That first, cryptic phone call in the summer of 2010 after I had left the Times came from Geordie Greig, then editor of the Evening Standard. So, I was curious to find myself in a plush Mayfair meeting room with the enigmatic proprietor Evgeny Lebedev and his chairman Justin Byam Shaw discussing the Independent.
As Evgeny played hide and seek behind a giant floral display across a huge circular table, it soon became clear that the Independent, struggling to survive, was about to zig while everyone was zagging. It planned to launch a new daily paper.
The then group managing director, Andrew Mullins (like me, ex-News UK) had proposed i, a concise, quality version of the Independent at a heavily discounted price, and they believed they needed an outsider to edit it – perhaps one who had previously launched thelondonpaper, Rupert Murdoch’s entry in the free newspaper war.
i was not an obvious winner. The media world in 2010 was then – as now – obsessed with the essential conundrum of the digital age: increasing audiences online and the relatively paltry revenues they brought did not compensate for diminishing revenues on the back of shrinking print circulations.
Nevertheless, Mullins was convinced that there was a gap in that print market. Readers’ biggest challenge in the always-on digital age was time. Most could afford a pound for a paper, but no one should have “buyer’s remorse” over a product that would be perhaps one third read. You wouldn’t throw away half your daily cup of coffee.
There was also a discernible rejection of what had become an over-obsession with celebrities, at least among a sizeable niche of those who had abandoned unwieldy paid-for newspapers or wanted more than they got from Metro.
The industry, not to mention many of the staff, could not believe we would create two daily newspapers out of the same content bank using – mostly – the same journalists. i could never have succeeded without the extraordinary hard work and dedication of the production desk and designers in particular.
I’m always being asked how many staff there were, but the answer is muddy. Some staff came in and did an Indy-only shift, some a combined Indy/i shift and a few were on i alone. This applied to news and sport. As for features, most staff simply absorbed more work. Somehow, we made it work.
A home news and foreign news editor were assigned on a rolling basis, one designer was mostly on i, others less so. There was a wonderful Saturday editor when that edition launched a few months later, Victoria Summerley. To be frank, it was scarily under-resourced at first, and production and design staff alike truly worked like demons with me to get it out on time.
However, as optimistic autumn became a severe winter, few readers trudged into the snow to buy a product no one had heard of, given our limited marketing resources. It was a worrisome, fraught first Christmas – especially as we were simply asking most staff to work harder for no more money. The Independent’s then editor-in-chief, the ebullient Simon Kelner, and I shared enjoyably robust discussions.
What saved i was the uniquely unwavering enthusiasm for the product via the relatively new medium of social media, plus email feedback that gave us genuine confidence. This transformed into booming sales after our first television ad in January 2011. It never looked back.
Serious, complex news events like the Arab Spring, the summer riots and every Budget actually put on sales. The readers were clear: be concise, be serious, no lazy puns or stupid celebrities. Just enough sport, unbiased news, and the best of the Independent’s journalism: from Kim Sengupta to Simon Calder, Mark Steel to Hamish Macrae. Oh, and crosswords. The wonderful readers even stayed loyal and evangelical through two price rises. I miss writing the daily editor’s letter.
With the excellent Oly Duff staying on as editor, a potential staff of 51, and a deal to license independent.co.uk content i should be in safe hands with Johnston Press, at least editorially. We could only dream of that number of staff at launch! Commercially, we were always part of a joint sell with the Independent, so that carved-out £5.2m “profit” is a little opaque to me. I can’t speak to how Johnston Press will sell it differently. Therefore, although confident, I cannot be as certain of the future economics.
However inevitable, it is nevertheless sad that the Independent’s print versions are to close. It was a genuinely iconoclastic brand. Without question i prolonged the Indy’s survival a few years. So, while pleased that i will survive and is already worth £25m, that is tempered by the knowledge that many talented people will lose their jobs, some of them friends. They can’t all become PRs. Can they?
Stefano Hatfield was launch executive editor of the i and is now editor-in-chief of High50.com. He tweets @stefanohat. This is an altered and expanded version of an article that was written to commemorate i’s fifth birthday.