FEATURE 

The Indy: putting up a good fight but can it win the war?

In March, the Independent closed its print editions and went digital-only. Obituaries were written and tears shed, though the publishers themselves were resolutely upbeat about their online future. Jon Slattery takes a look at the Independent to see if the spirit of ’86 lives on.

By Jon Slattery

In the final issue of the Independent on Sunday in March, Robert Fisk interviewed 104-year-old Clare Hollingworth, the doyenne of foreign correspondents whose famous scoop was that Nazi Germany was about to start the Second World War by invading Poland, and asked her about the future of newspapers.

Fisk wrote: "Did the future of newspapers lie in websites, in computers, I asked her? 'Newspapers will all end up on computer,' she replies, but this was a bad thing. Why? She thought for several seconds. 'You have to feel the paper,’ she says.”

Ouch!

It was a stab to the heart to anyone who loves newspapers and remembers the excitement surrounding the launch of the Independent as a fully formed quality broadsheet in 1986. Much of the coverage surrounding the demise of the Independent and Independent on Sunday in print read like a requiem for the newspaper industry rather than embracing the digital future.

Apart from the Independent, which in an editorial in the final edition proclaimed: "Today the presses have stopped, the ink is dry and the paper will soon crinkle no more. But as one chapter closes, another opens, and the spirit of the Independent will flourish still. Our work goes on, our mission endures, the war still rages, and the dream of our founders shall never die."

Former Independent editor Simon Kelner noted in the Guardian: "In some ways, the Independent always was a virtual newspaper. It never had its own vans, it never had printing presses. But it had a soul that was real, and a spirit that was tangible. The Independent’s greatest challenge is to ensure these survive its latest transition."

The soul of the Independent was its journalists, its reputation for foreign reporting, and its strong image as a free thinking paper unattached to any political party. The good news for Independent readers is that under editor Christian Broughton, foreign correspondents Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn and Kim Sengupta have been retained along with John Rentoul on politics, travel expert Simon Calder and commentators like Grace Dent, Mark Steel and Janet Street-Porter. Other well known Independent journalists now online include Hamish McRae, Andrew Grice and Mary Dejevsky.

The Independent says over 40 journalists joined the online team after the closure of the print titles making an editorial team of more than 90 with more appointments promised. It also announced ambitious plans to open bureaux in Asia, the Middle East and Europe and beef up the US team in New York.

Early traffic figures

Traffic figures for the Independent’s first digital-only month in April were encouraging. Average UK daily unique browsers hit a record of over 1.4m (up 37% year on year) and 3.2m globally (up 41% YoY).

UK page views hit a record with 120m page impressions (up 25% YoY), with nearly 240m globally (up 37% YoY). A total of 41.1m users accessed the Independent via a mobile device during April, generating 130m page views.

Total daily unique browsers dropped by 7.19% to 3,048,377 in May, but were still up 15.56 (YoY), according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Broughton told InPublishing: “We’ve been through a painful experience. We had to close the Independent in print because we love the Independent and everything it stands for. Now we are not beholden to rolls of paper, printers and delivery times. We are far more agile. We do not have to compromise between digital and print. It was a massive decision to take. We are on the other side now while others still have that shockwave to come."

He also claims: “To have taken such a game-changing step and delivered growth immediately represents a huge achievement from the entire team, and should give our industry great hope for the future.”

The Daily Edition

The Independent’s new subscription app, called the Independent Daily Edition and costing £12.99 a month or £149.99 a year, was reported by the company in May to have 50 per cent more subscribers than those for the old print edition (ie. around 10,000). Daily Edition subscribers have been able to download special issues such as Robert Fisk on the Middle East, a commemoration of Leicester City’s surprise triumph in the Premier League, a tribute edition on Muhammad Ali and a preview of the European football championships. From June, the Daily Edition added TV listings, the weather, more puzzles and a quiz.

The Independent Daily Edition retains the clean look of the old print edition and the front page lives on with the masthead running down the left hand side. It does an excellent job in replicating the experience of reading a newspaper. Broughton says: “The Daily Edition gives us a rhythm to the day. We still have a front page and we can decide to do a 16 page special at lunchtime and it happens. We can react quickly.

Journalists want to do cool new things. It is incredibly refreshing. For readers, the experience is like the Independent was in print. If we could make ink marks rub off on our fingers, we would.”

The scoops continue

From an editorial point of view, the switch of the Independent from print to digital-only in March was somewhat overshadowed by the Guardian and BBC being among the media partners sharing the Panama Papers which dominated the news agenda. But among the exclusives claimed by the Independent are: an investigation found that more than 1,000 children were missing from schools in London and are at risk of abuse in illegal ultra-Orthodox Jewish faith schools; MPs were to investigate allegations of illegal weapons sales at British weapons fairs; the Independent also reported an exclusive that a Yazidi teenager who was held as a sex slave said she was kidnapped and trafficked by British jihadist Siddhartha Dhar, suspected to be the “new Jihadi John” from Isis propaganda videos; and terrorist suspects that have been under surveillance since 9/11 and their links to Brussels, Paris and the UK.

The Independent also highlighted the case of a man living in Nigeria connected to a group of British Islamists who has been stripped of his UK citizenship amid fears he would return to London to execute a Paris-style massacre. It has produced long form journalism such as a three-part series by the Independent's founding editor Andreas Whittam Smith on how he came to vote with “a heavy heart” in favour of remaining in the EU and Patrick Cockburn’s four-part series on Isis.

Industry gloom

The optimism at the Independent over its digital-only switch contrasted with the gloom continuing to surround newspapers with the failure of Trinity Mirror’s The New Day to find a market, editorial job cuts at the Guardian and Telegraph and falling print ad revenues. However, 2016 has also been a troubled time for digital media with job losses at Vice News and Mashable and BuzzFeed News slashing its revenue forecasts.

It is claimed news sites are being overshadowed by Facebook and other social networks which have far bigger audiences to attract advertisers. Also readers are getting their news via social networks and apps rather that visiting the home pages of news websites. But Broughton points out: “Facebook and social media do a great service to our industry by distributing our content."

Former Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger asked in the New Statesman: “Is there an economic model for serious news? Let’s hope so – but the gales blowing through my old industry are now truly frightening. When I stepped down from the Guardian just over a year ago, my Guardian Media Group colleagues were happy to go on the record to emphasise their confidence in increasing digital revenues and a future based on growth. But something profound and alarming has been happening in recent months and all our eyes ought to be on the West Coast giants – especially, but not only, Facebook – that are cleaning up quite extraordinarily."

Rusbridger has suggested there is only one truly proven business model for serious general news – that of the BBC. I remember being at a seminar at City University shortly after the BBC News website was launched. An American asked the man from the BBC what his revenue projections had been over the first few years. The answer was: “The BBC just asked me to come up with the best website I could.”

A quality site

The Independent has produced a very good serious, general news website which retains much of what was best about the print version and is regularly updated with breaking stories but it, like the rest of the press, is not supported by a licence fee. It faces stiff competition from free sites like the Guardian and the seeming reluctance of readers to pay for news online. Although, as well as cutting costs by ending the print editions, the Independent’s owner ESI Media picked up £24 million with the sale of its cut price i newspaper to Johnston Press. ESI says the Independent website is profitable and it is investing in expansion.

Ex-Independent staff have been impressed by the revamped website, feeling the former one was trying too hard to chase an audience with clickbait and listicles. “I think it’s excellent,” says one. “It’s far better than the old one that used to run alongside the newspaper and tried to copy some of the features of MailOnline. I think they need to get more international agenda setting scoops to bring in the readers and I am worried that they won’t be able to sustain all the staff they have on contracts. My fear is that the website is just too good to be true.”

Broughton says: “If we didn’t think it was sustainable, we wouldn’t be hiring more journalists, expanding our bureau in the US and recruiting for new specialist roles. I am confident in the start we’ve made with the web traffic and subscriber figures for the Daily Edition."

The Independent is putting up a really good fight with its website as, in the words of its final print editorial, “the war still rages”. It is going to be tough but it is a war that needs to be won because journalism will be the loser if the Independent cannot afford to keep sending journalists like Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, the heirs to Clare Hollingworth, to the frontline and report the way she did from the German-Polish border. That’s a job that can’t be done by Facebook and Google.