Media: I have seen the future of journalism and it is online

Martin Baker, the associate editor of `Sunday Business', explains why he is turning his back on print to spearhead Britain's first electronic newspaper
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The Independent Culture
WHEN I was five my mother told me that I was going to go to Oxford and be a lawyer. Well, I did that, and subsequently spent the past decade- and-a-bit pleasing myself in the Shangri-La of plastic narcissism which is journalism.

Since the mid-80s I have broadcast City reports for LBC radio, reported on investment and business for The Times and The Independent, founded and edited the Paris-based International Herald Tribune's weekly investment section, and repatriated myself as a founder member of Sunday Business.

The excitement of that paper's launch in February last year, and the gratification of being a senior member of a team that won two awards in its first year - Sunday newspaper of the year and financial journal of the year - have been immensely fulfilling.

But... there is always a but. In this case, it is the emergence of a new medium. Newspapers, radio and television have provided - and still do - a fantastic service. The media industry in this country serves its consumers well, and provides plenty of thrills for the journalists who people it.

However, as a student of industry and finance, I have seen for some time that we live in a world that is much changed, and where the pace of change is constantly quickening. We are a more service-orientated country than ever before, and the coming service is information provision - specifically via the Internet.

Many commentators, quite rightly, find valuations surrounding the Internet boom quite dotty. Which poses the question why I have taken the career risk of becoming the editor of Britain's first online electronic newspaper, the UK version of America's leading online financial information provider, TheStreet.com.

It is relevant to say here that I have a young family whose prospects and happiness I have to consider. So my deliberations have been sober.

The answer is that valuation and market perception of the e-world must not be confused with what is actually occurring in the industry. Once the fear of over-inflated values has been overcome, the strength of the new medium itself is profoundly persuasive.

The apparently idiotic valuations of some Internet companies are the result of two factors. The first is a financial classic, otherwise known as greed and ignorance. Lots of these stocks have been bought by investors who do not understand what kind of business the company does, but do like to join in for a jog when the rest of the lemmings are going out for a run.

The second factor is that the major investment houses themselves have not yet worked out a sensible valuation model for most of these companies . The brokers know how to sell them, but not how to explain them. Scandalous.

Behind the financial froth, one thing seems clear: the medium is here, and will not go away. For a journalist, the immediacy of electronic publication is irresistible. When we break a story, it will be a must-read for anyone interested in money - the hard facts, and the investment analysis. Tomorrow's Lex or Tempus columns published today. When a newspaper breaks a story, we can attack it and update it two or three times before the next piece of paper lands on the newsagent's doorstep.

The cost structure of this kind of journalism is revolutionary. The vast expenditures on paper and printing disappear, along with the gigantic printing plants dotted across the country. Rupert Murdoch's TNT delivery juggernauts - with all their attendant servicing and petrol costs - become superfluous. They are replaced by a few servers which hook up the reader to the product.

When I went to New York to look at the US parent operation of the newspaper which we will be launching, I was impressed with what I saw. The journalists had adapted to the new medium with aplomb - stories were rolling out as neatly as a row of freshly sharpened pencils. The commercial department seemed to know what to do with the database, and the large number of subscribers (nearly 90,000) who find the site of sufficiently high quality to pay for it.

At present, there is no real equivalent in the UK. But this will soon become one of the most interesting and competitive areas in the UK media.

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