Just as the Dixon's Group forced hordes of other companies to abandon their charges for Internet access when it launched Freeserve, a "free" Internet service, the arrival next year of TheStreet.com - a Murdoch-funded provider of financial news and analysis - could mean that business pages, and especially papers such as the Financial Times - will be under severe pressure in a year's time. It was, after all, only a year ago that Freeserve launched; now, it's hard to find an Internet service provider you have to pay for.
The first signs of the gathering storm over financial journalism emerged at the weekend, with a story that the FT's Robert Peston, its political editor, and William Lewis, its Wall Street correspondent, had considered leaving the paper with other writers to set up their own Internet business paper. The FT, owned by the Pearson group, was forced to deny that the pair were going, reporting yesterday that "although the journalists had tentatively examined that possibility, the idea was abandoned some weeks ago".
Some might call it a narrow escape: Peston and Lewis carry considerable weight on the pink pages. But the fact that they considered leaving points to continuing problems with ft.com, the online newspaper produced by a team of less experienced journalists - some just starting out - quite separately from the paper-based version. The Web-based ft.com does not have anything like the gravitas of its physical antecedent, and senior FT staff are not happy about integrating the two any more tightly.
But the FT and other papers face a wider problem: that the advent of TheStreet.com and other online financial information "news" outlets specifically tailored to British audiences could pull people away from slow, paper- based data sources and on to the Net. Freeserve, for example, has a stake in Globalnet Financial, providing financial news via a site called UK- Invest.com, which is headed by Clive Wolman - himself a former FT journalist.
The reason that everyone wants to be online is that it is an excellent means of making money through links to share-trading sites. Imagine an online financial paper which offers a share tip, with a hyperlink where one click lets you buy that share - ahead of the slow-moving mass who buy a paper. That will be very attractive to the growing number of people looking to deal in shares online.
The number of such online traders is forecast to triple in the next 12 months - especially as ISAs make the idea of share buying even more popular and people realise that low interest rates are never going to make their money grow as fast as the FTSE100 index does. In the US, TheStreet.com boasts 60 journalists and, equally importantly, links to online trading systems.
David Bowen, a former Independent journalist who left to set up his own NetProfit "web-zine" at www.netprofit.co.uk (offering e-commerce and Internet case studies for a pounds 200 subscription), thinks that online sites such as ft.com will be forced to abandon their present methods of gathering revenue (from charging surfers for stories from their archives) in favour of becoming, in the lingo, a "portal" to other e-commerce sites, and taking a cut of the revenues. Thus, a webzine might have an arrangement with a broker to take a cut of any money spent by surfers who have come from the webzine's site to trade shares.
Bowen, however, sees problems there too. "The whole portal model is about getting people to accept that your site will be the first thing they see when they go on the Net. But it's too easy, once people get used to it, for them to change their home page. You get `portal inflation', in which everybody says their site is the best."
Amid such a clamour, how would former FT journalists retain their pre- eminence? And how can the punter be sure that a site offering information is not being undermined by pressures, including fakers such as the person who, in May, ramped up the price of Pairgain, a US stock, by setting up a fake website which resembled that of Bloomberg, the US financial information provider?
Furthermore, in the UK, a "news" site with links to a broker might fall under the ambit of the Financial Services Act, which would cramp its style. The Financial Services Authority is still deciding whether such sites are exempt; presumably it will wait and see. It may not be a long time coming.Reuse content