In the age of limitless news, who can tell what is new?

 

There has never been a better time to be a journalist, if it’s your hobby. If you hope to make a living out of it, then I can’t remember it being worse.

But the newspapers and the magazines are not to blame. They are in the same boat as the rest of us.

The real problem is the internet and search engines like Google, in particular, that do not value content.

The politicians are to blame, too, for failing to help us protect our work, but then again they have more reason than most not to want a strong media – just look at the Telegraph MPs’ expenses story or The Sunday Times Insight team investigation on MEPs taking cash to change EU laws.

I run a news agency, Central European News, which I set up in 1993 in Vienna with my then business partners Tom Hagler from the BBC World Service and an ex-Daily Express journalist named Samantha King.

The aim was to provide foreign content not provided by the main wire agencies.

That included UK interest news items – Brits abroad – and quirky “.. and finally” type news.

Having English speaking staff on the ground in Europe was almost a licence to print money back then – £500 for a 300-word interview with a random German girl and another £500 to scan her passport picture in and send it over by ISDN.

Some £2,000 for an idea that the Mail on Sunday liked out of Croatia, but which they wanted to buy the idea off the market do the story themselves.

Against that substantial income there was the need to keep full-time paid correspondents across Europe, and equip them with picture sending facilities and ISDN telephone lines.

Every day hundreds of foreign newspapers needed to be collected by staff at CEN offices on the ground across the continent, read, summarised and offered to newsdesks before 10am to generate commissions.

Orders meant interviews, pictures, filing to deadline, invoicing, and syndications.

The phone bill in our Vienna office alone was around £2,000 a month.

We started a picture agency, Europics, but a single photographer back then needed £20,000 of equipment including development gear, a mac with ISDN  card and line and lenses, not to mention two camera bodies.

On the back of that we added a proper radio studio for live ISDN interviews – sending sent radio packages to the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Radio Netherlands – and hired a full-time TV crew to do video packages for APTV and others based on our newspaper exclusives.

A single story like the case of Dr Heinrich Gross could be sold a dozen times in various media formats, which came from a protest at a health congress we were covering for a specialist medical magazine.

We found that the respected Austrian doctor had experimented on children as part of the Nazi euthanasia programme – the story ran as page leads in UK papers for several years, including a 12-page report in The Sunday Times magazine and a TV documentary on ABC Nightline in the US.

When The Sunday Times Insight team worked on the MEP bribery scandal and needed local staff that they could trust in Romania, the Balkans and Austria, they contacted CEN.

But not just the qualities. When The Sun or the News of the World needed an undercover reporter on the ground for an eastern European crime gang with UK links or to check up on or an ex-Nazi, we would get the call.

Most of our regular content is also for the tabloid market. Not the celebrity stuff, but the quirky bizarre news designed to get people talking – today they call it viral news.

Our content is often frequently in the Most Read section on the Mail Online.

Here are few examples: Alpine farmers who need to dispose of the bodies of dead cows when they were in remote pastures by poking dynamite into the animal’s rear end, leaving behind pieces that were small enough to be eaten by foxes so the meat did not pollute the water table; the Romanian scrap metal thief

who tried to steal a high voltage overhead cable using bolt cutters, or the Croatian man who died when his dog urinated on a lamppost that had been made live by a loose wire. Often tragic – but news that people remembered, and spoke about.

A Sunday Telegraph reporter over here to cover the rise of the far Right FPÖ party told me he liked reading our content, but it didn’t belong in the Telegraph.

He was on about the story of a farmer that was using warm milk to provide central heating in his house.

He and other quality newspaper readers might scorn CEN’s day-to-day news coverage, but aside from whether it belonged there or not, it paid the bills and allowed us to do the more serious investigations that often didn’t generate income.

An example a series of three front pages for The Sunday Telegraph relaunch on human trafficking that won the paper an Amnesty award. But we have also looked at the trade in children, EU funding fraud, incompetent foreign medics, complicated tax scams about celebrities or businesses with offshore accounts, and countless fraudsters taking advantage of the British public from bases on the Continent.

Major breaking stories too were part of our remit – a foreign news story like EU eastern expansion, or Maddie McCann, or Austrian cellar victims Elisabeth Fritzl or Natascha Kampusch would involve foreign desks spending tens of thousands of pounds daily.

The News of the World offered a million pounds for the first interview with Natascha Kampsuch.

These were the stories that the wire agencies failed spectacularly to do as well as us simply because they couldn’t afford to put as many staff on the ground. They had to cover their regular news feed and had other news media to supply – not all of whom would be happy about the normal service suffering for the likes of the above.

With no fixed fee for a fixed output, freelancers and agencies are free to follow the agenda items as their smaller client base dictates.

Those big news items provided the income that kept things running when it was quieter, and sometimes it was very quiet. Our income fell by 80 per cent after 11 September.

Total income in February five months after 11 September was the lowest in the company’s history – £9,000. Against that a single deal for a news book once brought in £250,000.

News only picked up two years after 11 September but ever since the agency was founded in 1995 its never been smooth – like a roller coaster ride you find a peak, you can benefit from it for about two years, and then after that you need a new project because you are back at the bottom again.

I once had a close working relationship with the Telegraph, a guaranteed fixed monthly income of £500 as a retained stringer plus generous article fees, but it was clear that was set to end when I got a letter explaining they were to cut those fees back because there was no longer value in original content, and that was because of the competition from the internet.

With hundreds of thousands of new items a day who can tell what is new anymore?

That was before the Telegraph had its MPs’ expenses scandal story in 2009 but it didn’t change their minds – at the end of the day original news content whether its tabloid or quality is expensive.

They were right, it doesn’t make commercial sense. The internet has taken away readers and the advertisers that funded the newsrooms – which means less money for editorial spending on our content, leaving a weaker product and as a   result even more readers and advertisers going to the internet.

The solution therefore it seemed to us back in 2005 was to move to the internet ourselves to get some of those readers and adverts, and invest in news to turn around the trend.

Building a radio studio, getting together a mobile film crew or starting a picture agency had been easy – and although the idea of creating a web page and publishing seemed equally easy – the reality was another matter altogether.

Keep an eye on the Press Gazette for the next instalment of Leidig’s story.

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