From 'Tatler' to tittle-tattle.com

Are you riveted by the fact that Michelle Pfeiffer hates blue M&Ms? Jane Procter at PeopleNews is.
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The Independent Online

Whatever else she has been accused of, and there is plenty, no-one ever said Jane Procter had no instinct for fashion. After nine years at the helm of Tatler, advising on the in place to be and the right thing to do, it seems only fitting she should surface at journalism's latest cutting edge, running a dot.com venture.

Whatever else she has been accused of, and there is plenty, no-one ever said Jane Procter had no instinct for fashion. After nine years at the helm of Tatler, advising on the in place to be and the right thing to do, it seems only fitting she should surface at journalism's latest cutting edge, running a dot.com venture.

Her new base, in an ugly glass and steel office block off Marble Arch, may lack the glamour of her Condé Nast kingdom, but inside, the raw material of her work - celebrity lives - has not changed. PeopleNews.com is the first British internet venture to leap on the celebrity- gossip bandwagon. If you want or need to know that Mel Gibson has had his head shaved, Jerry Seinfeld collects stamps or that Ryan Giggs fears a mystery stalker, this is the place to log on.

The site also includes a daily calendar of events, who's who and hot-spot guides, games and, most importantly, a celebrity party section, which promises definitive pictures and gossip about who went where last night and with whom.

Three weeks in, the site already claims a hit rate of half a million, with 8,000 regular readers, who must multiply to 45,000 by the end of the year if PeopleNews is to reach its targets. And scoff as you might about Z-list celebs, there is a raging appetite for froth and trivia out there, Procter believes, and she has the funding to prove it - £4m from the internet incubator Antfactory and the Italian venture capitalist Goldenegg to develop PeopleNews not just as a website but as a "global brand".

So far, Procter claims to be delighted with the growth rate after what was deliberately a "soft launch" with no advertising. She is especially pleased by data revealing that users spend an average of 11 minutes on the site, compared to four to five minutes for other "content" sites on the Web. Credit for that, bizarrely, goes to Channel 4's Big Brother website, which encouraged people to dally longer online and, Procter believes, changed the way that the mass market uses the internet.

Since she became editorial director of PeopleNews last December, the pace has been hectic. "At the beginning, everyone was in a hurry, working well into the night, and it was only by seeing my NCP bills, which told me if I'd gone over 16 hours in the carpark, that I was aware of it."

For a former technophobe, who barely used her computer at Tatler, the experience of dealing with venture capitalists and technical people was daunting. At times, she hadn't a clue what people were telling her. Now she is able to discuss landgrabbing, viral marketing, cookies and sticky sites with almost the same authority she would devote to Prada and Gucci.

"I knew I'd changed during a meeting recently where I was sitting talking about traffic, multi-platforming and functionality, and the old people I knew from Tatler were literally screaming with laughter."

She may have changed in other ways, too. Her pale, rather sombre demeanour might be the result of having partied late last night, yet there is no doubt that the whole experience of being fired from Tatler in May last year was deeply bruising. As well as having a former colleague write a bestselling satire about life with a glossy magazine editor, Procter was subjected to a press savaging from disaffected staff, focusing on her allegedly ferocious professional style, which eventually forced her to obtain legal redress.

"I was very relieved to leave Condé Nast. What I wasn't glad to experience were the vicious attacks on me. That was extraordinary. All my friends said 'Who the hell is interested in you, the editor of a tiny- circulation magazine?' I really didn't see why anyone should be interested in me."

Disingenuous as this might seem, coming from the purveyor of gossip about even minor media personalities, she has evidently not alienated all her former staff, judging by the heavy ex- Tatler contingent among the 30 journalists, headed by Catherine Ostler, the UK editor. Besides, she claims, life is still a party.

"It's a relief that I don't have to go to the opening of an envelope every night, but there's still a stack of invitations every day and I can choose which one I want to go to. This is no less glamorous. Look, I'm having lunch with Cartier today."

"I'm having so much more fun now. The whole industry is making up the rules as it goes along. Half the time you think 'I don't know how to do this. I've got to find out, hang on there's no-one to find out from, I've got to make it up.' That's what's such fun. You're using a different part of your brain."

It was Procter's 11-year-old son Rollo who first introduced her to the internet by teaching her computer games. "I love games and I was enjoying it, but there was no subject matter that interested me. So I had the idea of building games that used words like San Lorenzo and Gucci. Then we developed that idea into other areas. At the same time, a relative of mine had a stroke, and someone said, if you need to know about it, go on the internet. I did and I was just so amazed at the sheer quantity of what was out there."

Her own lateral thinking coincided with an initiative from Rob Hersov, founder of Sportal.com, who had an idea for a celebrity site, and the two joined forces. In a bid to go global, PeopleNews has linked up with the American company iCast, which holds online rights to events like the Oscars and the Emmys. Eventually it will use live stream video pictures, so users can experience a "virtual party".

Though she subscribes to American gossip sites like Inside.com and Fashionwiredaily.com, Procter wrinkles her nose at the projected launch of a British version of iVillage, the American women's website, and other planned magazine-style sites.

"I don't like any of the women's sites particularly because I think they're rather condescending to women. They take a kind of 1950s view of women - even Handbag and Charlotte Street - it's all about getting stains out of sofas or emotional problems.

"The journalism I have always been involved in isn't really worthy or useful - I mean, knowing that Brooklyn Beckham's baby clothes have been sent on to Johnny Vaughan's child is not going to find a cure for cancer - but it amuses me. The fact that Michelle Pfeiffer hates blue M&Ms doesn't matter but it rivets me."

Whether it rivets enough other people is yet to be seen, but there are teething problems. Though the pictures from this week's TV Times awards looked good, none were of the essential gossip topic - Judy Finnigan's dress falling off. Procter acknowledges the failings. "We're still working out which bits of the site work. The news page doesn't work as it is, and the site takes you down dead alleys. I get really frustrated at times, so we're going to make the navigation more user-friendly."

Being able to change organically is a big change from the magazine world. "I maintain that if you don't get your magazine right in the first issue you might as well pack up and go home. The internet is kind of the opposite. Everyone knows it's a work in progress and when we feel happier, we will go out with a big marketing campaign."

Yet, after 20 years in magazine journalism, the lure of the glossy has not left Jane Procter, given the eagerness with which she leaps for the new edition of Harpers & Queen, soon to be edited by her former deputy, Lucy Yeomans. She strokes the cover with a sensuous admiration.

"I do love print, it's true. But there are similarities with what I was doing before. At PeopleNews, we're still about life in a celebrity world. We tell you fabulous gossip so that when you go out to dinner you can be more amusing. In a funny sort of way, I like to think we're empowering people."

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