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June 13, 2008

Standalone journalist Mike Magee goes global, causing headaches for Big Media

By Peter Kirwan MM blog

So Mike Magee, arguably Britain’s most successful online journalist-entrepreneur, has ventured where Andrew Neil and the Barclay brothers fear to tread.

As Press Gazette reports this week, the co-founder of The Register and founder of The Inquirer has launched his latest venture — a Bangalore-based web site that offers a torrent of technology industry news, courtesy of three Indian reporters and a cast of western freelancers.

Actually, the comparison with Neil’s decision to back away from launching an Indian edition of The Spectator is only partly valid. But it does conceal a bigger, and fascinating, story.

Neil reportedly decided not to launch in India because of ownership rules that limit foreign investment to 25% of any venture.

As Magee told me this week, he is not the majority shareholder in IT Examiner. The real power behind the throne is Cher Wang, a 50-year-old Taiwanese technology entrepreneur whose fortune is valued by Forbes at $3.5bn. *

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Alongside her husband, Wang owns large stakes in the vast Taiwanese companies High Tech Computer and VIA Technologies. According to Magee, Wang plans to launch “20 to 30 web sites in the next few years”. He’s planning to stick around to help.

Given that Magee is going to spend a lot of time commuting between his home in Harrow and Bangalore, it’s good to know that he won’t need to travel economy class.

Magee sold The Inquirer to the Dutch-owned trade publisher VNU for a rumoured seven-figure sum in 2006. Subsequently, VNU’s London operation was bought by Incisive Media. Under new ownership, Magee continued working for The Inq until a few months ago.

According to Magee, Incisive Media has been unsettled by his new venture. As he tells it, with a hint of wide-eyed innocence, The Inquirer is trying to ban freelancers from working for both it and his new venture. At IT Examiner, they’re reporting something similar — with added fruity language.

“I don’t why they’ve done it, really,” Magee told me this week. “If you look at my new web site, it’s nothing to do with my old web site.”

(No doubt some would disagree. Earlier this week, I put a call through to Paul Hales, the long-time Inquirer journalist and friend of Magee who succeeded him as editor, to ask about this claim. He hasn’t returned my call.)

Despite the fact that this row involves freelancers, what it actually underlines is the obvious difficulty faced by media companies tempted to buy out A-list bloggers and standalone journalists.

When writers own the means of production and distribution, talent gets slippery. Specifically, it starts to slip through the fingers of big corporations. For the small proportion of journalists and bloggers who can make it on a standalone basis, this is the positive flip-side of redundancies and cut-backs.

Among other things, it also explains why bloggers tend to become part of mainstream media via syndication and links, rather than acquisition.

That said, mischief seems to have followed Magee around relentlessly all his working life.

Back in the 1990s, when The Register was still a twinkle in his eye, Magee was working as a wage slave for PC Dealer, a thrill-a-minute weekly that chronicled the ups and downs of the tech industry’s wide-boy sales community.

Magee’s news editor complained about his long absences and — in the way that news editors tend to — the mangled copy that materialized during his sporadic visits to the office.

According to legend, Magee responded by rattling off a cracking scoop backwards on his screen — spelling the words in reverse, too. He filed the story and quickly wandered off for a leisurely lunch.

When Magee returned, the news editor was both grateful for the scoop and driven berserk by the job of decoding it.

As Incisive’s silence this week probably attests, dealing with Mike Magee when he has a point to prove is not a job for the faint-hearted.

* Footnote: Presumably, being Taiwanese makes you as much of a foreigner in India as Andrew Neil and the Boys from Brecqhou. The conundrum remains. . .

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