Media: Hold the web page!

From interactive interviews to dating services, online journalism is catching up with technology. But will newspapers get there in time to stop themselves becoming extinct? By Naomi Marks
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The Independent Online
Not so long ago, one respected Sunday Times journalist was insisting that the Internet was just like CB radio. "It'll never take off," he assured colleagues and whoever else would listen. This same journalist now has his e-mail address printed at the bottom of every story he produces.

This is a tale that self-styled Internet guru Greg Hadfield, a former Fleet Street investigative reporter, likes to relate - an illustration of the way in which the traditional print media has been forced to march to the tune of technology.

Former Today editor Martin Dunn also has a story to illustrate how things have moved on. When, two and a half years ago, he gave up editing The New York Daily News to head up the new media wing of Daily Mail publishers Associated Newspapers, his newspaper friends "thought I was completely and totally mad".

No longer are publishers' new media divisions deemed suitable only for techies, skateboarders and work-experience kids. Albeit late in the day, they are now attracting some of the brightest of journalism's new recruits and a host of experienced talent that has crossed over the electronic divide.

Later this week the UK's first awards ceremony to honour the best in online journalism will take place. The event, at the NetMedia conference at City University, is being touted as the "coming of age" of online journalism in the UK, and Kirsty Lang of Channel 4 News will be on hand to present the awards. But though the gongs will celebrate online work by individuals, broadcasters and Net-specific enterprises, it's pretty surprising that newspapers' online efforts have cropped up at all among the shortlisted candidates.

When the Internet first started being discussed in the boardrooms of UK newspaper publishers, the response was trepidation. From an initial reluctance to get involved, to a panicky attitude that "We must have a presence, any presence," UK newspaper publishers have nearly all woken up to the fact that an online presence - and a good one - is necessary if they are to survive.

Most newspapers in the UK have their own Internet sites, from the smallest provincial weeklies to the largest national dailies. Their online approaches differ, few are making money from it, but millions are being poured in. All are determined to capture the loyalties of the thousands of new people going online every month - not to mention the advertising, commerce and joint-venture revenues that follow. As Ellis Watson, general manager of The Sun's CurrantBun Internet Service Provider, admits, his project is all about "making Rupert future-proof".

Richard Withey, new media director at The Independent, says: "We have plans to up our online presence. By the end of the year a new main site with peripheral sites is planned."

Revenues of all newspapers are under threat as people acquire a taste for the 24-hour news, entertainment online, direct links to trading sites and instant interactivity that is the Net. Watson, in fact, claims to be running the only profitable newspaper new media venture. CurrantBun - where, as well as Sun stories, you can make a date at BunLove or view the Page 3 lovely of the day from a variety of angles - has attracted, he says, over 250,000 active users since it went live 10 weeks ago, and has a turn-over of pounds 15m to pounds 20m.

Earlier in the year The Guar-dian revamped its online output and has now quickly established the Guardian Unlimited Internet brand.

Its head of new media, Justin Walters, is a little shy of talking about the possibility of making a profit one day, but he makes the point that, for most people, this is about the long game.

"This is a fabulous opportunity," he says. "First, commercially, but also as a publisher to ensure that in 20 years' time there is something which represents what The Guardian newspaper is. There's certainly a threat to the newspaper business and we're trying to respond to that by being as strong in electronic media as we are in print."

Associated is believed to be spending some pounds 10 million on its sector- by-sector, inch-wide, mile-deep approach to grabbing the online audience, with sites such as This Is London, This is Money and the soon-to-be-launched CharlotteStreet.com, a women's online community.

For journalists on the ground, the Internet is obviously a great attraction. As Hadfield, a man steeped in newspapers and a self-confessed "unlikely Internet guru", says: "If you are a journalist and want your story out as quickly as possible, you're not that bothered whether it's through inky hot metal and print which later becomes chip-paper, or it's via the Internet."

Hadfield was converted to the medium through his young son, who at the age of 12 launched Soccernet - an online football service which proved so successful it spurred Hadfield senior into giving up his post of chief reporter on The Express to get in on the action. The duo went on to sell the venture to Associated New Media and it is now reckoned to be valued at pounds 25 million. The Hadfields are currently working on their second multi- million pound Internet site, Schoolsnet.

"The Internet is the perfect medium for journalists wanting to get their story out to as wide a potential audience as possible, as quickly as possible," he says. "It's a great research tool, a great communication tool and, above all, a great publishing tool." And for Hadfield, at least, a profitable tool.

`NetMedia99' takes place at City University, London, this Thursday and Friday. For more information visit www.soi.city.ac.uk/netmedia

How newspapers have taken the online challenge

Independent Newspapers: Independent, Independent on Sunday

Online: Independent Online

The site: Online versions of both newspapers. Four million page impressions a month. New company, Independent Digital UK, promises much larger Web presence by end of year. Global initiatives due to be announced.

Guardian Media Group: The Guardian, The Observer

Online: Guardian Unlimited

The site: A network of sites radiating from a twice-daily updated news and information service with a complete archive of Guardian stories. More than 300,000 registered users, with 8 million page impressions a month.

Telegraph Group: Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph

Online: Electronic Telegraph

The site: First online UK paper. That day's paper plus Web-specific material. Searchable, and a huge archive; sites include travel and technology. 17 million page impressions a month

News International: The Times, Sunday Times, The Sun, News of the World

Online: CurrantBun.com and Times Internet

The sites: CurrantBun.com, launched 10 weeks ago, has 250,000 active users. It claims a turnover of pounds 15-20m and to be in profit already. Users see the day's page 3 from several angles, make dates at BunLove, and peruse BunMotors. Times Internet provides online version of The Times and Sunday Times, plus niche areas, with 10 million page impressions a month.

Express Newspapers: The Ex-press, Sunday Express, and Star

Online: Express Online, Express Sportlive and MegaStar. Parent company, United News & Media, also 50% shareholders with BT in ISP LineOne

The sites: Express Online has editorial from the daily, while MegaStar is as cheeky as you'd expect. Sportlive is huge. LineOne has 280,000 users and a million page impressions a day.

Associated Newspapers: Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Evening Standard

Online: This is London, This is Money, Soccernet, UKPlus

The sites: A London guide, per-sonal finance and football sites up and running. Charlottestreet.com, an online community for women, due in September. UK Plus is a search directory. Generates 44 million page impressions a month.

Mirror Group Newspapers: The Mirror, Sunday Mirror, The People

Online: Online ventures include SportingLife.com, an online Mirror and the recently launched ic24

The site: SportingLife.com, a joint venture with PA, has live sports and more than 16 million page impressions a month. ic24 has the paper's online version, plus life-style areas and 8.5 million page impressions a month.

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