The Independent gave me some of the most exciting times of my career
The online Indie must not forget its roots as a vigorous daily conversation between people who only quite liked one another
Saturday 13 February 2016 06.00 GMT
What happened to the Independent this week is a footnote in a huge story – the wave of creative destruction overturning all traditional media – and a very important local political and cultural story.
The big story is well understood. Digital is much cheaper than analogue, or Gutenberg technology. The cumbersome is collapsing, outpaced by the nimble. That allows new voices into an old debate-cartel. But it’s not all genteel and attractive.
A lot of the capital cost is actually passed to the consumer. Under the old model, large industrial corporations used capital-heavy technology to make and then distribute information to individuals. In the new model we – you and me – purchase the computers, Wi-Fi accounts, apps, mobile phones and sometimes subscriptions, which allow corporations to pass the information to us more cheaply. For media companies, it’s a great gig. If you are poor, don’t have the connections or the gear or the bank accounts, perhaps less so.
BBC3 is now going online. Everywhere, newspapers are toppling. The Independent’s move is only a first. The Guardian has invested hugely in online and one day will have to contemplate the price of the remaining flattened-forest model; the Times and the Telegraph are both having a torrid time, and most of the tabloids are struggling horribly. The Daily Mail stands out – partly because of the huge success of its online publication, uncomfortably different from the printed version.
So, up to a point, this is a modest example of a much wider disruption. Just as new technologies are churning the advertising, music and movie businesses, and soon the car industry, too, they are causing cheerful havoc in news. It’s bad for those directly involved – but does it really matter? In the end, whether you get the material in an RSS feed, through a Twitter link, or on a piece of yellowing, coffee-stained newsprint … What’s the difference?
This takes us to the smaller story, of the Independent itself. Because it isn’t an example, or a footnote: it was and is a unique culture which, albeit in a small way, has been part of British life for much of my adulthood.
In the roll call of its editors, I was the most radical and probably the least distinguished. It’s very first front page carries my byline as a young and desperately keen political reporter. For years, I wrote three political columns every week there. I have read almost every edition since it was published and in recent years find myself turning to it more and more: I think it’s current editor, Amol Rajan, has been utterly superb.
It occupies a unique place in the British political spectrum. Other than the Guardian, it has been the most liberal national newspaper voice but, unlike the Guardian, it was always unequivocally pro-free market. Politically, it seemed to fit the less extreme 90s than it does the more angry and polarised 2010s.
At least for a time, it had a remarkably open journalistic culture. I think the most exciting weeks I have spent as a journalist were in the very early days of the Independent: we had open, argumentative and serious debates about issues such as our position on the Israel-Palestine war; we fought the closed parliamentary lobby system, and everyone hated us. It felt like journalism had suddenly become a democracy.
It hadn’t, of course. The pro-free-market newspaper soon fell victim to brutal market forces. During my time as editor, we were almost put out of business by News International’s predatory pricing. Later on, the brilliant cut-price i probably convinced too many readers that it was the real thing. Oops.
But the old question – what, really, is a newspaper? – remains key. If the answer is simply a means of transmitting information, titles are merely nostalgia. No, the proper answer is that a decent newspaper is a platoon of similarly minded, but not identically minded, people who argue, debate and together fashion a view of the world which is distinctive. A newspaper, properly understood, is the space between what editors and senior correspondents think, and how that space is challenged by reporters bringing in unexpected information; and the static energy all that produces.
There has never been a successful media outfit, from Newsnight to the London Review of Books, Private Eye or the Observer’s review section, which didn’t have at its heart a vigorous daily conversation between people who only quite liked one another. Each of these small cultural colonies, using the replication of traditional media, then affected the national conversation.
The Independent, in this company, has played an honourable and valuable role. It hasn’t been like, or the same as, anything else. In recent years, I have found myself turning to it more than ever. I need Patrick Cockburn and Robert Fisk and Kim Sengupta to try to understand the Middle East. There is a score of other correspondents I could mention.
Yes, it remains online. Journalistic communities exist there, too. I find the same energy in Bella Caledonia (on the Scottish left) and CapX (on the British right) that I find anywhere in print. The danger of going global/online, however, is that you lose your roots in a real community of real people; that you become disconnected.
People who say “there are enough newspapers”, are like people who say there are enough public parks or libraries, or piano concertos: always and forever wrong.
sábado, 13 de fevereiro de 2016
The Independent dream that lasted for 30 years
The Independent dream that lasted for 30 years
It was the newspaper phenomenon of its age, but now, given the inexorable overall decline in sales, the Independent’s days seem numbered
Thursday 11 February 2016 14.33 GMT
If we are to mourn the passing of the Independent, let’s pay tribute to those who founded it and those who sustained it through many years of unprofitability.
The newspaper was born 30 years ago as a dream by idealist journalists who enjoyed virtually instantaneous success until they awoke to business reality.
After a period of uncomfortable joint ownerships, the Independent then benefited from the charity of two successive owners, Ireland’s Tony O’Reilly, and Russia’s Lebedevs, Alexander and son Evgeny, who sacrificed millions in order to keep the dream alive.
In order to survive, the Independent was responsible for surprising innovations that affected the entire newspaper publishing industry, and not just in Britain.
It was the first to switch format from broadsheet to compact, an initiative that led to similar changes elsewhere. It pioneered distinctive poster-style front pages. It promoted itself as a “viewspaper”. Finally, it spawned a spin-off publication, the i, which secured a new, younger audience.
None of these enterprising experiments made a real difference however because the Independent was unable to retain readers during a cataclysmic period of media history.
In national newspaper terms, it looks set to be the first casualty of the digital revolution. Once its print sales started to decline they just went on falling to a level that made the paper’s daily appearance a triumph of hope over economic reality.
It had not always been like that. After its launch in October 1986, in the wake of Rupert Murdoch’s union-busting move to Wapping, the paper rapidly built an audience.
Although its founders – Andreas Whittam Smith, Stephen Glover and Matthew Symonds – were disaffected Daily Telegraph staffers, their paper was soon viewed as having a liberal editorial stance, partly by virtue of its title, partly by the choice of senior executives and partly due to a clever promotional slogan: “The Independent: It is, are you?”
The new smaller version of the Independent newspaper, which was published for the first time on 30 September 2003, alongside the regular broadsheet which was launched in 1986 .
By describing itself as “free from party political bias” and “free from proprietorial influence”, the Indy – as it became known – quickly attracted readers. Thousands deserted the Times and the Guardian, while a few arrived from the Telegraph along with young people yet to adopt a daily paper habit.
Within three years, the Independent managed to achieve a regular daily sale of more than 400,000. It was the newspaper phenomenon of the age.
But success went to the founders’ heads. They were determined to publish a Sunday equivalent, and by unhappy chance the Independent on Sunday’s 1990 launch occurred at the beginning of a dramatic recession.
The prior launch of a short-lived rival, the Sunday Correspondent, also muddied the waters a little and the “Sindy” struggled to gain a foothold.
The company created by the founders, Newspaper Publishing, ran into liquidity problems and sought help, originally forming partnerships with European press owners. Then it was hit by Rupert Murdoch’s price war. He cut the cover price of the Times and the Independent found itself unable to compete.
In 1994, two media companies – Mirror Group led by chief executive David Montgomery, and Ireland’s Independent News & Media (INM) – chaired by Tony O’Reilly, attempted to acquire the Independent and after a share-buying contest had to agree on a joint ownership.
It proved to be anything but ideal. Editors came and went while the rival proprietors argued over how to run the company. After a lengthy period of unhappiness, O’Reilly’s company spent £30m to obtain full ownership in March 1998.
With circulation having halved since its high point, Andrew Marr was appointed as the Indy’s editor – but he didn’t last long. His chair was taken by Simon Kelner and he was to spend 13 years as editor, enjoying occasional moments of sales peaks despite an inexorable, gradual overall decline.
O’Reilly accepted that the paper would never be profitable, regarding it as his calling card across the world where his Irish-based company was expanding by acquiring papers in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
But O’Reilly was not prepared to spend unlimited sums on the Independent and cost-cutting was regularly imposed. In September 2003, he oversaw the launch of a compact Indy to run alongside the broadsheet.
Its smaller format attracted a new audience and sales rose by more than 15%, to about 250,000. In May 2004, the broadsheet version was dropped altogether. By that time, the Times had also given up publishing in broadsheet size and the Guardian had adopted its Berliner format.
Around the world, various newspapers also adopted the compact form. The Independent had started a small revolution.
For O’Reilly, however, the gloss had come off Independent ownership. His company was beset with troubles in Ireland and he found himself under pressure from a director, Denis O’Brien, to reduce his loss-making assets.
In a last throw of the dice, O’Reilly made a deal in 2008 with the Daily Mail’s publishers, Associated Newspapers, to move into its Kensington headquarters and share services and overheads.
It was far too little too late, and with sales slumping once more, he agreed to sell the titles in March 2010 to Alexander Lebedev for a nominal £1 fee plus several millions to cover outstanding contractual costs. Lebedev had already acquired a controlling stake in the London Evening Standard.
Alexander, a former member of the KGB and widely regarded as an oligarch, passed over responsibility for the papers to his son, Evgeny.
Under his stewardship, the Indy’s colourful compact sister, i, was launched in October 2010. Initially priced at 20p, it soon secured an audience far larger than that of the Independent, which saw its sales fall away until they reached barely 60,000 despite the vigorous editing of Amol Rajan.
At that level, the paper could not hope to turn a profit. The on-cost was punishing and Lebedev, having lost so much money, had no alternative but to say enough is enough. After 30 years, the dream appears all but over.