Innovative or desperate. These have been the two polarised reactions of people on hearing the news that daily broadsheet The Independent is to be joined by a tabloid sibling within the M25 area.
In the past ten years The Independent has lost more than 35 per cent of its circulation (although it’s managed to hover at a stable level for the past five). The latest Audit Bureau of Circulations figures show that in the six months to August, the title was shifting 221,193 copies a day. Disappointingly, however, this figure is propped up by bulk copies, which account for more than 20 per cent of total circulation – a massive proportion by any standard.
Downsizing and price-cutting is certainly in vogue. It’s a trend that started in the magazine market with the launch of Glamour. The handbag-sized glossy exceeded everyone’s expectations and quickly stole the highest circulating women’s monthly crown from Cosmopolitan. Glamour’s success has had a gold-rush effect on publishers. Call the format “handbag-“, “travel-” or “pocket-sized”, publishers have taken up the mantra of “small is beautiful”. It’s seen as a panacea. But it isn’t.
While going against the norm to stand out from the crowd is effective, it requires substance, strong will and conviction. You need to be pretty certain that once you’ve got people’s attention they’ll like what they see and come back for more. Novelty does not breed long-term loyalty.
The key to any title’s success is investment. If The Independent is to go down the smaller route it will need to make significant resources available both to improve the product (if people aren’t buying the paper now, they’re unlikely to buy it just because it’s a different size) as well as allocating money to communicate the changes to potential readers.
Any innovation is to be welcomed and while there’s no doubt a smaller format is easier to handle (especially for London commuters) UK consumers don’t associate tabloids with quality journalism. Other countries do have quality tabloids, but there is no such tradition in the UK.
The move has been billed by some as a “do or die” venture. Until now The Independent has made money for its owners, despite its low circulation. The project they are embarking on now, however, is a bold move. If circulation doesn’t rise, they’ll lose money on copy sales on top of their outlay to implement the changes.
The Independent as a brand has a history of challenging convention. We hope it works, because the quality newspaper market as a whole needs rejuvenating and competition is good for both advertisers and consumers. We also hope it will attract younger, upmarket readers – the Holy Grail for most clients. It’s a tall order though; an uphill task that will be both difficult and expensive. Innovative or desperate? As always, the outcome will determine the answer.
Nik Vyas is associate director at Zenith Optimedia