February 15, 2016 at 11:20
It was the i, not the Internet, that did for the Independent
Our newsagents are about to get a little duller: the Independent is no more – at least, not the print edition. I know that, in this brave new digital world of ours, we’re not supposed to equate the end of print with the death of a title. But it’s certainly the end of an era. The Independent is what brought me into journalism: I started reading it when it was set up, and was hooked pretty quickly. My first journalistic heroes—Andrew Marr and Neal Ascherson—wrote for its pages. A friend bought me Paper Dreams, Stephen Glover’s story of the Independent, for my 20th birthday. I had no friends or relatives in journalism, but that book opened a portal into this world – and I was converted; I decided that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I succeeded in getting work experience at the Independent in 1996, which was great because even then it had no staff and the interns got to write in the paper. There was plenty of gallows humour about how the whole enterprise was doomed and had only a few months to live. And that was 20 years ago.
Shortly after I was there, Andrew Marr became the paper’s editor. He met Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of the Sun and later recalled their exchange:
‘“Congratulations, young Marr… or Number Four, as I shall now call you.’ I blinked and smiled. “Why number four, I asked, why not Andrew?” “Because,” said Kelvin, “You’re the fourth of them. I’m not going to call you by your name because we don’t want to get all human and intimate. Then I might be upset when they sack you… as they undoubtedly will.”’
And they did. Any editor works with the Sword of Damocles hanging over their desk – and when a publication has lost its way, editors are sacked fairly frequently. But under the Independent’s current editor, the brilliant Amol Rajan, I’d say that the newspaper was going through a revival – as we saw with its magnificent redesign. But it had a potent rival. Not the Times (contrary to what the Guardian says, its price war was with the Daily Telegraph) but the i. Look at the below chart: it shows you how the smaller, cheaper version—the i cost 40p to the Independent‘s £1.60—rose at the expense of the mothership, cannibalising its sales.
It could well be, as John Rentoul argues, that this saved the Independent – that selling a popular 40p version brought in extra revenue and prolonged the life of the paper. But ultimately, there was not space in the market for both newspapers – especially wih advertising moving online so quickly.
I’m not sure that the Independent’s website will be comparable to the newspaper. On its homepage right now, we’re invited to read about how a woman cut off a guy’s penis and took it to a police station: such stories do well online, but Amol would never put it on the front of the newspaper. One can argue that new technology created the Independent, and killed it – but the Independent hasn’t really died. It has just changed its form: it went tabloid, then split in two, and one half is now going out of print. The other half, i, is being sold to Johnston Press, who bought my old newspaper, the Scotsman, ten years ago. The independent’s website will take only 25 journalists from the print title; about 40 are expected to move to the i and about 90 now face redundancy. The last issue will be on 26 March. (I’ll add it to my last News of the World: before this decade is out I suspect collectors will be able to buy the last print edition of the Guardian)
At its best the Independent was a project, as much as it was a newspaper: Marr referred to it as a ‘noble cause and perpetual delight’. And here’s how Glover ended his book…
‘For the moment the Independent – I use the word now to describe the company which I helped to found – is a great ship becalmed on a windless ocean. One day, I hope, I trust, the sweet winds will rise up again, our sails will open and the ship will be carried forward, whatever its crew, to new adventures.’
P.S. Further to the idea of the Independent being born by technology: a good explanation was given in the Independent last month by Donald Macintyre, one of the refuseniks who left the Times in protest at its move to Wapping and its embrace of desktop publishing technology. He now admits that the Independent (which snapped him up) was a beneficiary of the Wapping dispute in two ways:
‘It gained from the corrosive impact on the image of The Times, the once pre-eminent paper of record, from being produced behind barbed wire at a Wapping plant besieged by pickets. But it gained even more because Murdoch’s coup, however brutal, made it easier for a new newspaper to launch at all with new technology.’