Mercury rising in Caledonia

The Caledonian Mercury is the UK’s most editorially ambitious online-only newspaper. Launched in January 2010 it claims to be ‘The Economist meets The Huffington Post drinking Irn Bru’. More prosaically, it appears to be trying to create an online national newspaper for Scotland to rival the established sites of The Scotsman and The Herald.

Its daily diet of news analysis and features is probably more akin to a weekly magazine, at the moment, with four or five news stories on the site most days.

The Edinburgh-based publication has recorded more than 700,000 visitors since launch and it has more than 1,600 followers on Facebook and Twitter.  It has also won, or been runner up in a couple of industry awards.

Its economic model is unusual.  “We did not have any start up capital”, explains editor, Stewart Kirkpatrick. “I set the paper up with two colleagues, Graham Jones and Tony Purcell, and between us we had the technical know how to create the site ourselves – it works on a WordPress Multiuser – and we are working a revenue-share model with our journalists”.

Eleven writers regularly contribute to the site. Like Kirkpatrick – a former editor of Scotsman.com – most have prominent careers on Scotland’s main papers behind them.  Each takes a share of the revenue generated by the paper.  To date there has not been much of this, although Kirkpatrick says that the most recent payment to contributors was “several hundred pounds”.

“Now that we have got the audience and the editorial success, I am hoping by the end of the year we will have the revenue to be making substantial monthly payments to our journalists”, says Kirkpatrick. 

The impulse to create the paper came, says Kirkpatrick, from an ambition “to find a way to make money out of the internet for journalists”. He also believed that there was a large pool of quality journalists available in Scotland who did not have “a chance to breath and a chance to really write.  Now we have found that gap.”

Nick Clayton who writes for the Mercury about technology says that he did not come to the project with great earnings expectations – so has been delighted with the modest sums that he has received. “I have been writing a lot for the Wall Street Journal Europe recently and there are a lot of stories that I come across that they can’t use, so The Mercury is a good place for them. I can’t afford to turn down paying work, however, so when I am busy, I file less”.

The contractual arrangements between the Caledonian Mercury and its contributors are vague, and working relationships depend to a large extent on the personal trust that Kirkpatrick enjoys with journalists.  Most, like Clayton, have been personal friends for many years.

As for the product, Clayton says that depending on essentially voluntary contributions means that at times it is patchy.  “It is evolving, though, just like papers like The Scotsman in the early days when it was a weekly.  It is better carving out its own niche than trying to compete with better resourced rivals.” 

Not everyone is impressed. A senior editor on one of Scotland’s dailies dismissed the Mercury as “a vanity publishing project for has-beens who are squandering their redundancy cheques”.

Mike Wilson, site manager of media-news site allmediascotland.com, however, is significantly more upbeat about the Mercury’s achievements.  “Stewart has recruited a fantastic team of journalists, created a brand and established real momentum since January”, he says. “There was a great buzz at the launch and Ed Milliband mentioned The Caledonian Mercury in a speech the other day.  It is not quite yet a must-read for opinion formers – but it is on a trajectory that could make it that in the near future.” 

Wilson goes on to say that The Caledonian Mercury has very effectively reached out to the Scots Diaspora, and has produced some strong health coverage.  Sports reporting has been less successful, he notes, but he particularly praises the design and functionality improvements since launch.

The challenge for Kirkpatrick and his colleagues now is to ensure that the revenue ramps up as quickly as he is predicting.  His contributors won’t stay with him indefinitely, if the size and regularity of their cheques does not increase.  Nor are they likely to give the paper their best stories, if they know they can sell them elsewhere for more money.

If by the paper’s anniversary Kirkpatrick has generated the revenue that he predicts, however, he and his colleagues will rightly be lauded as a visionaries of online journalism.

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