Error of Indpendent’s ways

If you’re going to carry a misprint on your front page, you might as well make it a prominent one. Saturday’s Independent didn’t misspell its splash headline, but it produced the next best thing – a “literal” (as such mistakes are known in the trade) in the top right hand corner of the front page, where it was promoting its Sunday sister paper.

Ironically, if not inevitably, the word it spelt wrongly was “Independent”, or “Indpendent” as it termed it, Dltn’s Wkly-style. The blurb read: “Buy The Independent today and get the Indpendent on Sunday for only 10p. See page 2.” Were it not such an old joke, one might suggest it was making a play for the Grauniad’s readers.

One hesitates to point out that the misprint occurred the day after The Independent’s publisher, Newspaper Publishing, announced it was cutting more than 40 editorial jobs across its two papers. Was the culprit one of the victims? If they weren’t already, they may be now.

Misprints are dangerously unsettling. Was that 10p a mistake too? In the week that The Times signalled the end of the price war – putting its price up from 20p to 25p – surely that 10p should have been 80p or 90p?

But perhaps not. For, as I scanned the front page, I realised that this “only 10p”, emblazoned in red in the top right-hand corner, was about a hundred times more readable than the actual price of that day’s paper. For those without a microscope, I can reveal that the figure was 50p, though it was printed in a typeface considerably smaller than the date and edition number. Surely, The Independent did not intend to lure unsuspecting purchasers into believing the Saturday paper could be bought for 10p? But if not, why print the price in such small type, and the “offer” price so large?

These are turbulent times for newspapers, especially for the broadsheets, and Newspaper Publishing in particular. Though the letter to Indie staff last week from its two editors pointed out that circulation and advertising revenue were increasing, it said the 40 job cuts and restructuring were needed to reduce losses still further. Some of those to go are among the longest-serving Independent writers, reinforcing the impression that the original Whittam-Smith regime is seen by the new management as past its sell-by date.

Far from celebrating the end of a price war that The Independent claimed was designed to put it out of business, these journalists may count themselves among its victims.

But, with newsprint prices still rocketing – up by more than 50 per cent so far this year – The Times’ price rise has taken some of the pressure off its rivals. A relieved Daily Telegraph quickly matched The Times’ increase, in preference to reducing the 10p differential between the two papers. The Independent will follow suit as soon as its design and content changes have had time to settle down, or possibly sooner.

Though none of the nationals is in danger of closure, the huge increase in their basic raw material costs is biting hard at a time when competition has never been tougher.

Four of them are introducing substantial editorial changes under new, or relatively new, editors – namely The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger, The Observer’s Andrew Jaspan, The Independent’s Ian Hargreaves and The Independent on Sunday’s Peter Wilsher.

It’s fair to say that none of the four has truly found his feet, though some – such as Rusbridger – start with a better-established product than others. The long, hot summer will give them all a chance to establish their new formats and personalities before the all-important autumn season. And, not least, to remind us which former Guardian writers now write for the Observer, which Observer writers now write for the Independent on Sunday, and vice versa.

The branding of The Independent, Independent on Sunday and The Observer are all dangerously unfocused. The proliferation of sections and changes in typeface and layout have so far done little to establish them more strongly in the reader’s mind. The latest Independent advertising campaign seems designed to confuse people further. By focusing so strongly on the Saturday paper it diminishes the weekday offering.

The news that The Independent is launching its own scratchcard game, following in the successful footsteps of sister paper the Daily Mirror, may be another move which will reduce the paper’s standing. This is not because scratchcards are inherently downmarket. But their huge success is making them highly controversial, with the church and other anti-gambling groups calling for the Lottery scratchcards to be banned. Should, say, Polly Toynbee or Bryan Appleyard aim their columnar guns at scratchcards, then The Independent’s promotion could be embarrassing.

But then a broadsheet newspaper prepared to devote the top half of its front page to a picture of Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley glaring at each other may already be redefining itself and its embarrassment threshold.

The Independent was by no means the only broadsheet to devote acres of space last week to the unhappy couple. But it was nonetheless odd for a paper that once eschewed stories about the royal family to print and promote this photograph.

The picture was taken in the garden of the country house laughingly described as the couple’s “retreat”. At first, I wondered what The Independent was doing printing a photograph taken of two people on private property with what I took to be a long lens – a practice prohibited by the Press Complaints Commission, except where justified as by being in the public interest. Then I read in the accompanying news story that “at the request of a photographer, the couple posed uncomfortably at a table in the garden, clearly reconciled enough to live up to their reputation as Britain’s most photogenic couple.”

It wasn’t clear whether the word “reconciled” referred to their attitude to each other or the media hordes outside the gate.

Unfortunately, The Independent’s caption writer did not appear to have studied the photograph. Picking up a reference in the article to the couple sharing lunch, the caption read: “Hugh Grant lunches in the garden with Liz Hurley yesterday at their country retreat near Bath after discussing their future”. What the photograph actually showed was Hurley smoking and Grant scowling – with not a scrap of food on the table.

Unimportant, perhaps, like the misspelling of the paper’s own name. But the new Independent must set itself higher standards. Let’s hope someone’s checked its scratchcard numbers carefully.

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