PR companies feared and revered him in equal measure: what will Tim Burrowes do next?

Tim Burrowes (pictured) is leaving Mumbrella. Photo: Facebook.

At the end of this week, Tim Burrowes leaves Mumbrella, the media and marketing juggernaut he founded in 2008. He speaks with editor-at-large Gary Nunn about taking a well-deserved career break – and his debut book on the Australian media industry’s most tumultuous decade.

One of the most powerful posts on Mumbrella – the successful media and marketing news website founded in 2008 by journalist Tim Burrowes – is the haunting tale that is, surely, every journalist’s worst nightmare.

The story starts when Burrowes was at a local British newspaper and is told to him by his news editor, who, as a court reporter, took a call from a politely spoken man.

The polite man had been in court that morning for a relatively minor misdemeanour such as drink-driving. He was concerned that it would appear in the paper, which he’d find terribly embarrassing.

Burrowes writes: “The news editor explained that the paper, which was a respectable local broadsheet, felt it had a duty to the public to cover every case that came in front of it.

“The man politely thanked him for his time and hung up. And killed himself.”

It’s stories like this that make it into Burrowes’ new book, released this month, called Media Unmade, focusing on Australian media’s most disruptive decade.

Hardly anyone seems more qualified than Burrowes to write it – with Mumbrella, he’s immersed himself under the umbrella of all things media and marketing for over a decade – and before that, he edited B&T, Australia’s only weekly magazine for the marketing industry.

The cover of Tim Burrowes’ debut book, Media Unmade. Image: supplied. 

“It took me a long time to realise: this was not their fault”

The Australian version of that chilling story happened in 2012 when 2DayFM radio hosts Mike Christian and Mel Greig made a royal-themed prank call to a hospital. Their target of the call, a nurse working in a UK hospital, took her own life following the prank, which she felt had humiliated and shamed her. 

These episodes seem to have influenced Sydney Morning Herald journalist Jacqueline Maley’s debut novel, The Truth About Her, which tells the story of a wellness blogger who commits suicide after a journalist exposes her lies. 

“I can still remember the Saturday morning waking up to the news of that nurse in the UK,” Burrowes – who is originally from Britain and has lost none of his endearing Basingstoke accent – says. “I felt sick on behalf of the radio presenters involved. It took me a long time emotionally if not logically to really realise this was not their fault.”

There were two things at play, he says: first, somebody who had greater pre-existing problems and for whom this was perhaps the trigger. Second, the bods above Grieg and Christian: “Radio networks are giant machines; the two people on air don’t necessarily make decisions, but they became the face of that scandal,” he says. “It was one of the Australian radio industry’s worst moments.”

He discusses the difference in reaction between the two hosts: “Michael Christian – on his very first day in the job – very quickly realised this was terribly sad but not his fault. Whereas Mel Greig eventually got counselling. She was ruined for years – she couldn’t get past blaming herself for it.”

One Mumbrella commenter – the blog became notorious for its often salty below-the-line comments, which could be brutal, and were eventually banned altogether – took exception to them even being called journalists, instead dubbing them “vandals with a microphone”. Other commenters pointed out that ridicule of public figures or reporting of those who broke the law was entirely different to bringing shame to an honest working woman who never asked to be a public figure.

Burrowes – who was then becoming an increasingly influential figure in the media world – to his credit used the blog to call for empathy for the two hosts and a tightening of radio rules around privacy extending beyond news bulletins. Certainly, today, such prank calls seem rarer; a relic from radio’s darker days.

The print romantic

It’s somewhat ironic Burrowes disrupted the marketing news arena with his hugely successful website, which grew from just him into Australia’s biggest media and marketing platform, Mumbrella, employing 40 staff. He is, by his own admission, a diehard print enthusiast.

“I used to go into the old newsagents off Taylor Square, nearby where I lived, at 11pm when the next day’s newspapers came in and grab them!” he tells the Sentinel.

“I’m a newspaper romantic. I fondly remember going down into the basement as the newspapers came off the press when I was a local newspaper journalist; there was no feeling like it,” he says. 

His book charts the media’s fall from grace in the past decade – but it ends on a surprising, and welcome, positive note.

Tim Burrowes’ book charts the media’s fall from grace but ends on a positive note. Photo: Twitter.

Unmaking the media

First, though, the well-charted doom.

“The biggest theme is the rivers of gold drying up,” he says. “Ad funded print journalism has all gone online, and changed media for the worse.

“We now have a polarised world where tabloid newspapers chasing memberships from readers serve an even narrower audience, giving them what they want ahead of advertisers.”

This confirmation of readers’ prejudices has, he says, led to the phenomenon of dangerous filter bubbles: “We’ve now seen where hyper-partisanship and algorithms optimised for outrage and conspiracy can lead us: the insurrection of the US Capitol in January.”  

An upcoming digital detox

The other knock-on effect of an increasingly online media is that there’s now far more to read. How does Burrowes remain selective?

“I consume an amount that’s not particularly healthy!” he says. “It’s the nature of any media-related job. Not an hour would pass where I’m not on the media.”

That’s why the first thing he plans to do upon leaving Mumbrella on 30 July is to have a digital detox “for at least a few weeks”. He has nothing lined up as yet, which is just how he likes it, although he does plan to continue writing in some capacity. 

One thing he won’t miss is, as one blog describes it, is “being recognised at functions and abused by some random drunk for some story that killed off a career, a promotion or even a whole business”. 

I read this back to Burrowes and ask if it sounds fair.

“At Mumbrella, our only job is to tell it like it is to the audience – that’s the filter through which I’d like it seen,” he says. “Others might see themselves as cheerleaders of the industry – they’re in favour of the status quo; we’re in favour of a better industry for everybody.” 

In terms of who impresses him, he names Hugh Marks, former Nine CEO. 

“He came on board when Nine was just a TV network and arguably a dying medium,” Tim says. “Five years under his tenure and it’s now Australia’s biggest media company, absorbing juggernauts like Fairfax and Stan and becoming a powerful player in radio. In terms of the size and scale of calculated risks, no other media exec comes close.”

The (perhaps unexpected) good news in journalism 

We finish on some refreshing good news – some which he managed to squeeze into his book at the 11th hour, just before it went to print. 

The future of journalism in Australia, for the first time in his entire career, is looking better than it did before in terms of funding.

It comes from the Australian Government leaning on Facebook and Google and striking up a deal whereby they give money towards journalism. “It was grubby, backroom politics – it got pretty dirty,” he says. “But for the first time in the three decades I’ve been in the media industry, funding in the short and maybe even medium terms looks ok.”

That sounds like something worth getting dirty for. 

Media Unmade by Tim Burrowes is published by Hardie Grant Books:

Gary Nunn is the editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. He can be followed on Twitter at @GaryNunn1.