Interview: Graham Young - Online Opinion


Interview: Graham Young, Director & Editor, Online Opinion - 11th May 2003

What are the prime aims and objectives of Online Opinion?

On Line Opinion wants to create a space for robust public debate where Australians can interact with each other on political and policy issues at a level with which they are comfortable and to be provided with the tools to do this.

How, when and why was Online Opinion established?

I first published On Line Opinion in April 1999 on my laptop from my two bedroom unit in Coorparoo because I thought there was room for a magazine in Australia that represented all points of view, not just narrow sectoral interests. And also because I could.

Lionel Hogg is the co-founder. When I originally had the idea I sent an e-mail to a few friends and Lionel responded positively. We've known each other for about 20 years and done a lot of things together, but never anything this intense or grand before. I also got a lot of support from Peter Baume and Chris Sidoti.

What is the most important aspect of the website?

At the moment it is the Journal. That will change over time as we develop the site, but to develop the site we need to raise more funds, and we are doing that at the moment.

What kind of business activities do you do, that are not elaborated on the website?

You mean me personally? I think the site is pretty comprehensive on that score. My main line of business is developing property, but that is not where my passion lies.

How many visitors and impressions to you get per month?

OLO gets somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 individual site visits which translates to around 100,000 page views.

What's the biggest news story you ever covered, and how did it come about?

Biggest news story? We don't really cover news stories, the journal is more reflective. Our philosophy is that we want people who are experts in issues to write for the general public, rather than employing journalists who will interview the experts and then try to précis what they have written.

Perhaps the most revolutionary thing we have done is to turn the focus group into a way of covering elections. By interviewing groups of swinging voters in an Internet chat room we have been able to predict things in general and state elections that mainstream journalists have just walked right by
without noticing.

Another innovation was covering the bombing of Belgrade by finding someone who lived there who was prepared to write us despatches.

Explain the highs and lows in the business?

Not sure what you mean by this. It has been pretty hard grind so far, but it keeps trending in the right direction. The best part is when you get feedback from a reader saying that you have helped them with something, or just asking for advice. That means that you have become part of their social circle, which is one of the key things that the site is about.

How do you delegate different tasks to your team?

It's a small team consisting of Hugh Brown and me. I generally call through the glass between us. We do have a team of volunteers who help. The Editorial Advisory Board is chaired by Brian Johns. We get together with them via the 'net generally. We also have around 20 volunteer sub-editors. We talk via e-mail, and also using www.eprojects.com But virtual meetings aren't enough, so we have also been organising meetings in each capital city. Unfortunately we don't have the budget to bring them all together in the one spot.

We also have a group in Brisbane, including Joanne Jacobs, Terry Flew (both from QUT), Peter Spearritt (Brisbane Institute) and Bruce Muirhead (UQ) who meet regularly to talk about strategic issues for the whole site.

What's the biggest issue you have ever had to deal with?

I don't think there is any "biggest issue". The hardest thing is keeping all the balls in the air at one time - finance, editorial, development, and doing some writing myself.

Graham, what % of time and effort do you spend on running the business, as opposed to writing code, moderating forums or FTPing upline?

Most of my time is spent running the business. Hugh is the one who gets caught up in the technical issues.

When did you decide you would run a portal for your career, and in what year did you become profitable?

We're not profitable. In fact, OLO is a not-for-profit, so it won't ever be profitable in the conventional sense of the word. But it is ambitious, and I can't ever see money being a comfortable thing for it, because there will always be more things to do.

Do you have any mentors, and if so, who?

Peter Baume has been great, but I don't know that I would call him a mentor. The group that meets regularly in Brisbane provides a lot of moral support as well as guidance, and Lionel Hogg and I have spent a lot of time chewing over the issues and coming up with the concepts, but again, I don't know that this is mentoring. I certainly have inspirations, although they are mostly dead. Dead white males, actually, like George Orwell, the unofficial patron saint of the site. John Stuart Mill, Milton, Wycliffe, Voltaire, Tyndall, Socrates, Boethius.

Have you ever "pissed off" another company or person to the extent that they sued you, and if so, what was the outcome?

No.

How much notoriety has Online Opinion given you, and are you famous (or at least well known in certain
circles?

I'm not after notoriety or fame for that matter. And if I was, there are probably better ways of getting it than publishing OLO.

Does anyone attempt to avoid being mentioned on your website?

Not that I've noticed.

Have you met any politicians that got a "caning" on your website?

We try not to give anyone a "caning", it's not that sort of site. But I have been critical of various politicians in some of my writing, and yes, I have met some of them. The essence of the site is the clash of ideas, and I normally offer a right of reply to anyone who has anything said about them on the site. I think most understand that this is the case and know that anything they put up will get as much prominence as the original, so critical opinions aren't a problem.

How much time and effort, and money, have you put into the site?

Considerable time and effort, but not a lot of money. We had some problems at first when the dot.com boom was on because the business model (as much as a not-for-profit can have one) was so modest. But we're still in business and a lot of other sites aren't. As a developer I've learnt to minimise risk and to keep costs as low as possible. Also to try and give the customer what they want and need, and that isn't necessarily five star.

Explain your return on investment?

There isn't any.

Has your business plan changed much over the years, and have there been any elements that you dropped, which were not profitable or practical?

We had one major change when we moved away from a model which depended on governments providing most of the funding to one where civil society was financially supporting the site.

How many supporters do you have, and who is the most "powerful"?

Probably between 50 and 100, but I have no idea what you mean by "powerful".

What's the biggest compliment you have been given?

Pass.

What is the best advice you have received?

Don't worry about what everyone else is doing.

Would you have done anything different, in hindsight?

Yes.I think the biggest mistake is that we didn't spend some money on some more sophisticated software earlier in the peace. The time saved by doing it would have been more economical than the money saved.

What do you do to relax?

Play piano or organ. Work out. Surf. Cook a meal and then site around with friends and enjoy it.

How has traditional media reacted to you, and do they see you as a threat?

We have a good relationship with traditional media. There is no reason for them to see us as a threat. We actually make it easier for them to find and research good stories. A number of our authors have made appearances as a result of publishing in OLO, and we often make a point of sending their work to other outlets.

In what ways are you controversial?

We publish all sides of a story, and often stories that the main media miss, for a variety of reasons. We try to find material that is fresh, but valid. When we succeed you have something which is going to arrest attention.

Who are your competitors?

They're all international. The only Australian journal doing anything like what we do is Crikey!, but his style is much racier. There is a journal called opendemocracy published in the UK which is similar. The IndyMedia sites are also competition in some ways, but they really have a quite different audience. We aim to provide a credentialled outlet for material. If it appears on OLO, then it is suitable to be quoted in an essay and footnoted. We don't publish a whole stream of similar essays, and we don't publish a lot of what is submitted to us. Our model is halfway between the completely self-organising model like say a SlashDot, and the heavily centralised one used by the major media.

What's the worst (or best) "slanging matches" you get into with people of different views, or perhaps even other online sites?

I try not to get into slanging matches. I only get involved in the forums on our own site when I think they need a kick along. I don't get involved in discussions on any other sites as a general rule.

What gives you the edge?

Our edge is that we now have a large resource of authoritative articles on a wide range of issues from multiple perspectives. You could call it customer convenience. We aim to develop this one-stop-shopping concept further.

What is the relationship between Online Opinion and Internet Thinking?

Internet Thinking publishes On Line Opinion under contract.

Anything else you would like our readers to know? (we get many media types here).

Not unless you jog my elbow and suggest something.

...end.

For more information and websites of revevence examine:

www.onlineopinion.com.au Online Opinion (Australian Politics)

www.internet-thinking.com.au Internet Thinking

www.crikey.com.au Crikey Media

www.insidepolitics.com.au Inside Politics

http://australia.internet.com Australia.Internet.com

http://slashdot.com Slashdot

Greg Tingle interviews Rob Malda, Founder of Slashdot - 8th April 2003