International Business Times is an expanding UK news website with a priest for an editor who is preaching an encouraging message for journalists.
The good news from George Pitcher is that it is possible to sustain a serious news operation with online advertising alone.
Former Daily Telegraph religion editor Pitcher has been editor-in-chief of IB Times for just over a year. In that time he says the London-based team has expanded from around 45 to 60 journalists. It has a further 20 journalists covering global news overnight based in Bangalore, India, and around 12 freelance stringers based around the world.
Pitcher says that IB Times turns a profit (although he declines to reveal how much) and that it does so largely thanks to income from display advertising.
Over the last year IB Times claims its traffic web traffic has increased from around 12.5m to 21m global unique visitors per month.
Describing online paywalls as “hanging on to the nurses’ apron string of the past” Pitcher believes the digital media economy is now at a point where advertising alone can support quality journalism.
He says: “We are trying to push traffic by the production of quality journalism.
“I am convinced this can be done and will be out of a job if I don’t deliver it.”
Pitcher describes himself “an old hack from the newspaper side” who is as surprised as anyone to be editing a major digital-only news operation at the age of 60.
After starting his career in journalism, including a stint as industrial editor of The Observer, Pitcher co-founded PR firm Luther Pendragon in 1992. He left after the company was sold in 2005 and in 2006 was ordained as a non stipendiary priest in the Church of England.
He returned to journalism as religion editor of the Telegraph in 2008 for two years before briefly returning to PR (including a year as press secretary for the Archbishop of Canterbury).
Pitcher became involved with IB Times after joining a sister title, the revived London edition of Newsweek magazine, as a contributing editor.
He says about being in his current job: “There was nobody more surprised than me.”
He believes he was recruited because digital journalism has come to a “tipping point”.
Talking in general terms, he believes online publishers have focused on analytics, monetisation and technology – “but they forgot all about the journalism”.
He says: “That’s been fortunate for one or two old hacks from the newspaper side. It’s given us some time in the sun.
“I was approached to bring some of those instincts and skills to the digital area.”
Changes brought in by Pitcher include a redesign which he believes has made the site look less American and the introduction of a breaking news desk to provide better coverage of live stories.
Pitcher singles out coverage of the revolution in Burundi, where he sent reporter Elsa Buchanan to report from the ground, and the Peshawar school massacre in Pakistan last December as stories which he feels IBTimes has led the way.
He also believes IB Times was ahead of other UK media on coverage of the Germanwings air crash, helped by the presence of German speakers on the staff.
Pitcher says: “Journalism is still about telling people something they didn’t already know first. That remains at the core of what we do as a general news website.
“But there are ways you can do that differently and we have the freedom of the new kids on the block to make some stories our own.”
IB Times marks its tenth anniversary next year and has seven global editions which have claimed total monthly traffic of 55m unique visitors.
Parent company US-based IBT Media also publishes Newsweek, which it revived in print last year. The UK edition of Newsweek was shut down in July, but it retains a website staff in the UK.
Pitcher says the International Business Times masthead was “inherited from when the company was providing market information” and is a little misleading.
He says: “Today we are as much solely business as the FT is solely finance.
"We are news generalists to such an extent that one of my challenges is making sure we are doing enough business.
“Geopolitics and business is our shop window. The things that push traffic are sport, entertainment, celebrity and technology stories.”
What he describes as the “voodoo element” of his job is ensuring the editorial balance is right between stories which will attract high traffic and broader coverage of the issues of the day.
He says: "You can’t just chase traffic. If you just run stories about how to reprogramme your iPhone 6 around photo galleries of Kim Kardasian’s backside you don’t keep the traffic because people don’t really want to be on sites as nerdy and as sleazy as that.”
He says one of his challenges is to raise the demographic of the audience and attract more of the A/B social class middle-aged readers sought by advertisers.
“The overall aim has to be not to win more traffic but to make it sticky.
"We’ve got to be a publication of record where readers coming to us know that we are covering everything that matters.“
He believes that can be done by focusing on some of the “standards and qualities” that he associates with “old Fleet Street” and that he found lacking when he returned to journalism at the Telegraph in 2008.
“Someone would say ‘can you do a piece on such and such George, we will put it straight on the website and see about the paper later on today'.
“I would ask ‘How much do you want?’ And they would say: ‘As much as you like, its online’.
“That’s an abrogation of journalistic discipline. There’s a world of difference between a 600, 800 and 1200-word piece. They are different acts of journalism.”
Asked how he found working under Tony Gallagher, who is set to join The Sun as editor, he says: “Tony fired me from the Telegraph, but he did it himself and I thought he did it well so I’ve no complaints.”
But there are some aspects of “old Fleet Street” that Pitcher does not want to bring across to the IB Times.
He says: “There was a time on the Telegraph when some seniors thought they hadn’t done their job properly if they hadn’t made a 24-year-old cry that week. I don’t think that’s helpful.”
Pitcher was reported to have made millions when he sold his PR firm (along with co-founder Charles Stewart-Smith).
He doesn’t need the money, so why is he still doing such a demanding job? (In fact, Pitcher does two jobs because at weekends he is rector of the parish church of Waldron with Cross in Hand near Heathfield in Sussex.)
He says: “Nobody ever goes into journalism because they are workaholics or for the money.
“I missed it when we were running the PR company.
“I looked forward to a time when I would demonstrate a perfect ability to do absolutely nothing on an Italian terrace somewhere with a glass of wine. But it doesn’t take long to get pretty bored with all that.
“The question hoves into view, what am I for – what’s the point of me? That’s a bit worrying really.
“I thought about doing PR again and dipped my toe in it. I was no good at it because I didn’t enjoy it any more. Blowing smoke up the jacksy of late capitalism isn’t a respectable occupation for a mature man.
“I like the transparency and accountability of journalism. I like journalists. And journalism is important.”
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