Ian Burrell: Agency hatched in Victorian cab has evolved for 21st-century

Media on Monday

Monday 28 February 2011 01:00

When the idea for the Press Association, Britain's national news agency, was hatched in a Hansom cab stuck in London smog in 1868, the founders began a service that has evolved into formats they could never have imagined.

From the @Youluckysuds washing machine Twitter feed on the Dixons Retail website, to a travel blog for easyBus and an iPad app on puzzles made for Richard Desmond's Daily Express, the modern PA's output has never been more varied.

It produces a specialist motoring news wire for the RAC's site, a Martyn Lewis-style happy news stream for ING bank's Savings Feel Good website, and all the latest nuptials-related stories for nationalweddingshow.co.uk.

One of the PA's biggest earners is its specialist weather business, MeteoGroup, which employs more than 100 meteorologists and produces the biggest grossing paid-for weather app in Europe.

Whereas other media businesses obsess over fluctuations in the advertising market, the PA must concentrate on finding other ways of making money. "From the very beginning we have lived or died on selling our content," says chief executive Clive Marshall, who in his first year in post has brought a new commercial focus to the organisation. "In a world where the number of platforms is expanding exponentially there are great opportunities to sell the content to other media and to government and corporate clients."

In December, the PA provided a live blog to MSN on the tuition fees vote in Parliament, generating 100,000 page views. Each week the agency provides a Saturday Commentary service to punters using the online bookmakers Blue Square. The agency deploys former professional footballers at every league ground to gather statistical data on passes and tackles which can be sold to clients.

It's not what many would expect of an institution that was established by the national and regional press and still counts them as its major shareholders. Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of Telegraph Media Group, is the PA's chairman. Rebekah Brooks (chief executive of News International) and Sly Bailey (chief executive of Trinity Mirror) are among those on the board.

Marshall, 52, has a commercial background but on his first day in the job he addressed the PA's journalists to emphasise the central role of the news operation. "I described it as the beating heart of the organisation around which we then build all of the other businesses."

With print media under pressure from declining circulations, Marshall believes PA can shoulder some of the burden. It already designs and sub-edits around one third of the pages of the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and The People. The agency produces specialist supplements, such as a Valentine's Day pull-out for the London Evening Standard.

The PA's news operation was heavily criticised by the investigative journalist Nick Davies, who claimed in his 2008 book Flat Earth News that the agency was overstretched and allowed the public relations industry to feed unchecked stories into the national media by the back door.

But PA editor Jonathan Grun rejects the criticisms and says Davies never actually visited the agency. Whereas other news organisations have drastically cut staff numbers, PA claims to have more journalists today (270) than it employed a decade ago. It still maintains a national network of bureau and correspondents and has a permanent presence in Brussels, Westminster, the Royal Courts of Justice and the Old Bailey.

It recently staged internal awards for its journalists, who are often overlooked for industry awards, despite scoops such as Martyn Ziegler's revelation of England's failure to win the 2018 World Cup and Chris Ison's photograph of BP boss Tony Hayward on a sailing trip at the time of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

But when Marshall returned to the organisation last year, after nine years running the Australian Associated Press, he found that the core operation was making a loss. The £6.8m profit that the PA declared for 2009 was all being generated by the Meteo weather business and the agency's half share in the Canada News Wire.

Having reduced overall staffing by 10 per cent and introduced management changes, including the appointment of PA's first chief technology officer, Andrew Dowsett, he says the UK part of the business will make a profit this year. Further money-making opportunities will emerge by the end of next year when PA makes available to clients its deep archive of 13 million photographs dating back to the late 19th century, tens of thousands of videos and written stories from the past 30 years. "These days clients want text, pictures, video and everything linking," says Marshall, who has an iPad and Samsung Tab in front of him to make his point.

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