In the wake of the events that lead to the on-going Leveson inquiry into press practices, one news organisation is attempting to prove that investigative journalism can be both ethical and capable of generating a profit. Conceived by Mark Watts, current Editor-in-Chief, PR executive Tim Pendry and media finance specialist David Baxter, Exaronews.com is a subscription-based site that aims to eschew the “churnalism” that it claims dominates mainstream media outlets in favour of the rigorous investigative practices used by journalists of old. In the relatively short amount of time that has passed since the site’s launch in October 2011, Exaro has uncovered numerous scandals, including the widespread tax avoidance practiced by civil servants, which have subsequently been picked up by larger titles, including the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail.
The organisation makes no bones about its desire to turn the site into an economically viable business model, in contrast with other investigative titles such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Exaro’s founders put forward the rather convincing argument that good journalism and rigorous investigation require a lot of time and a lot of money, but as a result the information unearthed is far more valuable than the content usually reported in the news. By paying a subscription fee the reader is able to access the exclusive information and articles that have been painstakingly investigated over a long period of time.
Despite this emphasis on the value of reliable information, Exaro demonstrates a certain unwillingness to place much faith in the average reader’s desire to pay for it. Such reluctance is perhaps understandable in an age where consumers are enticed by free online news articles at every turn. Professionals from the world of business and the City are the site’s target audience, as Exaro hopes to appeal to a readership that has already proven to be far more willing to pay for information than the general public. The organisation’s business model certainly convinced Jerome Booth, the hedge fund founder who has funded the entire project, in a move that seems to indicate that members of the business and economic world recognise the financial potential of well-researched information. Corporate subscriptions, of the kind that the Financial Times was able to attract, are more important to the financial success of the enterprise than those of individuals from the other demographic targeted by the Watts and his team, namely broadsheet readers tired of celebrity-based reporting and uncritical journalism.
The marriage of old and new, rigorous research and online data, could be the future of investigative journalism, and an attempt to produce a financially viable news outlet in the digital age is laudable. That said, Exaro’s desire to “investigate issues that are important to business in particular and to the public in general“ could be hampered by the organisation’s desire to court corporate interest. Should it begin to be seen as too niche, or as not engaging enough with the "ordinary" reader, then its claims to be providing socially valuable news could be compromised. As things stand, the organisation seems to have so far succeeded in its desire to apply the dogged determination of detective journalism to the vast amounts of data that remains ignored by mainstream media outlets. The question remains whether the wider public will show an interest in the project, and if the project will be able to continue to produce content that simultaneously attracts a specific, corporate audience and a more general readership, whilst achieving its goal of turning a profit within the next three years.