Okay, it’s out there. The mysterious “Project X” that has been muttered about around the Crikey offices for the last year launches today. It’s called Business Spectator.

Almost anything I write here about this new online business news service is going to look odd, because one of the principals of the venture is Eric Beecher, who is also one of the owners of Crikey. On the other hand it will also look odd if I write nothing. So with all conflicts declared, here goes.

While Beecher holds his interest in Business Spectator separately from his interest in Crikey, the two organizations share office space and facilities. Partly thanks to this, the Crikey bunker is no longer a bunker at all, but a corner of a comparatively spick office suite in the centre of Melbourne. There are even glass partitions, and the toilets are clean.

When Beecher bought into Crikey he told this reporter (not then one of his contributors) that he wasn’t in it for the money. The same is not true of Business Spectator. This is a real attempt to turn a serious buck from online media. (Crikey also makes a profit these days, but will probably never make anyone rich.)

There are a couple of interesting things about this launch. The first is that it surely represents one of the trends of the future: journalists with a public profile – in this case Alan Kohler, Robert Gottliebsen and Stephen Bartholomeusz – severing themselves from big media and trading on their reputations to establish their own content-based businesses, thanks to the near disappearance of the barriers to entry in the online media world.

The second point of interest is that Business Spectator will be free, rather than available only on subscription as was originally planned.

Does the decision to go free-to-air mean a crisis of confidence in people’s willingness to pay for quality content online? Surely with such prestigious journalistic ducks all lined up in a row, it should be possible to turn a buck from subscriptions?

Kohler told Crikey yesterday that the decision was made after watching the failed attempt to put content behind pay walls at the New York Times and elsewhere. Free content online seems to be the way to go for mass media, he says, although as his Eureka Report shows, specialist publications for niche audiences can make profits from subscriptions. As well, the problems of protecting content and preventing unauthorized distribution are just too great.

Kohler says that the site aims to get 40,000 unique visitors a day, and, obviously, earn its keep from advertising.

The owners of Business Spectator are the aforementioned journalists and Mark Carnegie, John Wylie and James Kirby. There is also a luminary series of editorial staff and other “advisors”. You can read all about them here.

In a week when the editorial integrity of Fairfax (former employer of both Kohler and Bartholomeusz) has been compromised, the new publication has set itself some high standards.

The shareholders’ agreement of the parent company, Australian Independent Business Media Pty Ltd, states that the board may not influence editorial content. The two non-journalist shareholders, Carnegie and Wylie (principals of the private equity firm Lazard Carnegie Wylie), have non-voting shares and do not sit on the board. Finally, the company claims that advertising will have absolutely no influence on the editorial content.

High standards.

I like to think that if Business Spectator failed to live up to them, then Crikey would be the first to report on it – however uncomfortable it might make things around the water cooler.

That water cooler, by the way, is owned by Business Spectator and not by Crikey. It’s up their end of the floor. Crikey staff use the tap.