Introducing The Independent online

David Felton, editor of The Independent's website, explains how the newspaper has been reinvented for the Internet
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The Independent Online

Are we entering a new golden age of journalism? The trade magazines are full of jobs as new media firms wake up to the fact that having a nice-looking website and offering free Internet access is only a start. Content, content, content, as Tony Blair might have said, is what counts.

Are we entering a new golden age of journalism? The trade magazines are full of jobs as new media firms wake up to the fact that having a nice-looking website and offering free Internet access is only a start. Content, content, content, as Tony Blair might have said, is what counts.

But what is content, and what kind of journalism? In fact, the words journalism and journalists are rarely used in new media. Practitioners are more likely to be called content providers, producers or content acquisition managers.

Yet this new journalism for the Internet is really not that different from "old journalism". Websites need attractive, compelling, challenging content - the kind of stuff you find in this newspaper every single day. The difference is that you need less of it, and it needs to be packaged into more logical parcels.

Four weeks ago Independent Digital, an arm of Independent News and Media which owns the Independent titles, launched a completely new website that broke with the conventions of online newspapers. Indeed, we went out of our way to ensure that it looked nothing like a newspaper. This is a website with no deadlines, constantly refreshed (although we do sleep between 1am and 7am) and organised into a series of channels, with the latest DHTML (dynamic hypertext mark-up language), making navigation as easy as it gets.

And thankfully, for someone heading rapidly toward 50, the Internet is not the sole preserve of 22-year-olds on the way to their second million. There is a growing awareness that a little experience can be quite useful in building and managing that all-important content. I am very much of the "old school": left school at 15 to join the local paper and worked my way from the Midlands, via a succession of regional newspapers, to what, 25 years ago, was called Fleet Street. In the print, man and boy - and then, five months ago, out of the blue I'm asked if I would like to be online editor. The words old dogs and new tricks come to mind.

So, what to do? How to translate this wonderful content of the Independent titles into a completely new format that would get away from traditional methods of re-purposing newspapers on the Web to create a "third generation" site?

There is no point in taking every item from the newspaper each night and replicating it on the Web. It's been tried and has failed (although some organisations persist with this outdated strategy). If you put every word on the Web, there is no incentive for people to buy the titles. What's more, many of the key features and much of the unique appeal of a broadsheet do not necessarily translate to the Web. Internet users want bites of information; some will stay and read in greater depth, but many will be off to the next site.

So, at The Independent we are trying to create a virtuous circle that will take readers from the newspapers into the website, where they will find material redefined but retaining the essence, character and values of The Independent. We then encourage them to revisit the paper for items such as leaders and obituaries, which are not carried on the Web.

A website can bring added value to newspapers, but we also recognise that because our new site does not replicate the broadsheets and their magazines, it will upset some readers who have in the past been used to seeing virtually every word in The Independent and The Independent on Sunday reproduced on the Internet. Many of these readers live abroad, and have regarded the old online edition as a link back to Britain. We hope to persuade them that our being selective does not mean that they are missing out.

Creating that virtuous circle depends critically on support and co-operation of both sides of the news organisations. The printed edition will increasingly direct readers to the Web for a range of services - from extended coverage of issues for which the newspapers do not have space to links to other organisations relevant to an issue or article - and perhaps even to spend a bit of money. Because we are also in the business of making money. Revenues generated by online transactions are going to increase dramatically. The statistic that by 2003, e-commerce in the US will be worth $1.3 trillion, may not be entirely relevant to Britain, but it is clear that people in the UK are starting to spend online.

Every day, papers make recommendations to their readers: this great holiday experience, this act in concert, this share to watch, this book worth reading. So now, when people come to our site, they will find those recommendations accompanied by the means of buying the goods or services - a book, holiday, flight, bottle of wine, or CDs and videos, and all usually at cheaper prices than in the High Street.

Another key area where the digital and print arms of the organisation can work together is in extending our community of readers. This newspaper is highly regarded for its coverage of international affairs, and we see evidence on the Web of the great interest, particularly from the United States, in high quality, unbiased reporting. Those people are unlikely to see the printed edition, but we intend to make the Independent brand even more relevant to them. Get them involved more, let them talk directly to the people whose work they value so much - and maybe also yell at them!

So to come back to the question posed at start of this piece. Yes, we are in the middle of a journalistic boom - but like all booms, it will not last. There will more jobs in our trade five years from now, but we may all by then have different titles, and we are likely to have different job descriptions as the online operations become ever more important to media organisations.

David Felton, Independent online editor, was previously assistant editor and home news editor