THE rain lashing down from grey skies outside the window seemed fitting.
Fifth floor, National Union of Journalists HQ in London. Saturday January 16 2010. 10:08am.
Time to start the New Ways To Make Journalism Pay conference.
Are there any?
(Note to my more regular readers – I’ve posted this here for media watchers who might be interested, so feel free to move along if it’s not your kind of thing)
Is there a way forward after the perfect storm of the recession and a move to web content no-one wants to pay for?
Or mostly no-one, aside from niche business customers.
Unless Rupert Murdoch proves us all wrong.
Thousands of journalists have lost their jobs and others live in fear of further redundancies.
Those, like me, who have left newspaper jobs and joined the massed ranks of freelances are at the beginning of a new and, hopefully, exciting journey.
Only trouble is, the Sat Nav is broken, all the hard copy maps are out of date and no-one has any petrol money.
There will be other more incisive reports on yesterday’s event.
But I thought those who weren’t able to attend might be interested in my own selected personal highlights, 24 hours on.
This is by no means a comprehensive report. I attended the conference as a member of the audience, not as a reporter.
But found myself in the front row clutching a notebook plus other media equipment…and old habits die hard.
So I hope my selective notes give a flavour of at least some of the day.
Apologies for the length – but I know a few will want to read it all.
Others far more professional looking than me recorded the event via both video and audio.
If you have thoughts, concerns or rage about what anyone had to say, please scroll down to the bottom and leave a comment.
But bear in mind that they all gave their time for free.
Conference chair Alex Klaushofer outlined some of the aims of the conference.
Including – what can we still do to fund journalism, earn a living and produce a quality product?
NUJ Freelance Organiser John Toner made clear that this was “a conference that’s been built from the ground up” by the London Freelance Branch – not by union officials.
And so on to the first session:
- 1. How Can Journalism Be Saved?
Writer and media commentator Granville Williams pointed out that people were beginning to invest in US newspaper stocks.
Suggesting the newspaper business is rebounding, he said.
Granville went on to maintain that the media industry here is, in fact, in quite a healthy position – having cut overheads / costs.
The internet and recession had only accelerated what was happening anyway in terms of the steady decline in regional newspaper businesses.
But cuts had led to smaller and less interesting products. “We know newspapers have been hollowed out.”
Potential online solutions? A paywall? Revenue from web advertising? Don’t hold your breath.
“The best the Huffington Post does is break even,” he explained.
With many US sites having to appeal for donations.
He then turned to the issue of sources of public subsidy in the UK – we have to look for a new model…not old companies re-arranging the deckchairs.
“The old models have failed – I think there is a crucial role for government.”
Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford agreed that in 2010 – or what we’ve had of it so far – people are now investing in big media companies.
“We’re over the worst of the crisis.”
Dominic outlined the trials of Press Gazette in recent years and how it had survived through changing ownerships and format.
Despite the financial difficulties, people viewed it as a “great brand – there is commercial value in that”.
The Press Gazette website had to be fast – and free, otherwise competitors will run the same news content and take business away.
Subscribers now pay £90 a year for the monthly quality print product.
“Blog-style start ups are going to be the future of journalism,” he added.
How do you make Press Gazette pay?
1) Reach a mass audience online
2) Reach an elite audience in print
3) Attract people to linked events.
Mention was also made of the local community website I have contributed to since its launch a decade ago – www.chiswickw4.com
Sadly, this first session overran and there was no time for questions.
- 2. Making The Web Pay
David Parkin, editor of TheBusinessDesk.com used to be Business Editor of the Yorkshire Post. He launched his Yorkshire site in November 2007 and followed that up with a North West launch in September 2008.
David explained how he has been “very much a newspaper journalist” for 14 years. But he added: “I got this terrible foreboding feeling about four years ago that I was working in a dying industry.”
Business news happens on an hourly basis, he continued. The important thing was how you deliver that news. And how you develop a community to interest advertisers.
He thought: “What’s the worst that could happen by leaving the Yorkshire Post?”
It took two years to raise the money for his venture – £300,000. His Leeds-based business website covered Yorkshire. “It had to be credible, we had to build a brand – they can be incredibly valuable.”
The new business lost money at the start. David and his backers felt it would take 18 months to break even.
“For me, it was very much about contacts.” Contacts he had built up during his time at the Yorkshire Post.
With a daily email alert at 8:30am, the catchphrase was: “Tomorrow’s news today.”
Added David: “It was very much an opt-in proposition.” IE You register first but the site was then free to use.
A paywall wasn’t a consideration because they didn’t have the cost problems of newspapers.
The business couldn’t charge a fortune for advertising at the start but could raise rates later, with sponsorship of various sections, plus all sorts of other things like seminars to bring in revenue.
Chris Barry, then Business Editor of the Manchester Evening News, came on board for the North West launch.
“He, like me, was feeling fairly insecure about the future of regional news.”
Events have subsequently borne that out with redundancies at both the Yorkshire Post and MEN, said David.
“The recession was probably one of the best times to launch a business.”
A niche business with 28,000 registered users across both websites.
“What it’s really about is quality rather than quantity.”
Very much a high income niche audience – attracting quality advertisers like Jaguar, banks, law firms and airlines.
The cost of a banner ad on the daily email for two weeks is £2,500.
Each reader spends an average of three minutes a day on the website – and David said both he and his advertisers were happy with that.
And if a niche audience trust you, then you can sell them other things.
“I do think people will pay for premium services.”
He’s looking to further branch out into lifestyle, travel – plus property when the market picks up again.
Now employing five journalists and aiming to expand the model “in other parts of the country”.
While also reporting the bad news on their sites, he concluded: “I’m not ashamed to say that we’re a cheerleader for business.”
In later questions, David was asked if he might come to a point where he would sell up, given the right offer?
He said “his finance people” had told him it was “not a lifestyle business for you – if we get the right offer, we have to consider it”.
Did he know the idea was going to work?
“No. you never know that. It is a leap into a massive black hole. But you have to believe in yourself.”
Contrary to what others had warned him about, David said he actually slept better after the launch – as you are in control (not anyone else) and can fix any problems.
Daniel Johnston is the founder of indusdelta.co.uk a niche news, analysis and community website set up in 2007 for the welfare to work industry. It sustains itself through advertising sales.
Daniel described the welfare to work sector – helping the long term unemployed back into jobs – as a “microniche”.
He made no profit in the first 18 months or so but building up relationships and a reputation gained value. Now makes a small profit with advertising revenue and has taken on another staff member.
“The site is sustainable.”
But Daniel made the point that a one-man band is not necessarily good at everything.
It is simple to set up a blog but anything more than that is a different matter, he added.
You do need to own your own website – “which is a bit of a bigger deal”.
Having said that – it works and it makes money.
He sends a weekly email to 3000 people and 8000 different people read his site in each month.
Does he worry about a rival trying something similar?
“You can’t compete with free.” (If you are already established) “So essentially I have a monopoly on welfare to work.”
In later questions Daniel admitted: “I had a Business Plan but I never fully finished writing it.
“It’s a billion pound a year industry so there is money in there somewhere.”
- 3. Making Blogs Pay – Future Of The Blogosphere
Blogs are great – but most of us write ‘em for free.
Conrad Quilty-Harper is a contributor to themediablog.co.uk who previously worked on engadget.com among other sites and is now studying for an Investigative Journalism MA at City University in London.
Conrad – @Coneee – was tweeting throughout the event, when he wasn’t speaking, using #nujpay.
On reflection, I – @ianwylie – should have joined him on Twitter but wanted to fully concentrate both on the speakers and these notes.
He outlined his career history to date, and that of the sites he worked on in America.
Engadget.com – “the best” blog covering consumer technology and gadgets – was founded by Peter Rojas and later sold to AOL.
Conrad worked on the site from 2005 and wrote some 1,750 posts comprising around 250,000 words.
At the start he worked for four dollars a post – “it’s an act of faith” – and the ethos was to do it better and faster than anyone else.
As the company became more successful, so did the rate of payment per post.
2) Niche content
3) Quantity and quality (in that order)
4) SEO – search engine optimisation
5) Grow with your revenue
But the site really shone in terms of liveblogging.
The trick is…low cost.
Guido Fawkes (Paul Staines) – @guidofawkes – runs one of Britain’s most visited and influential political blogs order-order.com and is commercially successful as a founder of MessageSpace.co.uk – the advertising network that represents some 40 political websites.
Paul explained how the Guido Fawkes site began with 600 hits a month after its launch in September 2004. “Half of those were me pressing refresh.”
By September 2005 the figure had grown to 27,000 and the site now attracts an average of 2m hits a month.
More people read the site than read the New Statesman, he said.
On MessageSpace, the single highest paid blogger had sales on average of £3,872 per month.
The top 10 per cent of bloggers had monthly sales averaging £2,861 in the fourth quarter of 2008 – can add on perhaps 30 per cent to those numbers now.
Most of those bloggers have other jobs. Only one or two make a living out of it.
And 50 per cent had average monthly sales of just £54.
Paul said newspapers still failed to realise “just how close you are to being extinct”.
Sites like Popbitch / HolyMoly / Mumsnet / Housepricecrash were all more profitable than newspapers, he maintained.
Paul also outlined his alternative revenue stream, including selling stories to newspapers, T-shirts and appearances.
If he can get £20,000 from a newspaper for a political scandal story, he’s not going to give it away for free on the web.
“The thought that a rival newspaper is going to get it drives them mad and they pay up for that reason.”
Fellow political blogger Iain Dale makes six figures out of his media work, said Paul.
How does Paul do it? Just like the best newspaper journalists in the Parliamentary Lobby, the harder you work, the more successful you become.
He’s up at 6.30am and still working as Newsnight goes out.
“No Cabinet minister has ever called me up to tell me anything.”
His information comes from lower down the chain – including interns.
They found it easy to get hold of him via the contact details on the site.
By way of contrast, Paul asked how would the same people get hold of Private Eye’s Ian Hislop?
Paul – no fan of the NUJ – claimed he had actually achieved “the Marxist ideal” – “I don’t just sell the products of my labour, I own the means of production and distribution.
“Being a blogger is like being a journalist, except better paid and with more job security.”
He added: “I try to be first, if not first, fast, and if I’m wrong, not for long.”
Unlike newspaper columnists with a day to write a few hundred words, he didn’t have time to “write perfect prose”.
- 4. Making Local Media Pay
Eric Gordon is founding editor of Camden New Journal, one of the first independent local London papers, which has survived since 1982.
Eric explained how the newspaper has a £2m a year turnover with a staff of 30. “Even now, despite the slump, we’re getting by.”
He outlined the history of the business and how it was set up.
One lesson: “It’s so important to look at the market – and whether you’re going to get advertisers.”
The business survives today on a small net profit which a larger owner / company would not tolerate – no doubt, closing it down, he said.
Angie Sammons is editor of liverpoolconfidential.com having worked at the Sunday Express Magazine, Liverpool Daily Post and North West Enquirer.
Angie explained how she came into web journalism some three years ago after being made redundant at the North West Enquirer.
She came across manchesterconfidential.com got in touch with its boss Mark Garner and ended up setting up a sister Liverpool site – a magazine that’s only available online.
There was no advertising or emailing, publicity was all viral.
The site now sends out an email twice a week and is “very much offers led”.
In terms of advertising, they sell people packages, including creating micro sites for them within the main site.
“It’s all those things about getting into people’s heads and finding out what they want.”
Angie said “the surprise” came last November when Mark said he was going to start making Manchester readers pay.
“From today, (Saturday) Manchester Confidential has a paywall on it.”
At least it will have by Monday when the paywall site will be live.
Angie said unique IP addresses were 122,000 in Manchester with the email going out to 70,000 subscribers – 268,000 readers a month.
In Liverpool there were 22,247 uniques last month and 48,000 readers.
(I later asked Angie how many had signed up to date for the Manchester pay site and she said it was 1,000 “Friends” and 300 “Heroes”)
(Update: Angie has subsequently checked what she describes as her “ball-park figure” above. She says this now turns out to be “around eight days old” as of Saturday’s date – with the Manchester site “very pleased” by the continuing uptake.)
Income from the paywall will be ploughed back into the business.
She also spoke about the demise of regional and provincial newspapers.
“I think local newspapers have really destroyed it for themselves.”
Adding that local media wouldn’t be in the mess it was now if it hadn’t got rid of experienced staff – over 40s, leaving cheaper, younger, inexperienced people with no mentors.
- 5. Funding Alternatives
Ian Reeves is a former editor of Press Gazette and Director of Learning at the University of Kent Department of Journalism.
Ian spoke about community funded journalism.
“Is it plausible to ask a diverse community to donate to something that they might consider to be a common cause?”
He used illustrations, including the GothamGazette in New York, which runs appeals – for example, to fund a journalist to cover a specific area.
MinnPost.com – free to all content but with a membership approach.
Recently The Miami Herald had introduced a “donate” button on its site.
Some readers see that as begging – and what message does it give about your brand as an existing media organisation?
Can individual journalists use a similar model online to pay their way?
Ian used the example of AP reporter Chris Allbritton.
Chris asked readers of his blog for money to enable him to stay in Iraq and continue reporting.
But some of those who had tried this approach later said they felt too much pressure from readers who believed they “owned” them – getting abuse for daring to go on holiday, for example.
Even so, Ian said it was an area worthy of further investigation.
Gavin McFadyean is director for the Centre for Investigative Journalism and one of the founders of the newly formed Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Both foundation funded and based at City University in London. He was a long serving producer/director on ITV’s World In Action and has produced investigative current affairs television for the main channels in both the UK and US.
The foundation supported models Gavin ran through were, again, largely American, including ProPublica in New York.
There are US tax breaks on giving money to fund journalism – and there is a lot of cash out there.
But there are foundations in the UK as well.
The conference then split into three separate workshops, which later briefly reported key points back to the entire room:
a) Starting Local: What is local? Where do you draw a boundary? / Covering councils and courts require extra staff / Big media groups will try and stamp on you.
b) Making The Web Pay: How do you make a site pay? / The NUJ should add a commercial element to their training programme and also offer courses in entrepreneurship / One man bands not good at everything. Can we set up a network as well as the freelance directory where people can find each other – journalist and advertising professional, for example, in the same way as reporters might look for photographers?
c) Finance: This group had concentrated on the idea of mobilising communities, moving into spaces that mainstream media is leaving behind / Involvement of co-operatives, including co-ops of journalists / Perhaps a good opportunity to bring people together for a day in a workshop, conference, including organisations with direct experience of co-op groups working together.
NUJ President Pete Murray closed with a short speech on defending quality journalism.
He said of the conference: “This is right up at the front of NUJ policy.”
Adding that it was “very easy to be daunted by the state of the industry”.
Check out this short audio clip of Pete:
New Ways To Make Journalism Pay?
There are no magic solutions.
But stepping out into the street around 4:30pm, at least that rain had stopped.