Yes Sir! That's my baby now

Former editor of The Observer, Donald Trelford, explains how his new digital project convinced him that an old news hound can still learn some new tricks
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The Independent Online

How can someone who has been dedicated for more than three decades to the printed page convert into a dot.com entrepreneur? Well, with difficulty, but not without a sense of excitement, even rejuvenation.

How can someone who has been dedicated for more than three decades to the printed page convert into a dot.com entrepreneur? Well, with difficulty, but not without a sense of excitement, even rejuvenation.

I really was a print freak. I enjoyed nothing more than working on the stone in the days of hot metal and felt a thrill every time the convulsive start-up of the giant rotary presses shook the whole building. When I ran a paper in Africa for the Thomson group, I relied on a linotype machine that had ceased being manufactured in Chicago in 1899. I took out cardboard flongs of headline faces in my suitcase from England to be cast and cut into metal - you can't get much more "old tech" than that.

So, seven years after leaving The Observer, the transition to the digital world has been a revelation. When the concept of The Baby Channel was put to me by Leon Hawthorne, a BBC correspondent and a formernews anchorman at CNN and CNBC, it struck me as one of those beautifully simple ideas that make you wonder why nobody thought of it before.

Our research showed that there was no TV channel aimed directly at women with children under five, of whom there are three million in Britain spending an estimated £7bn a year on baby-related products (and not all of it on Brooklyn Beckham). There are magazines galore, all flush with advertising. Britain alone has nine monthly and bi-monthly baby publications, with total sales of 4.4 million.

Our plan, unique in marketing terms, is to reach this audience in two ways. First, through an internet site which will include a doctor, teacher, agony aunt and baby encyclopaedia all rolled into one. Then, there's the TV channel which aims to go free-to-air by satellite and cable for 16 hours a day by this time next year.

Since we announced the company less than two weeks ago, the telephone has hardly stopped ringing with messages of encouragement, requests for information and offers of partnerships from parties excited at the prospect of selling to this niche group whose spending goes up every year.

Advances in digital technology make it possible to increase inter-activity to provide a constant, on-demand service of short instructional or entertainment videos on all aspects of child rearing, health and education as well as e-shopping. We have an editorial budget for 35 hours a week of programming on child-rearing topics including food, sleeping, reading, clothes, fitness, and toys.

Baby programmes have enjoyed high TV ratings. Born Too Soon, a BBC1 documentary last year about premature babies, attracted 2.8 million viewers. Similar figures were reached by a five-part BBC2 series called Maternity.

Apart from Leon and myself, the other members of our launch team are Elaine Bancroft, our director of programmes, and top internet executive Chris Mathias. (We have seven children between us so far). Other management positions will be filled in the next few weeks, with a view to going to the next stage of finance.

What excites me about the project is the chance to create something original in a brand-new medium. The task of understanding digital technology seemed daunting at first, until I likened it to driving a car. There are experts in motoring and computers who will blind you with science yet, essentially, all you need to know to drive these machines are the rules of the road and how to find the accelerator and brake.

Typewriters and linotype machines were new and complex developments once. Newspapers, television and now the internet are just different ways of providing information. What matters is the message and, in that transaction, the old journalistic values still apply. News remains news, words remain words, and features stand of fall on their intrinsic interest and how well they are produced.

Once I became a teacher of journalism, I began monitoring these changes and became drawn to the new creative challenges. What is distinctive about the digital revolution - the so-called "new news" - is not the rapid merging of TV, computer and telephone technology but the emergence, within a global context, of the news consumer as an active participant.

Last week, I heard Henry Kissinger call the internet the third great revolution after writing and printing. Its full ramifications are still to emerge, but you cannot opt out without becoming a dinosaur.

The writer was editor of 'The Observer' from 1975 to 1993. He is Professor of Journalism Studies at Sheffield University, is President of the Media Society and Chairman of Baby Communications Ltd

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