Robyn Vinter 4th February 2021
It’s very hard to end something that isn’t failing. After a while, you just have to make a decision.
Closing The Overtake isn’t a decision I came to quickly. It’s been on my mind for a year but every time I came close to it, I published something I could say for certain would never be published elsewhere, such as this powerful advice to working-class young people, written by our features editor Rik Worth.
But no matter how much great, unique stuff we published, the numbers didn’t add up. We were growing — both our revenue and pageviews were climbing every month — but so slowly that it could have been a decade before we had enough income to pay everyone fairly for the work they did.
I should say upfront — we don’t owe money to anyone and our employees and freelancers are fully paid up. We’re not collapsing or been forced to go into liquidation, I’ve just chosen to close it.
If you’ve followed us from the start, you’ll know that The Overtake was always held together by sheer force of will. Unfortunately, years of hurdles, dead ends and knockbacks take a big personal toll and each time it becomes slightly harder to pick yourself up.
I think people would expect me to save face and say it’s impossible to run an independent news website in today’s climate. But I just don’t believe that’s true.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s difficult and I wouldn’t embark on it alone if it can be avoided but it needs to be said that, for anyone thinking about doing something like this, it is definitely achievable. I don’t want people to be disheartened by seeing us close, especially because any publication starting now has a much better chance of long-term success than The Overtake did.
Back in 2016, when I started working on The Overtake, the vision I had was treated with scepticism.
Some people in the industry, especially investors, would tell me they didn’t “get” The Overtake’s target audience. Lots of people thought that “wokeness”, as we unironically called it then, was the preserve of avocado-munching Londoners who worked in the media.
They didn’t really understand that progressive, principled young people came from a range of backgrounds and lived all across the UK.
It’s easy to forget that The Overtake was formed before Extinction Rebellion, before #MeToo, before Black Lives Matter was a mainstream movement in the UK, when nobody had heard of the gig economy and before anyone had chanted “Ohhh Jeremy Corbyn!” to the tune of Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes. There was nothing tangible I could point to and say “Look, these are our readers”, I just knew they existed.
It wasn’t just our readership that some people didn’t understand, it was our methods too. A lot of things that are normal in the media now — long-form journalism for young people, not having comments on the site, not “pivoting to video” and not focussing on Facebook to drive traffic — these were all things that went against the grain of conventional thinking at the time.
For us, I’m not sure there were any real prizes in being one of the first to deviate from this because it was a constant struggle. But we were a small part of a movement that has proved that mainstream and more established media companies don’t necessarily have all the answers. In many cases, they have no answers at all.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is there’s now more of an understanding that independent media can be professional, high quality and serve audiences that are overlooked but completely legitimate.
There’s also a realisation now that times are tough for small publishers and real journalism is expensive.
These days there are grants and funds that value public interest journalism and they are genuinely open to independents. There are also different payment methods, where audiences can contribute to the organisations they like without necessarily buying a traditional subscription.
So, in a way, it’s frustrating to give up now.
The number one thing people say when I’ve mentioned closing is, “Don’t give up! You’re doing so well!”. And it’s partly because of those people that I’ve taken so long to come to this decision.
It’s been so draining for me — I look back now and there are times I don’t even know how I physically managed to get up every day and keep going.
At the end of last year, I explored lots of ideas for how we could change The Overtake to be more manageable and have more money coming in — such as focussing on podcasts, becoming a print magazine, being an investigative agency — but they all brought with them the same issues of people being underpaid.
Before making a final decision, I decided to give myself a chance to rest and process the last four years so that I knew I wasn’t making a decision based solely on exhaustion. I know now that I’m not.
We didn’t really scratch the surface of what I wanted to achieve with The Overtake though I am proud of what we did do.
We gave dozens of new entrants to journalism their first commission and, though I’m still concerned about how difficult it is for young people from underrepresented groups to access the industry, there are brilliant organisations like Journo Resources filling that gap.
Our work was recognised within the industry as we were shortlisted for the Georgina Henry Award at the Press Awards in 2017 and longlisted for the Private Eye Paul Foot Award in 2018.
As many people have told me, the amount we did as a nomadic and impoverished team was enormous — I can’t even comprehend what The Overtake would have been like if we’d ever really got off the ground financially.
There were times we were focussed on bringing in money and other times on growing our readership but ultimately what we wanted to do was change things and, in that, we were successful. We told personal stories that wouldn’t have been published elsewhere, we helped catch criminals, stuck up for people who were victimised and highlighted injustices.
There were times when we felt like we’d managed to get on a roll, never quite unstoppable but with a feeling that we were picking up momentum.
Unfortunately, sometimes this meant we did 80% of the groundwork for an investigation but didn’t have the budget to finish it. I’ve given my team permission to pitch these elsewhere, so there’s every chance you’ll see them appear in other publications over the next few months. I really hope so.
We doubled our supporters in 2020 and our traffic has consistently grown — in fact, last year we had some record months. I think this is proof that there’s a huge and increasing appetite for the kind of trustworthy, independent media that we embodied. Those with a better foothold will be in a great position to take advantage of this rising tide and I urge everyone reading this to support them — especially organisations without backing from private investors.
We had some amazing times that I’ll be able to look back on fondly and I feel very lucky to have had such a wonderful team. Running The Overtake was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done but it was also the most rewarding.
I have no idea how to thank all the people who supported us in big and little ways. There are literally hundreds of people who contributed to the things we achieved — in fact, they’re the reason we achieved anything at all. People who were on the end of the phone when I needed advice, gave their time and experience for free, provided incredibly necessary moral support, sent me links to grants and awards, bought us vital equipment, donated money, shared articles — they all built The Overtake.
I want to thank the succession interns who frequently took me by surprise by their talent and commitment. They came to learn about journalism and ended up showing a lot of patience and resilience in the face of low-level chaos. Some of them have already gone on to brilliant things, as I knew they would.
Thanks to Matt Round, who donated so much of his genius to The Overtake — I simply could not have done this without him — to Frankie Boyle, who was a shot in the arm when we needed it, and to Gurpreet Atwal who spent hundreds of hours unflappably keeping The Overtake on the straight and narrow.
Thanks to my incredible team who all worked for less than they deserved. Thanks to Rima Ahmed, Aaliyah Karim and Giada Origlia for their hard work and uncommon levels of persistence. Thanks to Ben Sledge, who is as hardworking as he is a delight to be around. Thanks to Rik Worth, whose writing made me laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time. Thanks to Abigail Fenton, who is simply the best young writer I have ever come across. And thanks to Ethan Shone, who was born an investigative reporter and, I’m sure, will go on to be a very well-known one.
Thanks finally to you, our readers. I cannot begin to tell you what a privilege it has been to write for you. Your capacity to care about what’s going on in the world and to be interested in the things we thought only we were interested in always blew us away.
More than that, it always felt like we were not alone and that you guys had our back at the most difficult times. I think that’s the thing I’ll miss the most.
Robyn Vinter 4th February 2021