James Brown: The Agent Saboteur
Magazine industry veteran James Brown's Sabotage Times is a hit online. But that doesn't mean he's going to follow The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast in selling out, he tells Ian Burrell
Monday 18 April 2011
It's not going to win the Mind charity's Mental Health Media Awards this year, but The Local Nutter, Keith Wildman's heartfelt account of the Great British eccentrics who gain mythical status in provincial high streets, strikes a chord.
From the Bradford Monk to the Norwich Puppet Man and Nottingham's late Frank "The Xylophone Man" Robinson – whose passing was marked with a memorial plaque – Wildman traces the "characters" who he suggests are peculiar to these islands. "The UK is rife with nutters," he writes, supporting his thesis with video evidence. You wouldn't find such an article in a mainstream publication, but you would find it on Sabotage Times, one of Britain's fastest-growing websites. Set up by James Brown, who originated the lads' mag sector when he co-founded Loaded in 1994, it has become a lunchtime destination of choice for those looking for quirky and opinionated web content.
Within a year of launch it has attracted 1m visitors and pulls in 210,000 unique users a month. Suddenly blog sites, which collate the views and reportage of diverse writers into a convenient magazine-style format, are big business. Arianna Huffington sold her six-year-old Huffington Post site to AOL for $315m in February. In November, Tina Brown merged her Daily Beast site with the American media institution Newsweek.
Sabotage Times does not have the gravitas of those news-based American ventures. It is irreverent and, above all, designed to make you laugh. It can be cruel; tearing in to the record-industry backslapping of the Brit Awards or sneering at the fashion victims who inhabit east London's Dalston. But the tone of voice is unmistakably British, rather than the arch and bitchy "snark" that permeates similar American sites.
For example, in a piece on fitness headlined "The Surliness of the Short Distance Runner", Russ Litten writes of his new interest in running: "It's probably more accurately described as staggering forwards like a dray horse that's just been hit by a tranquiliser dart alternated with short bursts of good old fashioned walking."
In such content there are parallels with previous Brown ventures (he also founded the men's magazine Jack) but, in other respects, Sabotage Times is different from anything else he has done before. For a start there are many female voices among his pool of 300 contributors. "If I picked my 10 favourite writers on the site, half of them would be women," he says.
More fundamentally, Brown believes the widespread use of digital media in the past decade has created an unprecedented pool of writing talent.
"On a daily basis we get between five and 10 submissions and half are publishable," he says. "That's a sharp increase on the rest of my time in journalism. A much better return.
"It's because people have their own blogs and they are writing emails – we now communicate so much through the typed word."
Following an established blogging tradition, Brown likes to give platforms to writers who have a genuine inside track on a subject.
One contributor is a serving prisoner who smuggles out his copy during visits. Another is a British diplomat. Other writers include a professional boxer and Rohan Ricketts, the former Tottenham Hotspur player who is not afraid to spill dressing room secrets.
Other "Saboteurs" are in full-time employment outside the media, but are confident at the keyboard and anxious to find an audience.
"I knew there was a generation of people whose primary jobs weren't journalism; who were good writers and that was the inspiration to elevate those people," says Brown. "What we are going through is the democratisation of written media. For a long time there was this hierarchical outlook, whereby newspaper barons manipulated the news to what suited their investors and political stances. We are now in a situation where those corporations do not own news any more and they do not own opinion."
Because Sabotage Times operates "outside the PR system", it does not conform to the agenda followed by most of the news media, meaning that users can expect to find something different to read. Part of the business model is in syndicating stories to print publications around the world.
Sabotage Times has five contracts with publishers, such as one with ITP in Dubai and has so far sold more than 200 pieces to some 30 clients.
Brown scours Twitter for talent, finding five of Sabotage Times's main contributors on that social network.
People like Londoner Jo Fuertes-Knight, who writes about the most feisty "bitches" in modern music and takes apart the obsession in women's magazines with "skinny versus curvy".
Alex Netherton, whose Dalston piece went viral and who elsewhere on Sabotage Times takes a swipe at the "charlatan" Frankie Boyle, was another Twitter discovery.
"Twitter is an amazing platform if you are a comedian or writer and can communicate a thought or a sense of humour in 140 characters," says Brown.
It is also "free marketing", which – along with Facebook – has introduced Sabotage Times to thousands of new readers.
"I tell people who have relevant businesses that this isn't just a teenage fad – this is a worldwide free communications and distribution network and is as important as the telephone.
"I do think we will get to the point where everyone will be on Facebook. Everyone. It will just be like being in the phone book in the Seventies."
Sabotage Times is now moving more into video, with its first documentary (presented by Brown) being made by the production company Hungry Man with support from the advertising agency Mother.
The subject is football agents and the title is We Are Not All Bastards. The site also has an Android app from the digital agency Dare, which is also building it an iPad app.
Brown is talking at his home in north London, which is also his workplace. He employs Matt Weiner, the former deputy editor of football magazine Four Four Two, as his head of content. And that's about it.
"We edit the magazine in my kitchen or Matt does it at home and we talk by Skype. We don't have a reception, an underground car park with security guards and a personnel department – all of those things that go with a lot of print media businesses.
"We just have iPhones and a couple of Macs. He edited the site from Denmark the other weekend. In January I edited it from a Grenadine island. It was the best office I've ever had."
It's because of these minimal costs, he says, that he's not looking to do an Arianna Huffington and offload the site to a bigger media player.
"I'm not sitting there thinking (American media mogul) Barry Diller might buy me," he says.
"What I'm thinking about is: 'Can that guy who wrote that fun piece last week write another piece?'"
He also quite likes writing for Sabotage Times himself, having authored the site's most-read article so far, an account of a secret ballroom built beneath a lake in Surrey.
"People didn't believe it existed. But Vic Reeves told me about it 20 years ago and I tracked it down," he says.
"I mentioned it to Guy Ritchie because I thought it might make a good scene for Sherlock Holmes."
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