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Thursday, 19 July, 2001, 11:25 GMT 12:25 UK
Anatomy of a backlash 4
Hype's love affair with the internet, and the backlash which followed it, has been a remarkable period of recent history.

Yet all the time, internet usage figures have climbed regardless. Each day this week BBC News Online's Giles Wilson picks a key moment in the shifting sands of opinion.

No. 4: Is a website a luxury?

The Express site as it appeared earlier this year...

December 2000

The plug is pulled on the Daily Express website

Was a website an essential part of a business, or a luxury which could be jettisoned when things got tough? The answer was no longer obvious...

The media sees fads come and go all the time. But the net was special - not least because journalists themselves were wondering if it would soon take the place of all "old media".

The Daily Telegraph had been something of a pioneer among British media institutions in setting up the Electronic Telegraph in 1994. Other newspapers followed suit, until it became almost unthinkable for a newspaper not to have its own website. This, after all, was the future.

...and how it appeared when it was a bespoke news site
One Fleet Street title resolutely stood against the tide. Even though its owners backed several sites (eg Soccernet, Charlotte Street), there was no online version of the Daily Mail.

Its editor, Paul Dacre, was reported in July 2000 as having told his staff summer party: "A lot of people say that the internet is the future for newspapers. Well, I say"

At this time, the Mail's ultra rival, the Daily Express, decided to take the opposite approach.

It's not really worthy of comment now

Michael Streeter
The Express, then owned by Lord Hollick, brought the editor of its Scottish edition, Michael Streeter, to London with the instruction to make "the best newspaper website in the country".

He recalls setting the site up. "I was excited about it, although we'd seen the first signs of potential problems in new media.

"I wanted it to be not just carrying that morning's news, I wanted it to be a live news site. I wanted it to be interactive, to have readers getting involved in online debates with regulars from the paper.

"I also wanted us to have a cutting edge of doing some comment and stories, gossip and rumours that would be near to the knuckle, which would make it slightly dangerous, a bit like a Private Eye online."

His team worked hard at making a lively site. But the atmosphere soon changed.

Work had started in June. By August, he says, interest from management was waning. And by November, they knew the paper was going to be sold off.

The fortunes of the site were tied up with the sale of the Daily and Sunday Express and the Daily Star to Richard Desmond, the man who owns Asian Babes, Big Ones and 28 other "adult" magazines.

Paddy O'Clery: "We realised fairly soon on that our audience was completely different from the paper."
Desmond wanted to run the papers, but not the website. It was reported that the site - along with three other unrelated sites - had cost 8m, and only brought in 100,000 in advertising.

So they were sold off for 1. The last edition of the Express website was published on 15 December 2000.

The paper later started scanning its front page, and adding beneath the legend: "On sale at your newsagent now..."

Streeter is dismissive of what the site has become, even though a headline feed has been added. "It's not really worthy of comment at the moment," he says.

The passing of the Express website may well not have been noticed by many, but the speed with which its fortunes turned was quite dramatic. In a matter of weeks, it had changed from being an essential part of the future of the business, into something that could be sold off for a pound.

Things could have been different

When Lord Hollick sold the Express, he kept one website - Megastar, the online presence of the Daily Star.

Megastar advert, Nov 2000, promising "comprehensive coverage of culture and the arts"
An unashamedly "lad's mag" style of site, it had built a significant audience - 1.1million unique users in November 2000.

Megastar editor Paddy O'Clery says it had became clear that the audience for the site was different to the Daily Star's - the site had taken on a life of it's own.

So when Lord Hollick came to sell Megastar - for a reported 100,000 - the decision was taken to divorce completely from the newspaper.

Megastar, now part of, has eight staff who write the whole thing themselves. "It was a real advantage that we had found our own voice," says O'Clery.

Streeter says he could have broken even with a year or two. But he acknowledges the big problem for newspaper websites is they have no defined way of making money.

"But at the same time it does seem incredibly strange for a newspaper not to have a website. If you can't have a good functioning website with an archive - which is very important to a lot of people - you are seen as a diminished product."

It's a debate with no end in sight - the Times this week announced it would charge users 10 a year for access to some parts of its site.

That the media has no reliable answer to this modern conundrum may cheer anyone in a struggling who is wondering how on earth to make any money.

While this was going on, the rise in UK internet audience rose regardless.

In the year leading up to the closure of the Express site in December 2000, the number of homes in the UK with internet access rose from 5.1m to 8.6m.

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Tomorrow: In the final part of this series, hype finally turns its back.

1. October 1999

2. Spring 2000

3. Summer 2000

4. December 2000

5. Spring 2001

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