Byline pivots to print, promising to tell readers 'what the papers don’t say'

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.

A new newspaper has been launched in the UK with modest fanfare but great ambition.

Running to 32 pages and traditional in format, its primary areas of focus include dirty money in politics, the rise of the far-right and the inadequacy of the wider news media. It’s slogan is “What The Papers Don’t Say”.

The founders of of Byline Times are not obvious champions of ink-on-paper media. One is a playwright, Peter Jukes, who became a prominent critic of the press during the phone-hacking scandal and was a crowdfunded court reporter at the Old Bailey trials of Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks. His co-founder is Stephen Colegrave, a one-time punk rocker who was later an executive at Saatchi & Saatchi. Columnists include John Cleese, a serial antagonist of the press.

“It’s lovely having it in paper, there’s something about printed things,” Jukes says of the new product with its “William Caslon typeface”. He talks approvingly of British press traditions such as “Cudlipp’s Mirror in the 60s” and “The Express in the 50s”. Byline Times, he says, is designed – with its winged Mercury traversing the globe – to evoke Superman and convince young readers of the possibilities of the medium. “It’s The Daily Planet and a heroic age of journalism…this visionary idea where a journalist would go into a telephone cubicle and come out as a superhero.”

The newspaper, which has a cover price of £2.50, is being published as a monthly for its first editions this summer but already has plans to switch to a weekly cycle from March next year. Around 50 sponsors have paid £100 to have their names on the front page of the launch editions. Byline Times has an initial subscriber base of nearly 1,000, paying £7.80 for four editions to be home delivered. Jukes says it can be profitable with an audience of 5,000.

The project is aided by a three-day cultural extravaganza, the Byline Festival, at which up to 6,000 paying customers will camp on the South Downs in August to hear talks on media and politics.

Speakers include the journalists Carole Cadwalladr, Luke Harding and Bonnie Greer. Damian Collins MP, chair of parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, will talk and the event will be opened by Cleese. The founders have used their arts contacts to create a musical line-up that includes the Blow Monkeys, Matt Bianco, Jerry Dammers and Kevin Rowland.

The journey that has led to the launch of Byline Times has taken three years and is in some ways counter-intuitive. The paper’s roots are in a digital publishing experiment – byline.com – which was set up to help bloggers find larger audiences and to get paid for their writing. Jukes and Colegrave inherited that site in 2016 in the hope of revolutionising news by giving campaigning journalists the chance to crowdfund their investigations by appealing directly to readers.

The site has enjoyed notable successes, including the podcast series Untold, which explored the murky circumstances around the 1987 murder of London private detective Daniel Morgan. Writer and former police officer JJ Patrick used the platform to support his work uncovering Russian interference in British and American politics and media, culminating in his book Alternative War.

But the Byline owners quickly realised the funding model was flawed. Many writers were struggling to earn money. The site was at risk of going the way of other crowdfunded independent journalism platforms such as Contributoria (owned by Guardian Media Group and closed in 2015) and California-based Beacon Reader, which raised $1m but shuttered in 2016.

They started the Byline Festival at Pippingford Park in East Sussex in 2017 as a parallel revenue stream. Now they are pivoting to print. For a digital publishing entrepreneur and such a trenchant critic of the national press (Jukes crowdfunded a book The Fall of the House of Murdoch), this ought to feel strange. “It doesn’t actually,” he says. “Because when I was sat at the phone-hacking trial and they talked about the ‘back benches’ and the ‘print run’ at The News of the World it was actually quite exciting.”

The Byline website, which has an audience of 150,000 a month, continues to harry Fleet Street, hosting the work of Dan Evans and Graham Johnson, two former News of the World reporters who investigate the extent of dark practices highlighted at the Leveson inquiry of 2011.

But Jukes says that the Byline Times newspaper is “less focused on historic things” and anxious to probe “a new kind of media manipulation”, highlighted by the Cambridge Analytica scandal and related issues.

“Tabloids are no longer hacking phones but in their wake has come worse stuff – completely bizarre opinions, fake news, disinformation and misinformation,” he says. “At the moment you can fake up a website and pump out complete propaganda as happened during the US elections.

People need to trust the masthead again. You need to have a sense that you are going somewhere where things are filtered and conspiracy theories don’t take root.”

Byline Times is his response to this need for “proper editorial oversight”. No doubt some of his erstwhile adversaries in the press will be scornful of his vision. Digital audiences might also be sceptical over the attraction to young readers of a ‘dead trees’ product with a small budget.

But the operation, based in a small office in London’s Bankside, is growing. It has appointed Hardeep Matharu as editor and its specialists include Alex Varley-Winter (covering Westminster) and Mark Conrad (writing on corruption in sport). The paper has become a home to campaigning US-based journalists including CJ Werleman and Caroline Orr.

The splash on its latest edition is headlined: “Dodgy money and dirty data – democracy in danger.” Byline Times relentlessly explores links between Russian and American funding, political campaigning and Islamophobia. It takes a sympathetic view of the Extinction Rebellion movement. “You can see the kind of stories,” says Jukes. “Dark money, Brexit, Cambridge Analytica, hidden stuff in Parliament, policing…”

It is a good thing to grow gradually, he argues. “We are a very flat structure at the moment. The danger is you build these hierarchies and everyone starts fighting.” Byline Times has resisted reaching out to wealthy philanthropists. “Journalism can’t be a charity. We want complete independence and that only comes from financial independence.”

Advertising is definitely seen as part of the newspaper’s funding mix. Colegrave, with his background in advertising, is “working hard” to line up suitable clients.

Indeed it’s the failure of online advertising in news media which has led the way to print, Jukes argues. “Online advertising is broken – a lot of it is fake and fraudulent, using robotic eyeballs,” he says. “We thought that to go back to the golden age of journalism you also need to go back to the golden age of advertising where it funded good journalism, where a Gucci picture in the Sunday Times would fund Don McCullin to go to Vietnam and take that amazing shot on the other page. Looking back on it, that wasn’t too bad a model.”

Advertisers will want to see evidence of the value of the Byline Times audience. The kind of people who will read the paper, Jukes says, are those "who are dissatisfied with current media and feel they are not being told everything". They are "not conspiracy theorists", he adds.

Jukes might be a convert to the power of print in the 21st century but he knows that Byline Times must keep its brand at a distance from the established newsstand. “We have a reputation of not having a vested interest and of being outsiders and despised by other media – which is probably not a bad place to be.”

Even so, as he references the UK’s past as “the home of pamphleteers and Defoe”, the prominent press reformer says: "I love journalism and admire journalists. We don’t want to destroy the industry. We want to give something back."

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

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