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New ways to make journalism pay

Conference report

THE NEW Ways to Make Journalism Pay conference organised by London Freelance Branch on January 16 was a great success, with a full house of delegates, some coming all the way from Aberdeen, Dublin and even Brussels. There are already plans to run similar gatherings in other parts of the UK, for follow-up training initiatives and for further meetings between journalists and movers and shakers in the cooperatives movement. The conference was, as NUJ Freelance Organiser John Toner put it, "an idea whose time had come."

How to save journalism

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How can journalism be saved?

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Opening the conference, Alex Klaushofer, outgoing LFB vice-chair and lead activist in organising the conference, noted that there is "some good news and bad news in journalism... we're familiar with the bad news," but the conference was a chance to learn from "some people who've made attempts to do something about the failure of the traditional model" of the media. Some had some early successes in their recent media start-ups to share, and advice on "what doesn't work" and on new innovations about which "the jury is still out". As Alex warned, "there is no silver bullet... We are in new territory here."

Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford gave an example of an "ailing" magazine that had been turned around, after it had "gone into administration, closed twice, gone from weekly to monthly" with a "substantial reduction in (staff) headcount and advertising revenue. This case study was Press Gazette itself.

How did Press Gazette (PG) survive, after Progressive Media bought it on the day Dominic was sending out staff redundancy notices? They now "work hard to be part of an online conversation" with a "mass audience online" for (free) news, and "an elite audience in print" with in-depth stories, as well as a daily email newsletter, and opportunities for advertisers to meet PG readers face-to-face at events. "Will we ever be back to the staffing level we had before?" Dominic asks/ "Probably not."

They use more freelances than they used to. "We're more like the blog-style start-ups than we used to be... leaner and more nimble."

Last year PG were writing "only about redundancies," but is "now starting to write about new things being launched." Granville Williams, of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, said gloomy predictions of the "total collapse of media" have been much exaggerated

Making the web pay

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Making the web pay

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A recession is "one of the best times to launch a business: if it can work in a recession it can work in other times as well," says former Yorkshire Post business editor David Parkin, who had a "terrible foreboding that the industry was dying." David launched Yorkshire business news website thebusinessdesk.com in 2007, after persuading investors of the wisdom of his business plan, which initially "set out to lose money" while the site built up its most important asset, its "community".

Thebusinessdesk.com's small scale made it more sure-footed than giants like Reuters - it was able to email all its registered readers the details of the Chancellor's budget speech within 10 minutes of him making it, and one reader readers told David he was able to tell his bank manager what the new interest rate was, thanks to the email sent from thebussinessdesk.com within two minutes of the rate being made public.

Thebusinessdesk.com can now get £2500 for a banner ad for a few weeks. It's the "quality rather than quantity" of their 28,000 readers that attracted advertisers. Registration data can demonstrate that its readers have money to spend, and are decision-makers in their business. "I'm not afraid to say I'm a cheerleader for business," says David, but he and - he believes - most of his staff are NUJ members.

The founder of Indus Delta - the micro-niche website for the welfare to work industry's community - isn't even sure whether to describe himself as a journalist, but Daniel Johnston says "news is a very important part of what we do." Two years ago, he set up Indus Delta for a new industry for which he felt there was "a lack of history - nobody knew what was going on." This meant that the industry remained a "top-down thing, the official line coming down from government tended to be taken as gospel. Frontline staff didn't have say in what was going on."

Indus Delta gradually acquired 3000 subscribers to its (free) weekly email newsletter and 8000 monthly online readers, taking in advertising from recruiters and then suppliers. The likes of Haymarket publishers seem not to have noticed Indus Delta or the industry it serves, which means that now Daniel has "a monopoly on welfare to work, which is nice."

Making blogs pay

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Making blogs pay

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Paul Staines told how he made a living writing as Guido Fawkes, running a notoriously Tory-sympathetic blog that has more readers than the Spectator and the New Statesman. Paul is also co-founder of Message Space, a home for political bloggers of many different persuasions.

The key to making money for advertising on a blog is "the big audience, with content that people have to have." When Paul started in 2004, his 600 hits a month were "mostly me." In 2005, he "got lucky" with a few stories - his sources possibly encouraged by the fact that all his contact details were prominently displayed on his blog, making it easier for them than "getting hold of Ian Hislop."

Political blogging doesn't bring in enough to make a living on its own, cautions Paul. "We find people who are doing political blogs, approach them, agree to split advertising revenue." Most of Paul's bloggers (on Message Space) have other jobs. They're half way between professional and amateur: their blogging work is enough to buy them a new laptop or a holiday. There's a mostly commission-only advertising team, attracting mostly political campaigns and NGOs to advertise. If you can get readers to sign up to your email alerts, "advertisers value what they call 'qualified leads' - email addresses, (whether) male, female, how much they earn. It's important data."

Most of Paul's income derived from Guido Fawkes is on the back of the publicity generated by the blog, including T-shirt sales. He sells exclusive front page stories to the tabloids for up to £20,000. "My name's not on the byline, but it's on the cheque." Then there's media punditry. Industry-specific niche blogs have resulted in Paul and others getting £1000-a-day consultancies.

NUJ London Freelance Branch member Conrad Quilty-Harper caused a stir when he joined the Union, as he was its first member to describe his occupation as "blogger." He has worked for techie blogs such as Engadget, starting at US $6 a post, up to $15 a post by the time he left. "You need a niche, you need to preserve exclusivity," says Conrad. When he joined Engadget there was a gap in serious coverage of gadgets. Conrad said the secret of the blog's success was in building a strong community. Everyone who wrote for Engadget - including Conrad - got into blogging from being a reader of the site. The hard work getting up at 6am and going to bed at 2am five days in a row to cover the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas didn't feel like exploitation, "it was fun."

Engadget's strategy was quantity first, then quality, with free content and very descriptive headlines to ensure search-engine-friendly posts. The sheer volume of posts on Engadget ensures enough traffic for it to make "real money" from Google Ads. And Engadget's strong community meant it could get manufacturers to sponsor events at which advertisers could meet readers face-to-face.

Going local

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Making Local Media Pay

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The big corporate media groups are neglecting or even abandoning local news. But could we as journalists start local news media enterprises of our own? Eric Gordon, in his own words an "old leftie," together with colleagues founded the Camden New Journal (CNJ) free newspaper after a two-year strike at the commercially-owned North London News Group title Camden Journal in 1982, and he is still its managing editor. (See the Journalist's coverage of CNJ's start-up story.) CNJ's turnover is now "a couple of million a year," and Eric attributes this to "no shareholders" and a "fairly egalitarian pay structure" - there's no "managing director with his crippling salary."

Angie Sammons, editor of the Liverpool Confidential website, told how she got into local web journalism "by accident... I thought I'd do it for a few months," she says of her "viral" launch of Liverpool Confidential. The site's reviews and editorial were "incidental" at first, and Angie was the "first proper journalist" on the website.

There are now 120,000 readers, of which a core of 22,000 are prepared to pay for the content for which the site has started charging. Most of the profits are "ploughed back into freelances with stories, which local newspapers have forgotten about," says Angie, who added that local media wouldn't be in the mess it is now if its journalists "weren't kept indoors, with no mentors" to turn to anymore.

New ways of funding journalism

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Funding alternatives

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An increasing proportion of investigative journalism in the United States - most of it, in fact - is now financed by charitable foundations. Now some of these models are arriving in the UK. Ian Reeves of Press Gazette described some American examples of "crowdfunding" which he felt were "worthy of investigation". Some journalists have turned the readers of their blogs into "micropatrons", raising in some cases up to $40,000 to keep their reporting going. A problem with this approach is the pressure journalists feel from their reader-funders - one crowd-funded blogger described it as like having "dozens of parents chastising you for taking a vacation."

Gavin McFadyen, director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) and a co-founder of the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, both based at City University, says some 60 NGOs such as Greenpeace and Amnesty who employ journalists.

In March 2009 the Bureau for Investigative Journalism set up in the UK, with a budget of £2 million raised from non-profit foundations. But the UK lacks the generous US-style tax breaks that stimulate giving in the US. And UK libel law means that the Bureau can't actually publish in this country. It has to pass on its stories to a UK media outlet that's prepared (or insured) to take the risk, or give it to an outlet in France, Sweden or elsewhere. Gavin adds that "This has not been done before, there are no models for this."

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    Next steps: group discussions summary

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    Defending quality journalism

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    Conference feedback

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    This is an interim report summarising the whole conference. Watch this space for links to more detailed coverage of each of the conference's sections above.
Last modified: 08 Feb 2010 - © 2009 contributors
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