Late one night, trying to avoid a deadline, I tapped in the names of well-known journalists on my computer to see if their domain names had been registered. Nigel Slater’s had, ditto Nigella Lawson, John Diamond (his name was apparently registered by one of his readers and given to him, he says, “as a sort of present”), India Knight, A A Gill, Michael Winner (and WinnersDinners), Tara Palmer-Tomkinson (although not by her, and this is for sale for “not less than £7,000”) and Julie Burchill. All these writers, whatever you may think of them, have a big and dedicated following. What if these writers one day upped and left their papers, not for other papers, but to publish under their own domain names? Would the readers follow them? And, most interesting of all, would the newspapers survive without them?
I asked 35 ordinary, relatively normal people: do you buy a newspaper to read any one particular writer? Of the 35 people asked, 29 said they did. Of these, a third said that they would stop buying the paper if the writer in question were to be accessible directly on the web. That still leaves the majority who prefer to read “their” writer in the traditional way, but then the real proof will be when – and if – these main-draw writers ever do break off and publish under their own domain names, without the umbrella of even a virtual journal.
When I begin to describe this splintered, cell-like new world of journalism, people ask: “But how would anyone be paid?” The answer is that they could be paid just as they are now, through advertising revenues, or they could be paid from the proceeds of e-commerce. You could read a recipe by Lawson or Slater and buy the ingredients or kitchen utensils they recommend at the same time. This was what Lawson’s internet site planned to do – although, as she told Observer readers last weekend, she has now abandoned it. Slater’s site, however, will go up “some time this year or early next”.
Newspaper editors aren’t that worried – yet. “Journalists still need newspapers, yes,” says Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian. “I can’t think of a journalist who is so compelling that I would want to read them in complete isolation. A newspaper gives them a context.”
“There will definitely be good commercial possibilities for certain people,” agrees Kim Fletcher, a former editor of the Independent on Sunday and now editorial director of Hollinger Telegraph New Media, the internet branch of the Telegraph. “I can see Nigella using her image as a glamorous wife and mother. But if someone is just Mr Commentator, why would you read his site?”
Thirty years ago, none of these questions could have arisen because the thought of buying a newspaper for one particular writer was fantastical. We had none of the byline culture, none of the screaming moniker-rich mastheads we do now.
Neal Ascherson of the Observer recalls that, when he started in journalism almost 50 years ago, on the Manchester Guardian, “having our name on pieces didn’t even cross our minds; we were flattered to be writing the piece”. Sadly, he has no plans to publish under his own domain name and doesn’t see it working. “Anyone offering advice would do well on the web,” he says, “but not just an opinion. Those sort of journalists need to be seen against a background [of a newspaper].” Yet Ascherson himself would work very well on the web – his back catalogue alone would be worth logging on for, to read his opinions on the comings and goings of the past 50 years.
One journalist who has already put her entire back catalogue on the web – as well as reports on her ballroom-dancing hobby – is Ruth Gledhill, the religious affairs correspondent of the Times. She started it three years ago, “primarily because readers kept asking for my back catalogue and I would spend ages photocopying – this way, I can just direct them to the site”. Also, and this was a surprise to me, too, religious people are highly web-literate.
Gledhill’s Times pieces are shown in the form of direct links into the Times‘s own websites. “At first, the Times didn’t like it,” she says, “so I took down the links, but then I was given permission. Now the reaction at the Times is very positive. One senior manager said he wished all journalists had their own websites.” Gledhill gets 200 hits a day (not bad, considering that the site isn’t advertised), but emphasises that she doesn’t make money from it.
When Gledhill first set up her site, she didn’t tell her colleagues for fear of ridicule (“and, sure enough, when they found out, I was ridiculed”). When Lawson first started to talk about hers, the reaction was “indignant, as if I were doing something absurd or ambitious. But then, journalists always wonder if you’re up to something that they should be.”
That surely is the acid test – journalists themselves, who are supposed to be good at sniffing out a story, suspect something is up. If they get fed up with the lack of recognition, shortage of pay rises, or just the irascibility of their editors, there are internet service providers willing to pay large sums of money for the readers a big name can pull in.
The internet still lacks the gravitas of the printed word. “Print journalists can be snotty about writing for the internet,” said one online editor, “but we can offer them good money and virtual freedom to publish what they want.” If they’re smart, writers could also negotiate royalties based on how many clicks they get – a way of being rewarded for being read that is impossible in the traditional press. Is this the beginning of the end for the Conrad Blacks and Rupert Murdochs?
Ha. When I wrote this everyone thought I was mad. Now I can’t think of a single journalist who doesn’t have their own website. Ahem.