I CAN remember reviewing the first issue of the Independent for the local BBC radio station in the provincial town where I was then toiling at the spike. It was truly exciting; clean, fresh, intelligent with good pictures used well. I still have it somewhere, tucked away in a plastic box in the garage along with first editions of Today, the Sunday Correspondent and many others.
And now, 27 years later, it’s time to look at it again after its fifth, six or seventh relaunch in as many years. It’s still clean and intelligent, but all those words, while admirable, slow the pace of the newspaper to that of a pensioner crossing a ploughed field on a zimmer frame. The vertical masthead on the left seems wrong, looking away from the action. Parking leaders on Page 2 is a mistake, as the Times discovered when it tried the same thing. The danger is that you end up giving your opinion to readers before they’ve even read the original story that you’re talking about. But I suppose I’ve seen worse.
The need for this latest re-jig seems to stem from a desire to distance the main Independent title from its little sister, the i. (God, how I hate these stupid lower case titles. They’re pretentious and confusing. I had a press release this week about something called ‘gNappies’. What the fuck are gNappies? What are the red-socked twats who came up with that stupid name trying to achieve?)
Anyway, back to the issue at hand. The problem for the Independent is that the main title is no longer the main title. The circulation of the big paper is around 70,000, with only 50,000 sold at full price. The baby version – modern, classy, a great quick read and a bargain at 20p – is shifting around 300,000 a day, comfortably more than those treacherous bastards at the Guardian. (Treacherous because of what they’ve done to the newspaper industry, not because they’ve ‘revealed’ to terrorists that the security services might possibly be listening into their phone calls.) The truth of the matter is that the i has become what the Independent once was – a great product with a distinct identity that has created its own slot in a crowded market.
I heard Chris Blackhurst, the group’s content editor, on the wireless this week casually mentioning an £11 million annual loss as “sustainable” because it was better than that suffered by some other publishers. Now I’m no financial wizard, but that sounds like a rather reckless business plan to me. I suppose it’s sustainable as long as Russian owner Alexander Lebedev is prepared to put his hand in his pocket but, having got the Evening Standard into profit, you do wonder how long he can ignore this dinosaur in the room.
I’m very sorry to say it, but I fear that the Independent might become a vanity item in the portfolio. It serves no real purpose and leaks money The sensible thing to do would be to admit defeat and concentrate resources on the group’s far more successful newspapers.
Incidentally I saw three old buffers, all former regional editors, discussing the relaunch of this national newspaper on Twitter this week. After a bit of back and forth, one of them suddenly said: “Hang on. It’s only selling 70,000. We edited newspapers bigger than that.”
Truly a sign of the times.
WHILE THE regional press has rightly so far given the finger to this cack-handed Royal Charter, the cynic in me wonders how strong that resolve might be when the first libel case hits the courts.
Because however risible the complaint, those who have failed to submit to political regulation will find themselves bearing both their own costs and those of the litigant even if they win. Knowing the bean-counter mentality of the non-journalists who run our industry, I can see any notion of principle quickly ignored if it threatens profit.
The Grey Cardigan has been in newspapers since the days of hot metal and expense accounts. After a lengthy career as chief sub on several regional newspapers, plus a multitude of shifts on the nationals, he was appointed editor of the Evening Beast in 2009 before being ignominiously 'rationalised' last year. He is currently collecting gas in jam jars in case the Russians cut us off. @thegreycardigan