On stage at Edinburgh’s Leith Theatre one evening last week, the Scottish stand-up comedian Vladimir McTavish was playing his part in funding the rise of an alternative UK news media.
McTavish, a popular act on the Edinburgh Fringe, was part of the bill at the Festive Ferret Fundraiser, an event generating income for the investigative journalism website the Ferret, which launched two years ago and is already having significant impact on Scottish politics and society.
Backed by nearly 700 paying subscribers, who have input on the subjects that the site’s journalists probe, the Ferret went undercover to expose a neo-Nazi backed group, Scottish Dawn; it revealed how Donald Trump received a £110,000 hand-out from Scottish taxpayers; it disclosed how Police Scotland extracted data from 36,000 private mobile phones; and it ran a ten-story series on the potential impact of fracking.
Nearly 400 miles away another member of the new publishing breed, the Bristol Cable, lays out its investigative reporting on a sharp website, and on the 36 pages of a monthly magazine produced on high-quality paper stock and distributed throughout the city. The Bristol Cable is the product of an 1,800-strong co-operative who contribute an average £2.70-a-month and are invited to monthly meetings around Bristol to discuss the progress of the three-year-old project and where it should be directing its editorial resources.
The Cable’s impact on Bristol life has been considerable, affecting council policy on housing developments and helping to persuade Bristol University to stop investing in fossil fuels. It also uncovered the use by local police of eavesdropping IMSI-catcher devices used to intercept mobile phone messages, prompting a national news story. Operating out of an old factory building (now a community project space called ‘The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft’), it is also backed by the Chicago-based Reva & David Logan Foundation, a philanthropic trust which gives grants to social justice and investigative journalism projects.
Its various income streams, including five pages of print ads sourced by Ethical Media Sales & Marketing, an agency dedicated to social justice, allow the Bristol Cable to sustain the equivalent of six full-time jobs across its team of editorial ‘co-ordinators’ and to pay its large pool of ‘contributors’ for their work on articles. The team has won a reputation for its data journalism.
But projects as ambitious as the Ferret and the Bristol Cable are isolated examples in the landscape of UK news media.
As we near the end of 2017, the overwhelming majority of news produced in the UK – including that on social media – is still the output of organisations founded before the digital revolution. The emergence of digital-native news brands has been limited in a market where audience loyalties to public broadcasters and well-established newspapers run deep.
In the United States, venture capitalists and legacy media companies have poured money into new digital news initiatives which have become part of popular culture, from trailblazers such as the Drudge Report and Slate to the likes of Vox and Mic. Some, such as HuffPost and BuzzFeed, are now major international news operations.
But the economic signals for digital news media in general have not been good. BuzzFeed has this month made major job cuts, including to its UK newsroom. Its founder, Jonah Peretti, previously a big supporter of Facebook as a distribution platform, has complained bitterly of the social media giant’s failure to share its advertising revenues with companies that provide it with content. The female-focused publisher Refinery29 last week became the latest in a long line of digital publishers to lay off staff this year.
In such a climate, projects like the Ferret and the Bristol Cable - and other UK operations that choose to emulate them - face a challenging future. But both have been careful to limit their dependency on commercial backing, in fact, neither publisher carries digital advertising.
“We had to do something that made us different, more credible, more transparent….,” explains Rob Edwards, one of the founders of the Ferret. “We had long discussions and we decided we didn’t want to use ads, we wanted to raise money by subscriptions and grants.”
Lorna Stephenson, a member of the editorial team at the Bristol Cable, says that digital ad revenues have fallen so low that “there’s almost no point” in the project even looking for clients. Furthermore, the project has an “advertising charter which is voted on and agreed by members and is quite strict”, taking business only from “local and ethical businesses”. So the site is ad-free.
The Bristol Cable launched in both digital and print form in October 2014 after a series of meetings attended by journalists and other interested parties. “People liked the idea of co-creation of the media and they liked the idea of it being independent,” Stephenson says.
The motivation for the Ferret, which was first mooted in 2012, was to create a platform for the kind of probing, in-depth reporting that the founders felt was in demise. “We were very conscious that, with the malaise that’s causing the decline of the mainstream media, investigative journalism was suffering,” Edwards says. “We all felt very strongly that a modern democracy like Scotland was incomplete without proper investigative journalism to hold power to account.”
The Ferret is run by a board of five journalists (Edwards is also the environment editor of the Sunday Herald, a Glasgow-based national Scottish paper) and four ‘reader’ board members. As well as having no advertising, it opted for a co-operative model “to show we were not-for-profit and were working together and that we were not run by some distant corporation or some media mogul”.
It publishes an annual report of its finances and editorial record. The latest records show that it has published over 330 stories and now has a base of 6,000 people signed up to receive push notifications of latest articles.
Its subscriber base - paying £3-a-month for access to a website that allows three articles free per month - is currently insufficient to sustain full-time employment of journalists or an office (the Ferret’s team mostly communicate via an online chat group). Contributors are paid £110-a-day for their journalism.
Edwards says that the Ferret is anticipating new income from grants. It already has a €50,000 grant from Google’s Digital News Initiative which funds the Ferret Fact Service, compiled by Alastair Brian. The service, which typically analyses the veracity of claims made by Scottish politicians and pundits, is also published in the Daily Record newspaper.
The Ferret might be an alternative approach to producing news but Edwards says that it is not intended to undermine existing media. It has partnered on stories with many news outlets, including the Guardian, the Times and the BBC. And it recently co-ordinated a complaint by 23 journalists from different news outlets over the Scottish Government’s failings in responding to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests.
What marks the Ferret out is its openness, publishing its FoI documents and other material, provided it doesn’t reveal confidential sources. “We try to be as transparent as possible and give readers all the tools they need to make up their own minds about what we are writing about,” says Edwards. “It’s all about trying to re-establish trust with readers.”
Unlike other websites that emerged in Scotland around the time of its 2014 independence referendum - such as Bella Caledonia and Common Space - the Ferret is studiously non-partisan. “None of our journalist directors are members of any political party and we don’t do opinion or editorialising,” says Edwards. "We just look for fact-based investigative reporting."
The climate for digital news publishers might be a harsh one, but the Ferret, with its mission of “nosing up the trousers of power”, is convinced by the evidence of its first two years that it has a viable future. “We were embarking on something that none of us had ever done before,” Edwards points out. “We have written hundreds of stories, broken dozens of exclusives, we are talked about and we are gradually raising our income to a point where we can become a sustainable operation.”
The Bristol Cable is now a fixture of the local media scene, alongside the 85-year-old Bristol Post newspaper and other outlets. Its stories evoke the campaigning spirit of the lively West Country city but Stephenson believes that its ground-breaking model is one that could be adopted elsewhere in the UK, citing Manchester, Leeds and Brighton as examples. “Bristol is a creative place but there are other very vibrant cities where you could definitely do something like this,” she says.