The Independent lives to fight another day

Evening Standard owner Alexander Lebedev can restore The Independent’s fortunes if he introduces a better distribution model

Ray Snoddy
Ray Snoddy

The launch of The Independent was a glorious day in the history of British journalism, even for those not privileged enough to get the call from The Saintly One – Andreas Whittam Smith, the title’s founder and editor, on 7 October 1986.

We must pause for a moment by the life-support machine and reflect on what a remarkable achievement The Independent was. A paper created by journalists to take on the powerful figures of Murdoch and Rothermere, owned by its founders and 30 different financial institutions which could boast of its independence with a distinguished marketing campaign: It Is. Are You?

The vital signs are still there – just. Remarkable really given what the patient has been through over nearly a quarter of a century.

The current numbers on the dials are chilling. Last month The Independent sold an average of 185,815 copies a day, barely enough to keep its head above water if they were all proper paid-for sales. Only 49% of them actually were. More than 47,000 went as bulks and, most concerning of all, 39,287 were foreign sales, which may or may not have readers.

As a conventional business venture The Independent is the equivalent of brain dead already. Has it any right to life? Sir Anthony O’Reilly, who overall has been a good proprietor in recent years, has at considerable cost and great decency kept the paper alive in the hope of finding a home for it.

When the results of O’Reilly’s INM group are announced on 24 March, all the signs are that The Independent will be delivered formally into the arms of Alexander Lebedev, the former KGB colonel who owns the Evening Standard.

Those close to the negotiations say that talk of other, more indigenous buyers is precisely that – mere talk and that the only real hope lies with Lebedev.

The Russian has been to press the flesh at 10 Downing Street and last year, in the context of the Standard deal, MI6 stated that it had no security objections of any kind to Lebedev despite his colourful past. After all, he funds liberal anti-Putin publications in Russia.

The formal applications on The Independent were made last week to the Office of Fair Trading, implying that the deal was already effectively done. There can surely be no objections on competition grounds to allowing two loss-making papers to prop each other up.

The motives of O’Reilly and Viscount Rothermere have been identical.

Both did not want to be responsible for closing down famous titles but because they ran quoted companies they wanted to shift the losses and the pension and redundancy liabilities to someone else.

Survival for The Independent will help to protect a remarkable death-defying record by what was once called Fleet Street. Some predicted that by now there would only be three national dailies left in the UK – The Sun, the Daily Mail and The Times.

Despite the well-documented difficulties, all the traditional newspapers have survived, even as the Metro series added a million copies a day to the market.

The only significant casualties have indeed come from the ranks of the “new” boys, the brave Today, the foolhardy Sunday Correspondent and the improbable Daily News from the Maxwell stable.

With Lebedev at the helm, The Independent can beat this trend, but negotiating the sale will be the easy bit. How to turn it into a sustainable business will prove quite another matter.

Lebedev deserves respect for what he has done so far with the Evening Standard. Turning it into a freesheet was certainly a brave move, but the Standard remains recognisable as a “proper” paper.

Survival for The Independent will help to protect a remarkable death-defying record by what was once called Fleet Street. Some predicted that by now there would only be three national dailies left in the UK – The Sun, the Daily Mail and The Times.

There are still problems for advertisers. The new style of distribution means there are few controls over who gets it, although many will be younger than traditional Standard readers. Residents of the affluent London suburbs, unless they are commuters, have also been effectively disenfranchised.

More work needs to be done on an explicit hybrid free-pay model for the Standard – free in central London and 25p in the suburbs, or the lowest price possible to cover the additional distribution costs.

Such a model could work for The Independent. You could distribute free in London and charge elsewhere, although the present circulation of the paper is heavily concentrated inside the M25.

A much more targeted distribution system will almost certainly be essential if advertisers are going to sit up and take notice again. Who are the readers and what audience would advertisers most want to reach? Hotels, trains and airlines would obviously be important combined with free delivery to fertile sectors such as universities.

Somehow the new owner of The Independent will have to find a cost-effective way of distributing up to 400,000 copies a day to an attractive audience. But before that, decisions will have to be made about who is going to edit the paper, which would probably have to have aSaturday/Sunday Weekend edition like the Financial Times.

Threadbare journalistic resources will have to be augmented and a major marketing campaign mounted, perhaps returning to the core value of independence in time for the next election.

What is certain is that it would make no sense at all to buy The Independent and keep it on a drip feed. It will never recover that way. But Lebedev is almost certainly smart enough to realise that.

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