Ian Burrell: The News Business

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

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How investigative title Byline Times is extending its alternative voice into film and radio

All last week Peter Jukes, co-founder of Byline Times, fought with coronavirus. He posted updates on his condition on social media and even published a powerful piece on the investigative site denouncing the UK government’s ‘herd immunity’ response to the pandemic. 

No doubt his recovery was aided by thoughts of his ambitious plans for Byline Times, the start-up newspaper launched last year to challenge the UK’s established national press. It recently expanded into documentary filmmaking and will shortly launch in broadcast radio. 

The investigative paper, run on a shoestring budget from an office in Southwark, south London, is already on the point of break-even by hitting its target of 5,000 subscribers ahead of its first anniversary this month, putting it in a stronger position than many centuries-old regional titles. 

With the press under intense pressure from a collapse in physical sales and free handouts as readers stay at home, Byline Times’s lack of dependency on the newsstand is insulating it from the crisis. “At around 5,000 we are just about washing our face,” explains co-founder Jukes, who says its business model was a year ahead of schedule. “Our next aim is to move to 10,000 subscribers. We believe we could get there in a year. We will then invest that into marketing and to getting better and better journalists.” 

While the site is currently dominated by a series of critical pieces on the UK’s failings in its approach to stopping the spread of coronavirus, Byline Times has a broad editorial mission. It ranges from exposing ‘dark money’ corruption to analysis of the identity ‘culture wars’ currently being exploited by the new political right. It reports critically on Russian state interference and the worst excesses of authoritarianism in China. 

After Easter, it will expand into radio. Stephen Colegrave, the project’s co-founder and a former executive at Saatchi & Saatchi, says that an established broadcasting partner is in place to host Byline Times on its platform. “Within a couple of months we will be up and running on radio. [Rupert] Murdoch is launching on radio and we want to do a drive time show positioned up against Radio 4 and Murdoch’s Times Radio.” 

The world’s most famous press baron is a nemesis for Byline Times. Jukes’s journey in journalism began when, as a television dramatist, he took up a position in the gallery of the Old Bailey to live blog the phone-hacking trials of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. His endeavours were paid for by crowd-funding. “When I covered the phone hacking trial I thought: we have one of the worst presses in the world,” he recalls. 

In 2016, Jukes and Colegrave inherited Byline, a web-based experiment in crowd-funding investigative journalism. Three years later they pivoted to a subscription model, which costs £29 for the digital format and £36 for the monthly paper to be delivered by post. “When we started we thought it would be an advertising model and we didn’t even think of printing a newspaper,” says Jukes. “We printed a newspaper for the launch so that people had something to take away and we realised that everyone wanted a newspaper.” 

The Byline Times website remains free to access. Traffic is “not insignificant”, says Colegrave. “We are reaching up to half a million a month now and are planning to be over 1m a month by the end of this year.” The audience is five times bigger than it was a year ago. 

Byline Times hosts a network of contributors that includes investigative reporters such as David Hencke and Iain Overton, and cultural commentators including Bonnie Greer, CJ Werleman, Open Democracy founder Anthony Barnett and film reviewer Chris Sullivan. The site and paper are edited by Hardeep Matharu, a journalist with a background in covering social affairs. 

Matharu has written extensively for Byline Times on the culture wars that are shaping modern politics. She explored why her Punjabi parents and other Asian immigrants were being charmed by Boris Johnson and the rhetoric of Brexit. 

She identifies a ‘failure’ of the political left “to engage in the culture war” and says that has aided the rise of populism. It’s an area she claims is not properly covered by traditional media, leaving a void which Byline Times is attempting to fill. 

“We believe the left must work out how to offer a new narrative around people's cultural concerns and properly acknowledge the rise of English nationalism – an area which must be explored further in the media as a whole. As the child of parents who were born under the Empire and who voted to leave the European Union in 2016… my own instinct is that economic and social factors are not the only ones now at play.” 

Jukes, who worked with Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr in her investigation of the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal, says he has watched the British right import a playbook developed in America by Steve Bannon, the former adviser to Donald Trump who was executive chairman of reactionary media platform Breitbart News. “The Conservatives, for 50 years sold economic probity, now they are selling ‘damn economics, what matters is identity’,” Jukes claims. “I think they are following Bannon’s template.” 

He argues that Murdoch is a “master of culture wars” and that Piers Morgan, a former Murdoch editor, is fighting similar battles from his breakfast television sofa. ‘He is constantly playing these culture war games against Meghan [Markle], using the fairness principles of the sixties and the idea that men and white people are victims of prejudice.” 

As well as moving into radio, Byline Times is embracing documentary making. The new Byline Films commissioned filmmaker Sheridan Flynn to make a series called The Great British British Break-Up, an exploration of the pressures on the United Kingdom. His opening film, released in February, highlighted how English nationalism was seen in Northern Ireland as a threat to the UK. 

Jukes says that next film will be made in Scotland “to see how they turned this Scottish nationalism which was quite exclusive and anti-English into a civic nationalism which welcomes English people if they are resident in Scotland”.  

Before the spread of coronavirus, Byline Times was due to examine the issue of English nationalism in a live debate in London featuring Labour MP David Lammy – who has called for a new “civic nationalism” – talking with Byline contributors. 

The Byline Times growth story has thus far benefited from alignment with the Byline Festival, an August bank holiday weekend celebration of journalism and culture in the Sussex countryside that hosts its own ‘media circus’, alongside classes in investigative reporting and comedy stages. Performers have included John Cleese and Hardeep Singh Kohli (both Byline Times contributors) and last year’s festival attracted 5,500 people. 

Like the rest of the entertainment sector, the event is threatened by the current crisis. But Byline Times will be hoping that continued subscriber growth and a rising profile will ensure a viable future as an alternative voice in UK media.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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