Ian Burrell: The website putting the credibility back into Fleet Street

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Despite all that has happened recently, Exaro News takes pride in its Fleet Street address. Even if the editor-in-chief of this groundbreaking initiative in online journalism is the author of a prescient book The Fleet Street Sewer Rat, which highlighted the dark arts as long ago as 2005.

Mark Watts says he is not worried that he did not achieve the fame of Nick Davies of The Guardian after focusing his attention on "bin raiding rather than hacking", even though he was aware of the latter practice. His book was primarily an exposé of the methods of the eccentric Benjamin "Benji the Binman" Pell.

Watts and his colleagues at Exaro News believe that journalism can thrive without relying on such characters. "Holding power to account" is its slogan, and at the top of the website it spells out its credo: "Investigations –not spin, not churnalism, not hacking – about what should be transparent but isn't. Evidence based, open-access journalism."

Grand promises, but Exaro does appear to be serious. The star name in its editorial team of 30 full and part-time staff is David Hencke, the veteran investigative reporter who won a string of awards while at The Guardian.

Exaro is recruiting new staff and Watts says it can benefit from redundancy programmes at more traditional news organisations like News International and Guardian Media Group. "As some parts of the industry are retracting we are hoping to identify key people," he says, adding that young journalists who previously would have been hired by newspapers are also being recruited. It is a key moment for Exaro as it moves to a subscription-based model which it hopes will sustain its future. Watts believes subscribers will be "ABs" with an unsatisfied appetite for investigative journalism. Perhaps more significant could be the corporate subscribers who have underpinned the paid-for digital journalism of the Financial Times. Exaro will supply such clients with "all sorts of data resources that will enable the subscriber to interrogate that data which we think will be of particular interest to a business and city audience," says Watts.

After opening third-floor offices on the corner of Fetter Lane last year, Exaro has spent its first months giving a taste of the journalism it hopes to provide on a larger scale. Highlights include the revelation of a deal between the Foreign Office and Libya's National Transitional Council (picked up by The Sunday Times) and a failing scheme to train Members of Parliament (followed up by the Daily Mail). Hencke has challenged the Treasury's calculation of the national debt and interviewed the new chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Lord Hunt.

Watts claims that the traditional media is presently transfixed by celebrity content and re-writing news wire copy.

He says that Exaro will be "making use of publicly available data of which there are ever increasing amounts and which the media industry seems less and less able to explore. Data is pumped out by all these government departments. There is so much going on out there and stories are being missed."

It is very high-minded stuff. Exaro will need this to establish its news credibility, partly because its founder Tim Pendry is a public relations man. Watts has a strong record as an investigative journalist but also worked as a presenter for Iran-backed and Ofcom-banned Press TV ("I ensured my programme had complete editorial integrity").

Associate editor Keith Perry is a Fleet Street veteran who recently worked on the News of the World newsdesk. "It's wrong to assume that everyone at the News of the World was up to no good because that's rubbish," says Watts.

He says that Exaro's lack of a political agenda is crucial. "It's not ideological – it's very much straight reporting of the data and the documents we uncover. It's about holding government – in the broadest sense, with a lower case 'g' – to account."

The commissioning editor Tim Wood once ran a courts-based news agency that was based in London's Old Bailey.

This is another area of news that is now scantily covered by the British media, says Watts, who thinks that there remains an appetite for such news content, especially among lawyers. Making Exaro financially secure is largely the responsibility of chief executive David Baxter, a finance officer with great experience in television, most notably at BSkyB.

Watts is convinced that the market for Exaro is there at the moment. "The media industry has lost its way when it thinks all the public wants is celebrity news," he says.

"As traditional media has ignored subjects that should be given more attention or is unwilling to put resources into long form investigative journalism the demand for that sort of thing has not gone away."

@iburrell

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