Can academic bloggers fill the gap left by the retreat of traditional media, asks The Interpreter’s Sam Roggeveen

Over the last decade, New Mandala has become an indispensable source of analysis and opinion on Southeast Asia and an influential force in political and social debates about the region.

Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly have created something unique and precious, a website which may now be old enough to deserve to be called an ‘institution’ in Australia’s foreign policy firmament.

As founding editor of the Lowy Institute’s web magazine, The Interpreter, I have witnessed first-hand the growth of online coverage of international events in Australia by non-media outlets such as New Mandala. This has been an unqualified good.

Yet it is impossible to celebrate the success of sites like New Mandala without acknowledging that this success has come, at least partially, as a result of the decline of the quality mainstream media.

Yes, there is evidence that newspapers in particular were actually declining before the internet really took off, but the anecdotal indicators are hard to dismiss. Last week the veteran Australian journalist Sean Dorney, writing for The Interpreter, lamented the fact that there was so little PNG expertise in Australian journalism circles that The Australian carried a commentary piece on the police shootings of student protesters in Port Moresby written by its China correspondent!

As the Australian media’s coverage of Asia has shrunk, so the small group of Australian blogs and websites devoted to studying the region have grown. Poignantly, many of those who did the reporting for those news outlets, including Dorney, now write for the websites which have moved into this territory. They mainly do this as a hobby or sideline to whatever new job they are doing now.

It is not obvious that consumers have been the losers in this process; in fact, some of the gains have been vast. We now have instant access to a previously unimaginable range of sources about events in faraway places. Sites such as New Mandala and The Interpreter have also bridged the gap between academics and the public, providing them with a platform to reach a broad and influential audience if they have the skill to write engagingly for them.

But sites such as ours have done nothing to solve the economic malaise among journalists and other content producers. None of these publications can afford to pay very much, so while they fill the editorial space left by the decline of mainstream media, they don’t help the economic losers created by its demise.

Most importantly, although these websites offer first-rate analysis of breaking events, this is a subordinate task which relies on accurate and penetrating reporting of the facts. That’s the role of reporters, and it’s a function which these new websites cannot replace.

When New Mandala started a decade ago, it may not have been clear that it represented the future for Australian coverage of world events. But increasingly, it looks like the job of informing Australians about the world is moving away from those for whom journalism is a profession and towards those who practice journalism occasionally among their other professional tasks.

Sam Roggeveen is Director of Digital, Lowy Institute for International Policy and founding editor of its digital magazine The Interpreter.