Interviewer: Chris Sutcliffe
Chris: Tell us about The Overtake, and its mission.
Robyn: The Overtake is a news website for millennials. We try and focus on investigative journalism and the stories that aren’t well covered by the mainstream media. There are a lot of really good publications that do a lot of really good stuff for millennials, but often because they’re quite London-centric, they don’t normally represent the Northern experience, or sometimes they do sometimes they don’t. So, that’s the kind of thing that we focus on, generally speaking.
Traffic obviously is a part of that but we don’t have any programmatic ads or anything that directly is influenced by traffic. So, when we sell sponsored content, people are looking at our site stats rather than literally paying us per click, essentially.
Chris: So what would be one of those examples of a piece of investigative journalism you’ve done that you don’t think would have garnered attention outside of some very niche local areas?
Robyn: We probably done a mixture of stuff. We did something last year that was a long read where our chief reporter Ethan Schoen went on an illegal fox hunt with fox hunt saboteurs. He just followed the hunt around. And obviously because he’s a normal-looking guy, doesn’t really look like a journalist, he went under the radar a little bit, and that’s done very well for us. We tend not to focus too much on traffic, specifically traffic, but that that one was quite widely shared. So that’s quite a good example.
To be honest, one of the most famous well-known articles that we’ve done recently, which was long listed for the Private Eye Paul Foot Award was actually about London, which we don’t normally do, but it was about racist door policies at London nightclubs, which I think if you ask any person of colour, it’s not very mind-blowing investigation because it’s something that a lot of people have experienced. But it’s something that hasn’t been written about very much.
Chris: It seems like you almost pre-empted then the current push back towards long form, back towards writing stories that will really resonate with a particular audience.
Robyn: It felt stupid to be saying, ‘No I think people want long reads’, especially because the wisdom at the time was that young people especially don’t want to read anything long. They want everything in tweet form, and they don’t have a long attention span, which is the absolute opposite of what we found.
So if you look at the stats on The Overtake, the 18 to 24 demographic reads for the longest. And then each demographic it tails off a little bit.
Chris: And on The Overtake site, you mention quite prominently that you’re an independent outlet. So how important is that to yourself, to the journalists and to the people who ultimately choose to support you, do you think?
Robyn: I mean to be honest with you, if a big company came along and gave us a load of money to just do our investigations, we’d probably suddenly find that being independent wasn’t that important to us. I think this is what we wanted to do, and the independence allows us to do exactly what we want to do, it allows us to do investigations, allows us to maybe decide that actually instead of doing a load of events, or we want to do this or do that, we want to channel everything we’ve got into an investigation.
And there are two big investigations that we’re working on at the moment, that probably…a bigger company that’s trying to scrape some profit out of it would not allow us to do. So, in that sense being independent is really important.
Obviously no media really is truly independent. Well the money’s got come from somewhere, so it either comes from a massive backer, it comes from trusts, it comes from advertisers. So, we’re very careful about who we choose to work with, because ethically we wouldn’t feel comfortable putting some things on on the site.
And there have been times in the past where I’ve been approached to write some sponsored content about something that I feel fundamentally is not good for our audience. And I’ve refused, which is always a bit of a balancing act, trying to make sure you’ve got enough money coming in. It’s really tricky.
Chris: Difficult. Yeah. Holy shit.
Robyn: Yeah. And there’s no there’s no prizes for turning down an advertiser. It is tricky. And it’s finding a balance all the time.
I think for us, independence means that my entire team are the people that own the company, and it means we can do exactly what we want to do. That’s really refreshing, because you can have the freest job in journalism, but it is very rare that you can do exactly what you want to do.
Chris: I mean you personally, you worked in London for a while, if I remember correctly? So what was the motivation then to move up to Leeds to re-establish a base outside – I’m quite uncomfortable with the phrase the London bubble, I don’t know what that means anymore – outside of the capital where so much of the resources and so much the attention on the press sits?
Robyn: Well I think that the problem is actually, in London there are a lot of journalists from outside London. Most journalists I would say are probably from outside London, journalists from Yorkshire, which is where I live and where I’m from, in London. But the problem is, you have to a little bit buy into it, because you know you’re going to be living there for for a while, maybe your entire life.
There’s two things, if you’re from the North, you obviously go to London with a bit of a perspective – I say the North, but outside of London actually generally – you go into London with a bit of outside perspective. But after a while it dwindles.
So I was in London for six years. I only ever came back and visited, and I visited Leeds quite regularly, because my family and friends are all here. I wasn’t living here every day, and just even simple things like how truly awful the public transport is up here. I would maybe get a train every now and again because I’d be coming back and visiting family, and then the rest of time I’d be in London. Whereas now I live here, I’m like oh God, this is a real mess. This is an absolute crisis.
You mentioned that I lived in London. But actually none of my team are from down there. So some freelancers have worked in the London media, the mainstream media, but none of my team have. They’re all Northerners, and actually none of them have had a journalism job before. So for a lot of them this is their first job in journalism. And some of them are very young. So, in their very early 20s.
We’ve probably had nearly a hundred work experience people who come and do…we have internships where they come one day a week for a maximum of 15 weeks. And you’d be surprised how few are truly enthusiastic about actual journalism. A lot of them are interested in writing, or have a passion for blogging or opinion, but very few of them really have a passion for finding stories, and potentially doing some very very boring work in order to get a good story out of it at the end.
So recently we did an investigation where we looked into – which we’ve just finished – where we looked into the Tory candidates’ donations. And a lot of that was going through Companies House, going through Linkedin, going through a lot of very boring reports to find out information about them. There are very few young journalists who would be up for doing a lot of that, spending a full day head buried in loads of really boring stuff essentially to find good stories.
Ethan who I mentioned before, who did the fox hunting article, he’s our chief reporter. He doesn’t have A-levels…I hope he doesn’t mind me saying this! He doesn’t have A-levels, and he worked in manufacturing for five years before he did this, but he’s just a natural talent. I don’t know where he came from. I don’t know why he’s good at writing and has a passion for journalism, but he’s just brilliant.
So, it just goes to show if you look in the right places, and if you’re open to people from unconventional journalism backgrounds, you can you can get some real gems definitely.
Chris: Yes certainly. I mean arguably that’s exactly what the industry needs, is people who don’t have the Oxbridge upbringing that a lot of the people particularly the top of the newspapers actually do. There’s definitely a place for that, but actually having a different perspective. You mentioned sponsored content before, is that the primary funding method that you use?
Robyn: Sponsored content is the thing that we’re focusing on the most at the moment. I suppose as a journalist, I have never been hugely focussed on doing anything that monetises the website, because I just have zero…obviously we’ve got pay bills, we’ve got pay the team, and it isn’t that difficult to make it work financially if you have the right people on board.
And it’s something that now I’m really having to focus on because now we employ a good number of people, there’s been some months where I’ve been able to pay myself, some months I haven’t, it goes up and down depending what bills we’ve had in and things like that. And sponsored content I think is a huge area that we can grow into.
So we’ve done a little bit already, and I’ve just taken on a couple of really good salespeople. That’s been quite transformational for us, because previously we were an editorial team trying to do sponsored content. You’ve really got to lay it out on the table and show the brands exactly what they’ll get from you. And previously I’ve been like, well if they don’t get it, there’s nothing I can do. And that’s ridiculous because obviously that’s what sales is about.
But we also do have our Patreon, which is an absolute lifeline. So, for us the lowest amount you can do is about 63p a week and that includes VAT. And it just helps us know that we’re going to be able to pay the bills. So we’ve got about 85 Patreon people at the moment.
Chris: That’s good.
Robyn: Yeah. Well most of it’s been quite organic obviously, when you set up a Patreon page, you want a few people on there before you tell people about it. So there’s a few friends and family in there.
But generally speaking, every couple days we’ll get emails saying that we’ve got a new person, and I’ll read the name to the team. And I always expect someone to be like, ‘Oh yeah that’s my uncle!’ But it’s not. Often these people are strangers to us, which is really exciting because it means that people are noticing it, and seeing a value in it without me having to ask directly for people to join.
And then we do a tiny bit of syndicating content. I’m trying not to do it very much because I feel like it devalues our site, if we syndicate everything it devalues what we do, and the reason for coming to us.
Chris: So you’re obviously hugely involved in the editorial side. You mentioned that that was your primary focus and presumably it’s still the thing that you’re most excited about and interested in. So how do you actually find the time then to think about strategy and think about where The Overtake might go next?
Robyn: It’s really tricky actually. I tend to rely a lot on the team. I’ll often sit down with them have meetings with them and I’ll say, ‘Look where do we think we are going as a as a team?’ I don’t think I would really…well there’s absolutely no way I would have been able to do any of this without them anyway.
But I don’t really think I could do too much of the strategy, and too much of the direction of the company and where it’s going without them, because each person is just so vital to what we do.
I have to say I do do quite a lot of long days, and sometimes when I want to do some real reporting, I’ll sometimes clear the weekend so that I can do that, which isn’t ideal. I’m trying not to do it as much because it’s really really bad for your mental health to constantly do long days and then still sometimes do weekends.
But the one that was longlisted for the Paul Foot Award, the racism in London nightclubs piece, that I did over a weekend. I got the idea for it on the Friday, did all the research and the work, and published it on the Sunday.
And sometimes it’s just necessary to do it like that. I don’t want to, but to do something like this without any investment, or without somebody coming along with a big wad of cash and saying, ‘Do you ever you want’, you’ve got to make a lot of sacrifices, and a lot of it is time, and sometimes mental health as well.
Chris: So what then, given all that and given that there’s a lot of hardships almost that you have to overcome, what does a good week look like for The Overtake? Is it, we brought in X number of subscribers, is it, we managed to publish something that we think is really going to shift public thinking on this, is it effectively the same as for any news outlet, or is there more specific things for you?
Robyn: No. I think that’s about right actually. I would say people often ask, ‘What are your KPIs?’ And obviously I understand the need for some kind of metrics to understand how well you’re doing, but I think are the team happy? Do people feel like they’re working on something that nobody sees, or do they feel like they’re overworked or do they…well they’re always going to feel like they’re underpaid or at least in the immediate future.
So number one, are the team happy? Number two, are we doing stuff that we can really be proud of?
So, every now and again someone will do an article that just blows up. So we had a piece that was about the ethics of burying people instead of cremating. So we published that last week I think, and that was written by Samir Ahmed who just turned 19. I think she’s 18 when she wrote that piece, and again another absolute gem. Don’t know how we found her, she’s exceptional. So we published it maybe last week. and it’s one of our most read articles, just inexplicably. It’s a great piece, but we do lots of great pieces that don’t do nearly as well as that.
So I don’t let my team look at traffic at all because I just don’t want them to get hung up on that.
Chris: That’s interesting.
Robyn: Yeah. It’s just no good for anyone. It’s not good for you. I’ll obviously look at traffic and just make sure that we’re slowly growing, but I don’t want them to do an article that they put the absolute heart and soul into, that’s exceptional, and then people just for some reason don’t notice it, or it doesn’t get picked up, or it doesn’t go on the front page of a news app. I don’t want to put my team through that unnecessarily.
I want them to understand the value of the journalism that they do, not the number of people that read it.
Chris: So what can Media Voices listeners do to support either The Overtake, or maybe other outlets like it?
Robyn: The thing is, we get a lot of really good advice from people. So it might be as simple as, ‘Oh your website should show more articles. I should be able to scroll back for three months worth of articles,’ which is great but there’s nothing we can do about that until we get more money in, so that we can pay someone to fix that problem.
A lot of people feel like they’re being very helpful by giving advice. And I will always welcome advice, but essentially it’s more about donating a little bit of your time, if you’re able to do so, or a little bit of your expertise to be able to help out. And then obviously like I say, the money is a huge thing. So small publications just really don’t have the same kind of clout as big publications.
At the end of the day, everybody likes the idea of independent media existing alongside things like the Daily Mail. But not everybody likes the idea of contributing financially to it, which I do understand, and not everybody’s in a position to do so, but they don’t exist without donations and they don’t exist without people helping out. And so whether people can contribute a bit of time, or whether they can contribute a bit of money, it makes the world of difference.
And actually just sometimes people getting in touch with me and saying, ‘Oh I’ve noticed your SEO isn’t very good, and I can do these things for you to help out.’ That makes the world a difference compared to somebody saying, you should do these things, because I am at absolute capacity at the moment. We don’t have any spare cash to invest in improving the website, or improving different things. And actually there’s a lot of things I could do if I had the time, or that I could learn about if I had the time, but we’re just absolutely stretched at the moment.
So, even to somebody who says, ‘I’ve got a free afternoon on a Thursday, I can pop in for an hour or so and help you with this.’ It’s absolutely transformative.
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