The not-so-strange death of The Independent

Published by CapX (12th February, 2016)

When The Independent launched in 1986, I was working on a weekly newspaper in the West Midlands with fuzzy ambitions to reach Fleet Street. It was a time of tumult over what was laughably called new technology, with owners and editors trying to break the deadly stranglehold of outmoded print unions exploiting the fragility of daily production. There were picket lines at my group after it broke the mould in regional papers, while Rupert Murdoch had just made his disruptive move to Wapping.

This new national paper felt like it was made for me with its elegant design, journalistic idealism and smart marketing. I admired those three founding fathers who had the bottle to launch a newspaper. I liked its politics, fusing free market economics with social liberalism, which led to leading articles in praise of ticket touts as well as more predictable attacks on the Thatcher government. So I bought it daily. And I managed to wangle my first shift there through a friend of my sister, although felt rather intimidated by the weighty discussions that carried on into the pub at lunchtime. It all seemed rather different to Dudley.

So when Tony O’Reilly assumed full control of the titles in early 1998 and offered me the job of deputy editor, I leapt at the chance and stayed for 12 contented years. Tony proved to be a brilliant owner, taking great pride in the product as he used it to build a global empire. But it was always something of a rollercoaster, with investment followed by cuts. Behind public talk of breaking even ‘next year’ lay depressing financial realities of running the fourth-biggest quality newspaper. By the end, the cutbacks became too regular.

The finances could make life frustrating – yet it was always great fun since we could dare to be different. For much of the time it felt like being part of an insurgency facing the big guns of The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. The pressures both drove and permitted constant innovation, with teams that rarely failed to respond to extraordinary pressures. This is why so many great journalists are Independent graduates, why it experimented with analytical front pages and why it led the way in going tabloid.

So this is a sad day: the announcement that The Independent, a paper that played a big part in my life, will close next month. I was privileged to be editing the week of 9/11, the biggest story of this century, along with the week Britain won the Olympics then endured terrorist attacks in London. I write a weekly column in the i paper, its clever and sparky offshoot that has just been sold for £25m. I have many friends there. And I hope the title thrives in its new online guise.

Far more importantly, for all the wobbles along the way, this is a paper that has provided a vital voice in British debate, daring to be different on issues such as drug reform while providing courageous – and often lonely – criticism against the Iraq War. Alastair Campbell once came to lunch and was amazed to find that although the entire board backed the invasion, the directors allowed the paper the independence to take a different stance. This campaign so wounded Tony Blair that on eve of his departure he gave a speech attacking ‘feral beasts’ in the media, bizarrely using The Independent as his sole named example. 

But while the closure is deeply regrettable, there is a weary inevitability to news the print machines will stop running. Amol Rajan, the last editor, has led a valiant effort to revive the paper along its traditional lines, but the cold realities of modern media have beaten him. Evgeny Lebedev says his family has invested £65m in the titles, but sales are dwindling by the day. Defeat has been dressed up as innovation, the switch to digital-only proclaimed as another first for the Indy. The only certainty is that others will follow.

News has both speeded up and slowed down, leaving daily papers stranded in the middle. People now want the instant – and often shrill – revelations of social media, then thoughtful interpretation from commentators and experts. The traditional 700-word page lead seems dated and irrelevant in such a news climate. This is what we began to grapple with when we attempted the ‘Viewspaper’ front pages almost a decade ago. Meanwhile note how weekly magazines such as The Economist, The Spectator and New Statesman are thriving; indeed, I wonder if the Indy should have kept a weekly print presence.

Yet as others have noted, we should not write off newspapers just yet. They are still growing in parts of the developing world, while there is a suspicion some groups turned too fast on their cash cows. Digital revenues may be rising, but they still do not match income from print. Even in the United Kingdom, more than two-thirds of adults still read a daily paper and the ipaper has shown it is possible to carve out a fresh market even in such constrained times. Yet this sad announcement about the demise of a wonderful paper will only serve to underscore the nagging question alarming my industry: how do we fund quality journalism in the digital age?

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