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

The Drum 13 Jun 2019 09:17
By Ian Burrell-13 June 2019 10:17am

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.

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.

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.”

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’.

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.

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 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 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.”

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.”

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

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