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The Overtake is on a drive to prove national news can thrive outside London's media bubble

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 groundbreaking news site that seeks to offer a north of England alternative to the London-dominated perspective of the British media has made an appeal to readers to protect its future.

The Overtake, which is based in Leeds but covers the UK and has been recognised at nationwide awards ceremonies for its journalism, has issued its plea under the headline “Independent media is in crisis – can you help?”, asking for contributions from 57p a week. “The modern media is a graveyard of independent publishers,” writes founder Robyn Vinter in an editorial.

The development not only emphasises the parlous state of the UK’s digital news sector, but also highlights its lack of geographical diversity. The relocation of Radio 5 Live to Salford and Channel 4 News opening new bureaux in Leeds, Glasgow and Bristol has improved the geographical spread of broadcast news. But the written national media is still entrenched in London.

In an interview with The Drum, Vinter says that The Overtake is growing its newsroom and generating unprecedented revenue from supporters and sponsored content. But Vinter, who is both editor and chief executive of the site, is planning to take part-time work away from The Overtake in order to secure its future. “Every few months I have to skip paying myself and there’s only so much you can do that as a human being,” she says. “It’s about stabilising it and trying to get it to a place that feels a bit more like a sound footing. I still have stress every month over how are we going to pay people and we need to make this work financially.”

Her success in this mission matters because The Overtake is one of the UK’s outstanding examples of original online publishing, particularly in giving a voice to women and journalists from minority backgrounds. Soon after it was founded in 2017, it was nominated at the British Press Awards for the Georgina Henry Award for Innovation (honouring the former deputy editor of The Guardian). More recently, Vinter’s piece for The Overtake exposing racism on the doors of nightclubs was long-listed in the Paul Foot Awards for investigative journalism.

The Overtake is part of a loose alliance of like-minded UK digital news sites dedicated to public interest journalism. It includes the Bristol Cable and Scotland’s The Ferret. But it is not a regional publisher. “People assume we are a local publication because we are based in Leeds but there’s no reason why you can’t serve a national audience from outside London,” says Vinter, whose nightclub story was focused on London.

She had the idea for the site while working as a journalist in the capital and contrasting newsroom conversations with the very different “northern, working class” discussions she experienced during trips home to Yorkshire at weekends. “Those things weren’t any less significant as stories,” she says. Vinter targeted a young audience which she felt was under-served by UK online media. “I wanted to tap into a bit of a shared mentality among a lot of young people. The demographic is not just working class people or middle-class people – it’s young people with a progressive mindset, sometimes left-leaning but not always.”

The Overtake styles itself “a website for millennials” and promises “quality journalism from outside the straight, white middle-class media bubble”.

Its work has included a probe by senior reporter Ethan Shone on illegal fox hunting in north-east England, and features editor Rik Worth writing on how women are targeted by marketing companies on Instagram. Abigail Fenton interviewed the director and stars of the BBC’s historical (Yorkshire-based) lesbian drama ‘Gentleman Jack’.

It aims to publish one new original piece every day. Vinter acknowledges that BuzzFeed targets a similar audience but, while she admires Jonah Peretti’s millennial-focused global operation, she argues that it lacks The Overtake’s north of England vantage point. “A lot of the northern [journalists] who have moved south have really bought into London and are not planning ever to move back - you can tell that from the way things are reported,” she argues.

BuzzFeed was a pioneer of sponsored content and this is a model through which The Overtake hopes to fund its work, having hired two salespeople to find clients. A current piece of native content for an IT firm features an expert by the name of Carl Marx giving advice on how to look after their computers.

The Overtake has had success with clients from America and Germany who are trying to reach British audiences. It plans to market its sponsored content offering to more UK companies. “It’s really hard to find millennial-focused stuff that is not clickbait,” Vinter says. “People are desperate to reach millennials and we have got the stats to show that’s what our audience is. It’s a certain type of millennial – people who are interested in experiences, educated and want to know how the world works.”

Vinter, 30, argues that there is a “misunderstanding” about what millennials want from media, with a common belief that young readers have short attention spans. “It’s just not true,” she says. “All our stats show that the youngest demographic, 18-24s, spend the longest reading articles.”

The Overtake, which has a staff age range of 17-30, was also rightly sceptical of Facebook’s drive to encourage news sites to switch to video production. “I knew that our audience wasn’t really on Facebook and I knew as a young person speaking to my friends that we didn’t particularly watch videos on Facebook.” Instead, it has focused on lengthy written articles.

The site has been helped by student journalists from three nearby universities who have applied in their hundreds for work experience (which Vinter limits to 15 hours per person over concerns that more unpaid work would be exploitative). The popularity of this voluntary work says much about the lack of career paths for young journalists in contemporary British media.

The Overtake benefits from cheap office space provided under a scheme operated by an arts organisation, East Street Arts, and currently operates from the same building as Leeds’s most famous media institution, The Yorkshire Post, founded in 1754.

The site’s other key revenue stream is the Patreon membership platform which has allowed it to generate recurring monthly payments from 80 supporters, sufficient to pay for two part-time reporters. “It’s really significant because it’s reliable income,” says Vinter. “People say ‘Why don’t you just crowdfund five grand?’ but it’s difficult to build something knowing you have to start all over again after that.”

In America, philanthropic grants are available for public interest journalism but Vinter says she finds it tough to source similar support in the UK. Even in the US, many millennial-focused news sites have struggled financially, from Mic to Mashable and Gawker. In the UK, The Pool (co-founded by Lauren Laverne) and The Debrief (owned by Bauer Media) found an audience of young women but not a sustainable business. Media Diversified, a digital magazine site founded in 2013 to give a platform to writers from BAME backgrounds, closed down in May.

Vinter is not wrong to describe digital publishing as a “graveyard”. It is a labour of love. In her editorial, she talks of the “nightmare” of financing the site and how she is “awake at night” worrying over paying colleagues. “I’m an editor day-to-day as well as a CEO trying to run the thing,” she tells The Drum. “This week we are doing an investigation and it’s all hands on deck, so the commercial side gets neglected. One week I will drop the website a bit to focus on making sure I can pay everyone, the next week I focus on [journalism] that might win us an award.”

She has turned down two job offers with national papers to pursue her dream with The Overtake. Financiers have shown interest in backing the project but they obsess over potential scale and financial return. “I have a lot of investors getting in touch with me,” she says. “But once they get to know us they don’t want to invest because I’m never going to be driven to be squeezing profit out of it.”

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

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