Taking The Wall Street Journal route to crack America

Katherine Griffiths talks to the players unleashing Breaking Views' bite-sized financial opinions across the US
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The Independent Online

Breaking Views, a small but profitable dot.com which provides online commentary on the financial news of the day, will have a column in America's most influential financial newspaper.

Such transatlantic ventures have not often been attempted. In the UK, journalists are sometimes fond of characterising their American counterparts as overly ponderous and incapable of reaching an opinion, while those schooled in the US tradition gasp at quite how opinionated British hacks are.

According to Hugo Dixon, Breaking Views' editor and former head of the famous Financial Times analysis column, Lex, a willingness to take sides about a major merger or a chief executive's performance will be the key to Breaking Views' appeal to readers of The Journal.

"The US is a gigantic market, and it is often difficult to get noticed," said Dixon. "But the type of punchy, financially sophisticated commentary we do is not in the American tradition. There is a lot of extremely good financial journalism there, but the idea of taking sides is not really done." For the 116-year-old Journal, whose owner Dow Jones already has a shareholding in Breaking Views, the column is one of several new features to appear in its new Saturday edition. The Journal was published six days a week until the Fifties and the revival of the tradition is an attempt to reinvigorate the title's flagging sales.

For London-based Breaking Views, it could be a beachhead from which it hopes to expand into the US. Mr Dixon wants to attract American subscribers to Breaking Views' website, eventually possibly launching a separate sister site dedicated to American business news.

Rob Cox, Breaking Views' sole emissary in the US who is recruiting a new team to join him, believes the website's formula of bite-size analysis pieces will appeal to its target customers, busy Wall Street types who are swamped with information.

"People want a little bit of a heads-up. They don't want to trawl through reams of information and they don't always want to go from A1 in one section to D4 in another to finish reading a story." Compared to the 350 words or so Breaking Views devotes to a topic, The Journal's often Pulitzer-prize winning articles can come in at 2,000 or 3,000 words.

Breaking Views has been the British dot.com which survived against the odds. Launched in July 2000, when shares in internet companies began to implode, leading to the closure of many hi-tech companies, it hung on. An extra injection of cash in 2003 helped to keep it out of the red, and it now turns a profit.

The website has 30 writers and IT people in London. Some 400 companies, from large investment banks to boutique hedge funds, subscribe, paying between £3,250 and £90,000 a year, depending on how many employees have access.

It has added a presence in the old-fashioned world of print by publishing columns in The Sunday Telegraph and La Repubblica in Italy. It also appears in The Journal's European edition, though, with a circulation of just 86,156, this is dwarfed by the two million readers of The Journal's flagship edition in America.

Yet the task is a daunting one. Britain's Financial Times, with the deep pockets of its owner, Pearson, behind it, is still struggling to gain a foothold in America even though it publishes a daily local edition and has an army of reporters there.

Mr Dixon's former domain at the FT, Lex, is trying to attract online readers through "Lex Live" on the website, though many observers believe it is not making much headway.

There are, however, an array of well-established American competitors in the online arena, including The Journal's own website, which has the largest number of paying subscribers, among news sites, in the world. Also there is MarketWatch.com, which provides news and comment and is also owned by Dow Jones, and thestreet.com.

Sceptics wonder how much access Breaking Views will get to American chief executives and other senior people in order to provide subscribers paying its substantial fees with the inside track. However, readers might like that Breaking Views is independent, unlike research by banks which has been tainted by allegations that overly rosy analysis has been written about companies which happen to be directing millions in investment banking fees their way.

But the final question might come back to the relationship between the Americans and the British, and whether The Journal will be prepared to give those behind a little-known dot.com freedom to write whatever they want in its celebrated pages.