Independent media is in crisis. Can you help?

21st May 2019

Whenever I talk to people about the work we do at The Overtake, there’s always one question that comes up every time, albeit hesitantly.

“How do you survive… you know, financially?”

It’s a fair question, not just because it’s not immediately obvious from looking at our site, but because the modern media is a graveyard of independent publishers.

Earlier this month, we were devastated to hear Media Diversified was closing. The publisher, which foregrounded people of colour in a very white industry, survived six years and had an enormous impact on how journalists and readers navigate and interpret a white-people-obsessed media. Media Diversified went through rounds of crowdfunding to try to stay afloat — it always endeavoured to pay its writers — but the seemingly inevitable happened. While the publication is no longer publishing, you can still read the archives — and I’d recommend it.

Similarly, back in February, beloved indy women’s publisher The Pool very publicly collapsed, leaving talented freelancers and staff hundreds of thousands of pounds out of pocket.

These might be some of the more high-profile instances but there are lots more examples too, from scrappy start-ups to grassroots community publishers to those with a huge backing from private investors.

We’re in a privileged position for a publication that rarely publishes anything from an established journalist with a large following

Part of the reason The Overtake still exists is luck. The day we launched, one of our stories was shared widely and appeared on a news app, which got us a big hit of early traffic that helped get us noticed and prove our legitimacy from the start.

Since then, we’ve maintained a steady stream of readers that ebbs and flows. Sometimes an article is read 50,000 times and other times it’s less than 1,000.

Generally speaking, we’re visible — and that’s a privileged position to be in, especially for a publication that rarely publishes anything from an established journalist with a large following.

I feel strongly that good journalism should not be only for those who can afford to pay

As a small publisher run by young people in the North of England, by virtue of our existence, we’ve always done things differently. But this extends to how we raise and spend money too.

Our revenue comes from our incredible Patreon supporters, sponsored content and, occasionally, smaller things like the odd syndicated article in another publication.

I’ve resisted every attempt to heavily monetise our content, though as time goes on and resources get more scarce, it’s increasingly appealing to have an autoplay video ad or other programmatic ads on the articles. I really think people deserve not to be intensely sold to every hour of every day and, though paywalls do tend to work, I feel strongly that good journalism should not be only for those who can afford to pay.

One of our main issues is, unlike many of our contemporaries, we’ve never managed to get a grant or win an award, though have been shortlisted for both in the past. This is partly through our own lack of knowledge, contacts and experience, and partly because we’ve been unable to find any that we’re genuinely eligible for without having to pretend we’re something we’re not. Most established grants focus on building newsroom or reporting tech or are for registered charities and, of a small handful of specifically journalism grants, most focus on the developing world, are for cross-border projects or are for organisations based in the US.

The biggest irony though — and the biggest frustration for me — is with such a tiny, overstretched team and the obligations of running a daily news website, there have been times when we’ve been too underresourced to even apply, cutting our already unlikely chance of winning down to zero.

When I thought things couldn’t get more difficult, we’re being asked to move out of our office at very short notice

Despite this, one reason we’ve existed so long is that we’ve saved money in a lot of places. We’re all quite severely underpaid — most of the team have additional jobs to top up their income — and we get our office space very cheap from a great Leeds arts charity, East Street Arts.

Though our revenue is steadily increasing and we’re not technically losing money (at the moment), just a couple of unexpected costs in the last few weeks have caused me a real headache.

When I thought things couldn’t get more difficult, we’re being asked to move out of our office at very short notice — another cost and disruption that we can’t afford. It’s a real kicker as it’s come at the worst possible time.

A couple of months back, though we had less money coming in, we would have been able to afford to move into a more expensive office. However, aside from unexpected costs, we’ve taken on two part-time salespeople (and full-time powerhouses), Rima and Aaliyah. They’re a great investment and essentially in a matter of days have already sold sponsored content to some great companies who we’re really excited to work with. But the reality is I still have to pay their salaries, and everyone else’s, before our sponsors pay their invoices — which can easily create cashflow problems.

Freelancers (quite rightly) often complain of late payment from publishers, which has been something I’ve tried very hard to avoid and, bar one or two slip-ups, I’ve been successful at. But it’s very hard to juggle the routine of commissioning and paying (especially as you can assume most freelancers have 28-day payment terms but some ask for payment as soon as seven days, which is perfectly fine but you don’t tend to know until after commissioning) while keeping an eye on what’s coming in, praying that companies will pay you on time. There are many times, including last month, that I’ve forgone paying myself completely in order to avoid paying people late.

It’s only worked so far because of the favours amazing people have done for us and the few lucky breaks we’ve had

Sometimes it’s been a nightmare and frequently it’s left me lying awake at night, thinking of my brilliant, hardworking team and incredible freelancers, and how much they rely on this not only existing but functioning reliably and sustainably.

Of course, there are a great many ways we could have been more fortunate with The Overtake but it’s only worked so far because of the favours amazing people have done for us and the few lucky breaks we’ve had — both of which you need in this industry, no matter how good your work is (in fact, especially if you value being good over being quick).

I’d like to ask another favour, if I haven’t asked enough already (and, chances are, if you’re a regular reader I have). I’d like to ask you to go out on a limb and trust us with your cash and, in return, we’ll do our absolute best to create the kind of quality journalism you can say you’re proud to have contributed to.

We get lots of great advice from all sorts of people (yes, we know our homepage should show more articles) but we’re often without the resources to actually do anything about these things. If you’re able to give just an hour of your pay a month or as little as £2.30 (plus VAT, sorry we can’t do anything about that) to our Patreon, it will not only contribute towards getting us clear of any financial holes but mean that we can tackle some of our readers’ bugbears. Or, if this feels like too large a commitment, our PayPal is team+pay@theovertake.com and any one-off donations would be also greatly appreciated.

Everybody likes the idea of a healthy media where good quality independent journalism exists alongside the big publishers

Everybody likes the idea of a healthy media where good quality independent journalism exists alongside the big publishers we’re all familiar with. But the lesson that’s coming through from the struggle and ultimate death of so many independents is that this idea only really works when people are also willing to contribute.

We’re doing the best we can to top up everything that comes in from readers with sponsored content and I’m hoping over the next couple of months we’ll end up on a sounder financial footing. But in the meantime, if you’re in the position to help us and you value what we do, the best thing you can do to ensure we continue to publish great journalism from writers who may not have got a chance otherwise, is to contribute.

Main image: Our chief reporter Ethan Shone, during an investigation into what MEPs have been up to since the Brexit vote.

21st May 2019