Martin Lewis: The journalist who broke the rules and hit the jackpot

When Martin Lewis began his journalism career at BBC Radio 5 in the late nineties he recalls receiving a stinging appraisal.

He was criticised, he says, for being 'too focused on doing interesting stories". His line manager apparently noted that: 'He should focus on news stories and learn the difference between what's news and what's interesting."

It is advice that Lewis has done exceptionally well by disregarding – as the £87m sale of his site to Moneysupermarket.com dramatically illustrates.

Since launching MoneySavingExpert nine years ago, the site has become the UK's largest money publication with an unusual journalistic formula.

It is prescriptive; it tells people what they should do. And it doesn't focus on news, rather on providing people with information that they can use to save money. It's backbone is a weekly email, Martin's Money Tips, which pre-dates the site itself and began as a mailout to Lewis's friends which turned viral.

Talking about the secret of the site's success, he says: 'When you are working on the web, you need to identify what people are interested in and not necessarily what's news.

'When we write a story on car insurance, hardly anyone reads it, what they want to know about is how they can get it cheaper. You need to give them what they want."

Another early piece of advice Lewis ignored was from a friend who said that he needed to get adverts on his site and that he should take his face off the top of it.

He says: 'In my subject, people want to see the whites of your eyes and want to see who is giving you the information."

'I didn't start the website to make money'

MoneySavingExpert never has carried adverts. Instead the editorial team research the best products and then the commercial team go to the providers mentioned and sell them paid-for links. If the named product does not want to take out a link, then a link will still be provided for readers. But those who pay do benefit from more prominence.

For Lewis, the fact that the editorial team does its own independent research regardless of who pays for the links is sacrosanct. This, and the independence of the editorial, has been hardwired into the deal via an editorial code. If the code is broken, Lewis notes, there are multi-million pound penalty clauses.

This editorial code is particularly key considering the fact that Moneysupermarket.com is one of the biggest providers of paid-for links to MoneySavingExpert.

Lewis says: 'I didn't start the website to make money, I started it up because I believe in it. My name is still above the door and it will stay there for at least three years."

He said the deal will deliver various 'backend'technological improvements for the site, make it more search-engine friendly and drive more traffic via links from Moneysupermarket.com (which will also carry content from the Lewis site).

Lewis is tied in as editor-in-chief for three years, after which he may opt to take an editor-at-large style role.

Lewis says one of the lessons behind his success is the way the 'synergy'between his work on TV, his newspaper columns and the website, has paid off. Each one feeds off and benefits the other.

'We have a very happy team at the moment'

He says that the opportunities are there for all journalists working in the digital era because 'there is such a voracious appetite for quality original content".

Lewis sees himself very much as a journalist, noting that some of the reports about last week's deal described him as a former journalist: 'I don't see owning a publication as being incongruous with being a journalist."

Lewis does not talk about his own wealth, but he is now probably the richest journalist in the UK.

In 2011, the site reported pre-tax profits of £12.6m on turnover of £15.8m. The vast majority of the £87m purchase price will go into Lewis's pocket, via £35m in cash and 22.1m in Moneysupermarket shares (currently worth 118p each).

He says that he always promised his staff a share of the proceeds if site was sold, and true to his word, each will walk away with tens of thousands when the deal is completed.

'We have a very happy team at the moment.'

This piece first appeared in last week's edition of Press Gazette – Journalism Weekly. Register here to receive your free copy of Press Gazette – Journalism Weekly

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