An Interview with Peter Browne

Portrait of Peter Browne

The Grattan Street Press team is extremely excited to announce that our next title Inside Story: The First Ten Years goes on sale on 13 November. In anticipation, our own David Churack sat down with the editor of the collection, Peter Browne, to get the inside story on the inspiration for the book.

Inside Story is celebrating its tenth anniversary. It’s a fixture in the Australian media scene now, but how would you describe it to someone unfamiliar with this online magazine?

What’s distinctive about Inside Story, I think, is that we don’t run articles only by journalists, and nor do we only publish academic contributors. From the start, back in 2008, we wanted to bring the two together and combine the best features of both traditions. We also encourage our writers to take as much space as they need to explore an issue thoroughly. Rather than reacting to every change in the news cycle, they put the latest developments in a longer-term context—sometimes very long-term, as was the case when one of our writers, Norman Abjorensen, compared Tony Abbott unfavourably with Joseph Cook, who was prime minister for the fifteen months leading up to the first world war!

Tell us how you came to Inside Story.

I was working on other projects at the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University, but had been looking at different ways of publishing this kind of writing. My background was partly in magazine and book publishing—at a magazine called Australian Society and later at the University of NSW Press—and partly in broadcasting, at Radio National. I was keen to use the contacts and skills I’d built up in those jobs and publishing online seemed to make the best financial sense. I happened to ask for funding from the vice-chancellor at the right moment, and we launched not long after.

What role has Inside Story filled in the Australian media landscape?

I hope Inside Story has demonstrated that the issues we’re preoccupied by at any time—inequality, for example, or the future of Medicare, or the funding of schools—are best seen in a wider context. They can’t be divorced from current political realities, of course, but they can be better understood in a historical context. And it’s always illuminating to hear from people who have researched issues thoroughly. I think this means we’re also read by journalists working for the daily media, but that kind of influence is hard to measure.

What is the value of collecting Inside Story articles in print?

This collection gives a great window into what we’ve been publishing over the past decade. It’s just one window, of course, because we obviously couldn’t fit in most of the 3000-plus articles we’ve published, but it gives a strong sense of the variety of pieces we publish. From my point of view, it’s also been fascinating to see shifts in style and subject matter, partly brought on by the arrival of friendly rivals like The Conversation, The Saturday Paper and Guardian Australia.

What do you think this collection reflects about Australian society over the last ten years?

Looking at the full ten years, I think the most interesting development has been the blurring of boundaries between Australia and the rest of the English-speaking world, which has resulted from the easy availability of international news—and often very spectacular international news—amplified by social media. What this means is that many people in Australia see the crises in Britain and the United States—Brexit and Trump—as directly relevant to Australia, despite our very different political culture, economic conditions and even electoral system. There are good reasons why Pauline Hanson will never get anywhere near the prime ministership, and why Tony Abbott lasted less than one term, but that sometimes gets lost in fears about what the swing to the right overseas means for us.

What criteria did you use to arrive at the articles included in the collection published by GSP?

We wanted to give a strong sense of the style and range of Inside Story’s content. We also wanted to show off as many of our contributors as possible, which meant we needed to limit the selection to no more than one piece per contributor. A different collection might have focused on areas where we’re particularly strong—economics, politics, reviews—but it seemed a good idea to stress our diversity in this first anthology.

In an age of digital saturation and ‘fake news’, how do you maintain the value of online journalism?

We’ve tried to stick with our original vision for Inside Story but to find new ways of promoting what we do and getting our articles out to potential readers. The internet sends conflicting messages to editors—sometimes shorter is better, sometimes readers want length and depth—so it’s important not to be knocked off course. Readership is up by nearly 25% this year, which is very encouraging.

Print was always part of our plan, and we did publish a print edition between 2011 and 2014, which we’re planning to reintroduce early next year. It’s a good way for a magazine like ours to highlight the fact that we’re serious about reaching readers in any format they prefer.

How do you choose what stories or issues merit coverage in Inside Story?

The articles we publish are divided (around half and half) between pieces from our regular contributors, who have particularly specialties, and pieces we commission from other writers. Leaving aside our cultural coverage, we tend to focus on “national affairs”—in other words, a combination of politics and policy, covering areas like economics, health, education, environment. We’re stronger in some policy areas than others, which partly reflects the strengths of an expanding group of frequent contributors.

What do you think the future holds for Inside Story?

Our move back into print and a planned membership program are designed both to increase both our readership and ensure our financial sustainability. Our hope is that growth will allow us to deepen our coverage and expand our circle of contributors. It’s going to be a busy time, but we’re looking forward to the next stage in Inside Story’s development.

David is a current Master’s student at the University of Melbourne and a freelance contributor to Monster Pictures.  He is also marketing lead for Grattan Street Press.

Thank you to Janice Lieng for the image.