Ian Burrell: Lord Gnome may scoff at new media but the 'Eye player' is a hit

Media on Monday
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Given that Private Eye routinely lampoons new media in its pages, with columns such as "From the Message Boards" mocking how "members of the online community respond to the major issues of the day", it might come as a surprise to some of Lord Gnome's readers to discover that he has acquired more than 40,000 followers on Twitter and is adding to them at the rate of 1,000 a week.

Indeed, from its creaky old townhouse in London's Carlisle Street, the venerable organ is engaging with digital media on many levels. So you can now go to the magazine's website and log into the "Eye Player", where you will find video clips and audio versions of stories from the current edition.

Suddenly Sir Herbert Gusset the inveterate writer of letters to the Daily Telegraph can be heard in all his pompous glory, opining on historical inaccuracies "littering" The King's Speech. On Commentatorballs, we have what sounds like John McCririck speaking of the "terrible, terrible shock" of race horses electrocuted at Newbury. There's also "a note to would-be university applicants", apparently being read by Nick Clegg, advising both high and low achievers at A-level to "forget about university altogether and take advantage of the many present openings in the employment market".

Private Eye once scoffed at new media evangelists who implored it to embrace the future and make its content available online. Today it is enjoying a 47 per cent annual increase in traffic to its website.

But Tristan Davies, the magazine's genial chief sub-editor and mastermind of its journey into cyberspace, says the Eye's business strategy has hardly changed. "We work on the basis that if you stick it all online for free nobody is going to buy the magazine and if they don't, there won't be any journalism or any jokes," he says. "All those people like [Guardian editor] Alan Rusbridger and [Spectator publisher] Andrew Neil who used to say Private Eye should put all its content up online were completely wrong and we were right to have a very limited approach."

But the Eye has seen the marketing benefits of digital media. So for the past two issues the impressionist Lewis Macleod has been submitting audio versions of stories as a sampler of the rest of the content. "I thought I'd record some of the columns and see how they sound in a sketch format," he says. "It's so well written, isn't it? You look at the words and it's the best script you will ever read."

Macleod, who does the recordings at home, has also contributed a call for Tony Blair to resign by Tony Ben Ghazi, a correspondent for the Tripoligraph. "It would be nice to put some Middle Eastern style music behind it and make it sound like a bad satellite signal, we need to get into a studio to do that."

Podcasts are on their way later in the year in the form of recorded interviews with key Private Eye contributors, conducted by Adam McQueen, who is compiling a history of the magazine to coincide with its 50th anniversary in September. McQueen is contributing the Eye website's first blog, which he is using to generate reader responses which will help to inform the book so it reflects why people buy the magazine as well as the motivation of those who produce it. "One of the first things people still ask is 'Do those small ads asking for money actually work?'" he says.

This history will reveal that the Eye is, in fact, anything but a reluctant embracer of technology. He has even acquired some ancient flexi discs – cover mount recordings made by the likes of magazine co-founder Peter Cook and designed to be played by a stylus. "They still work, if you can find a record player," says McQueen. He says the Private Eye website, set up in 1995, was among the first in British publishing.

The difference was that it was never seen as an alternative to the magazine. The "new departure" of a more aggressive online strategy is, says Davies, a marketing ploy. "There's a serious marketing point, which is that you have to encourage new people to get the Private Eye habit and perhaps there are people out there in the Twittersphere who might care about the stories we are running and say that sounds interesting, we might give it a whirl."

Clever use of Macleod's voiceovers and video footage from the Eye's annual event at the National Theatre in London have greatly increased web traffic, without undermining sales. The last Christmas issue sold 235,000, a circulation record. It seems a smart strategy. "It took 15 years for Rupert Murdoch to come round to the same conclusion," says McQueen.

But Twitter has brought complications. When Wikileaks founder Julian Assange had a recent telephone spat with Eye editor Ian Hislop, Davies decided to tweet the online world. "I put out a tweet and linked to the website and the whole site crashed. The conspiracy theorists were saying 'You write about Julian Assange and look what happens'," he says. "But I think it was probably because we hadn't put enough money in the meter."