internet, also the tolerance of moderators here and at other sites I've visited.

Webdiary's 10 Birthday this Sunday

Look for an interesting piece (by someone known to many Webdiarists) on Sunday morning.

 I think it's great that we've made it to what can only be regarded in net terms as a very respectabe age. 

A question ...

An interesting piece and a good read, Richard. Thanks.

One of the things that struck me -- you say the old Diary still attracts thousands. Wow. I kind of pictured the current readership at about ten on a good day ... and that's if you let the dog in from the porch.

Tell us more.  Was that a slightly embellished marketing ploy borrowed from the world of pub live music and public entertainment to net some of the lost and bewildered from the wash of the good ship NewMatilda, or does this place still attract visitors in substantial numbers? Or both?

Just curious is all.


Glad you liked the piece, Geoff!  You can check stats at webdiary.com.au/statistics.  We average around 14,000 unique visitors per month at the moment.  There are still plenty of readers out there.

The fireman

Yes, it's all about resistance to that inexorable process of homogenisation of humanity that occurs in our post modern era.

Many are habituated to the mind candy and rightist agendas of massmedia. But when the technology became available, many people interested in current affairs, frustrated at the contempt shown the public by commercial media, turned to Indie blog sites mushrooming earlier in the decade to bypass mainstream medias control of information and comment.

 As mainsteam media, challenged by new delivery systems,  deteriorated furtherm blogging took off big time. The  flood of actual work ended up too much for Kingston and we see the same trend repeating at this very time, where Prof. John Quiggin, another brilliant individual, has also had to curb his blogsite output to concentrate onother aspects of his career.  Also think of the recent end to Tim Dunlop and Ken Lovell's efforts.

 The sites with a collegial ( collegiate?) approach are still doing well, Larvatus Prodeo shows how workload can be shared to keep the the bigger idea thing operating during both slack times and times of heavy blog traffic. At its peak Web Diary also survived thru the involvement of a team with the education and intellect to share moderating duties.

 The blogosphere has itself become  a victim of rapid obsolescence, as new gimmicks and tools develop and grow.  But, as mainstream media finally and reluctantly abandoned some of its control of readership comment, hence editorial content, eventually incorporating comment threads into newspapers, for example, the blogoshere acheived its best social gains relative to its project of grassroots participation in public affairs by fostering understanding of issues mainstream media and politics did not want understood or questioned, such as asylum seekers, surveillance legislation,  ecology and pol-economics issues. big shots like Murdoch could always find a quid for propaganda entities like the IPA, but not blogging, so many blogs have gone out of business thru lack of money.

But I'd argue, not before the indie blogosphere's attempts at public education had reaped some real rewards and these rewards for effort both from the educated people running blogsites and for those of us unwashed who used blogs as a means for better understanding issues. I'd specifically mention the unmasking of Hansonism and neoliberalist ideas and objectives; neo con agendas and how these failed to relate to real world problems.

We couldn't stop Iraq, or end the problems with the international refugee problem, or stop the GFM occuring , but we were there to explain to others what had happened.

 But if apathy is again on the increase, it iseasy to understand why.

 The New political leaders elected recently as part of the backlash to neo conservatism, Obama, Rudd and the like, have tended to abandon the more visonary of their reforms and retreated to toeing theline for big business. This has created a critical mass of disillusion and apathy. It seems all that effort in putting in leaders who said they'd uphold democracy, has been for nothing and the resulting lossof morale has  impacted on blog participation.

But as long as politicians try to wriggle out of their responsibilites and "the system" remains skewed against the masses of ordinary people in Australia and globally, there needs to a resistence,if only for maintainence of self respect,  and as the system keeps shutting down outlets, we must continue to stay a  step ahead by having new ones ready, for those who want something better than what passes for a Considered Life in wider apathetic society.

 The Farenheit 451 paradigm, I'd call it. Resistence is very weak and recruits few and poor quality, but when you live in a hegemonic world, to have even the chance of survival, you must make do with the material at hand.

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