Exaro: Showing investigations can pay in a digital world

A new website is seeking to recreate the golden age of Fleet Street investigative journalism in the digital age. Exaro, based off Fleet Street, soft-launched in October and since then has been rapidly finding its feet with big scoops on tax-dodging civil servants, fraudulent welfare-to-work placements and multi-billion pound Saudi arms deal bribe allegations.

Unlike some other investigative journalism ventures – such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK and ProPublica in the United States – Exaro has been set up as a money-making venture. It has the backing of hedge-fund millionaire Jerome Booth who is betting that there can be a profitable future for serious investigative journalism online.

Exaro is a publisher in its own right – although in this start-up phase, it has been sharing its work with a variety of established news organisations in order to get its name known

In ethos it seems not unlike Harold Evans's Sunday Times Insight Team of the 1970s. Editor-in-chief Mark Watts is passionate about journalists being given time to meet contacts in pubs, go through documents and pursue dead ends free from the menacing glare of the bean counters.

'Our investigation into A4E [allegedly fraudulent welfare-to-work placements] took place over a period of eight months which is pretty rare these days.

'The most cost-effective way for newspapers to operate is to have people sat in the office rewriting wire copy, rewriting press releases and churning it out because the cost per word is pretty low. The product is pretty crap too.

'It's much more expensive to do what we are doing so newspapers have increasingly got out of that business because you have a lot of false starts, you do a lot of work on something and it doesn't pan out, when it does stack up it can take an awful lot of work. We focus entirely on investigative material and everything we do is exclusive.'

One of the bureau's biggest scoops involved revealing that hundreds of highly-paid civil servants were dodging tax by working off payroll and channelling their earnings through separate companies.

Watts says: 'That was the traditional mole coming forward to the reporter concerned, David Hencke, who was pretty angry about this practice that was going on very widely in Whitehall and pointed to a specific example he thought we should focus on.

'That's not enough. So David set about trying to dig out the evidence for what the claims were using the Freedom of Information Act. Not a quick and easy job. It was a combination of meetings in the pub, meeting contacts, also having to do the time-consuming work of trying to identify and find the documents.

'Then you end up with a pile of documents that you then have to make sense of. What you find with these things is you get so much out of them because this wasn't one example, this was really widespread."

The idea for Exaro came about two years ago as a collaboration between Watts, PR executive Tim Pendry and media finance specialist David Baxter. The team drew up a business plan for an investigative journalism website and a list of potential investors.

Watts says that top of that list of backers was Booth, head of reasearch at Ashmore Investment Management, who has funded the project in full.

While the site is free to view for now (with readers asked to register) the plan is for it to make money in the future predominately through subscriptions, with a smaller element of advertising.

Watts says: 'We see the audience as two categories. General broadsheet readers who might tend to be more interested in real news as opposed to the celebrity tittle-tattle. And then separately, the business world and the City professional.

'It's very much aimed at them because there's a big question over whether the general consumer is willing to pay for the product of news or information. That's quite tough in an environment where there's so much free content available.

'When it comes to the business world and city professional, this is a world which is quite used to paying and expects to pay for decent information.

'The overarching ethos of the site is to be holding power to account and government in the very broadest sense of that word. And to be doing so in a way that we think is of particular interest to the business world."

Asked how many subscriptions are needed for Exaro to be viable, Watts says: 'Not an enormous number because one of the key things is getting corporate subs rather than individuals."

And the price? 'In the ballpark of where the FT is or industry online publications are."

Watts says Exaro has around 30 staff, 'not all full-time", including full-time associate editors Guy Eaton (formerly assistant editor on the Evening Standard) and former News of the World newsdesk executive Keith Perry.

Asked about the size of the investment behind Exaro, Watts says: 'If you think about the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which I think started up with £2m from the Potter Foundation – that's a lot more money than we are talking about. It's what we think is necessary to get to the point where we can trade profitably in three years.'

In an online world where pictures of the latest B-list female celebrity frolicking in her bikini on a beach are likely to attract more readers than a painstakingly researched public interest investigation, many fear for the future of serious journalism online.

Why does Exaro backer Booth, worth in excess of £189m according to the Sunday Times Rich List, think differently?

'His background is as an economist so he's someone who understands the importance of good information…

'He was completely sold on the idea that the fruits of investigative journalism can have real value. That's something that we all have to prove. Because the accountants that run newspapers think it doesn't, and that readers aren't that interested. I think we all need to show that it does and he seems genuinely excited by that."

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