Accent on quality in Net content venture

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 August, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 August, 2000, 12:00am

It is 2pm on Wednesday and the only thing stuffier than the hot Central streets is the atmosphere at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, complete with jaded hacks and puffy colonial leftovers lazily stuffing down Caesar salads.

Among those hacks are Englishmen Gary Jones and Richard Cook, extolling the virtues of, their off-and-running content provider - or 'online editorial intelligence', as it says on the glossy pamphlet they pass over.

The moment feels slightly surreal: a business journalist writing a story on journalists going into business in a room packed with . . . correspondents.

Occasionally, I have been at the same parties as these guys, so naturally I am sceptical, but then Amanda Yau - the vital third point of the firm's triangle with a wealth of publishing experience behind her - chimes in.

'When I was publishing I began doing some freelance work with more multimedia projects, so when the idea came up it kind of made sense because these two guys knew the freelance industry inside out and already had the contacts,' she said.

'The idea' is basically creating a kind of 'super-freelancer', one that supplies new copy and photographs in the exact size and style the client requires - usually to a tight deadline.

Both Mr Cook and Mr Jones are mainstays in Hong Kong's journalism circles, with stints at the English dailies and magazines before diving into freelancing in recent years.

'When I was freelancing I began doing more and more work for the Net,' said Mr Cook. 'It became clear there wasn't the same level of expertise being used on the Internet that there was in newspaper journalism, and it was a hole we thought we could plug.'

Mr Jones chips in: 'If the job is large and the deadline is tight, it's going to have to go out to a lot of different people, and I guess our clients could divide that into 10 different jobs for 10 different freelancers. But when it comes back, stylistically it will be everywhere.

'So, we act as a funnel, if you like. The information pours through us, and we're able to keep it consistent with what the client wants.'

And who are these clients? Obviously, a lot of work comes from dotcoms.

'If dotcoms need content, they can either bring in the writers themselves and incur the overheads of bringing in those people full-time, or they actually have to manage a variety of freelancers themselves, which can be a pain,' Ms Yau said. 'For a start, they produce such variable quality. They have to manage the workload, so we take that away from them and do it.

'Then there's the design houses working with their clients to develop Web pages. They design the pages, but what they can't do is provide the content, so they then outsource to us.'

Perhaps the biggest job taken on by has been providing the content for subsidiary go, which involved sending dozens of writers into the country's biggest cities and providing '100 per cent new' tourist information.

'We outsource everything,' Mr Cook said. 'We've had requests to provide content for soccer home pages - we know the perfect guy to write that. We'll get a client who wants 10 features over a two-month period on e-trading - we know an expert in the field. We can get Chinese writers, we have translators throughout Asia. Then, we get that information, sub-edit it into the style the clients want and present it to them.'

And if they don't know an expert in a required field? 'We'll find one,' Mr Jones said. 'So many sites are just plagiarising each other, which will be their downfall in the end.

'For instance, you go into a China travel site and it tells you the price of a bus from X to Y is so much - and it's wrong. Well, you're not going to go in there again.

'Our clients don't have the time to check up on everything we've done. What they're paying us for is the ability to present the information very clearly and convincingly, but they also want to know they're getting the information from someone who's looking at it in the long term. We're trying to build relationships with people.'

The firm was founded in March and already seems to be showing promise. Initial set-up costs were low, with home PCs moved to a small office in Central. Although so young, the company has already witnessed a huge change in the tempo of the industry, and must have spent a few sleepless nights wondering if this month's high-flyers will have enough money to pay them the next.

While they admit that is true, they believe the firm's position gets stronger with every completed project.

'In a way, the dotcoms' woes work in our favour,' Ms Yau said. 'A lot of workers at the dotcoms have been laid off, but that means they will have to take a closer look at where their content is coming from. It will weed out the people who don't provide quality.'

The bill is paid up and they wind their way back to the office, Mr Jones muttering about another pending deadline. Perhaps it might have been easier if they were playing for lesser stakes, back in their less-pressured solo freelancing days. But they can sense they are on to a good thing and believe their hard work will pay dividends.

'Quality is always recognised by the client,' Mr Cook said. 'It's early days, and there are a lot of people trying to make it, but quality will win out.'