“This is the most exciting time in the history of journalism. New tools, new markets, new business models and new audiences are consuming volumes of information once unimaginable,” notes owner Evgeny Lebedev in the final edition of the Independent newspaper.
Well yes, fair comment – 2016 is an “exciting time” in terms of innovation and reach for journalism. But as the 100-plus Independent journalists now officially unemployed will testify (or the 100 or so being encouraged to take voluntary redundancy at the Guardian, or the others currently exiting News UK) “exciting” does not entirely cover it.
These are challenging times for journalists and journalism. Few will argue that yesterday’s closure of the Independent feels more like the nuclear option than any technological advancement.
It’s not just Luddites who are concerned by its demise; the medium has never been the message. Journalism’s loss on 26 March 2016 should send alarm bells for all those who value quality reporting and analysis from trusted sources.
So, full credit to editor Amol Rajan and his team for putting together such a robust and celebratory final issue. For just £2 – that’s 5p less than the price of a small cappuccino in Starbucks – the Independent’s last outing on the newsstands was a 64-page bumper issue with a striking “Stop Press” coverwrap and four additional magazines.
The scope of the Independent over the years is laid bare on its last front page with a rollcall of contributors that includes Sebastian Faulks (there’s a former literary editor who’s made a good stab at a second career), Helen Fielding, Robert Fisk, Kate Mosse, Patrick Cockburn, John Carlin, Janet Street-Porter and Howard Jacobson.
Also among them is one Simon Kelner, the Independent’s longest-serving editor, who has a poignant encounter with the former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell. As the media landscape is changing, so too is the relationship between government, press and the public, and Tony Blair’s former advisor offers an interesting take on it all, including how the Prime Minister became “too close” to Rupert Murdoch.
Campbell also says: “What concerns me is the Independent is going, and there are job cuts at the Guardian, but the wretched Daily Mail is still rampant, making lots of money by millions of people clicking on pictures of cellulited women. I think that’s sad.”
The Independent had been vocal in its opposition to the Iraq war under Kelner’s watch, and the he notes: “Incredibly, by the time the Chilcot report comes out, the Independent won’t be around to report it.”
As editor between from 1998-2008, and again in 2010-2011, Kelner played a major part in shaping the Independent, arguably second only to that of launch editor Andreas Whittam Smith.
It was, of course, Kelner who made the trailblazing move from broadsheet to compact in 2002 and introduced the campaigning front page that defined it for many years.
Even beyond his tenure his impact lived on. I interviewed Amol Rajan when he became editor in 2013 and he singled out Kelner for having inspired him to pursue journalism with a speech at his university about his opposition to the Iraq war. It had also been Kelner who had given Rajan his first break in the industry.
My scheduled 30 minutes with Rajan turned into a three hour exposition as the passionate new editor talked me through his plans to reinvent the paper. His ambition was to channel the spirit of those early years of Whittam Smith, Stephen Glover and Matthew Symonds. Politics was placed top of the agenda, alongside international news and certain current affairs.
Whittam Smith described his readership back in 1986 as being “young (reflecting the average age of 31 of the editorial staff), fascinated by foreign affairs and ready to be challenged by photography.”
It’s notable the last front page of the Independent stays close to this view, with a scoop by David Connett and Paul Peachey revealing a plot in Britain to kill a Saudi King. The main image is of tram passengers being evacuated during an anti-terrorist operation in Brussels.
Inside, there’s a tub-thumping editorial on “The Thirty Years War,” in which the paper makes its case for being a bold innovator; politically independent, a champion of democracy and equality, and vocal about climate change. Noting as an aside: “What’s more we did all this without hacking a single phone.”
Westminster’s Andrew Grice turns the spotlight on how the Liberal Democrats are able to effectively undermine David Cameron’s Conservatives, having had the inside track of the “nasty party” in action as Coalition partners for five years. Another Independent stalwart, Donald MacIntyre, reminds us why his authoritative reports from Gaza have been so widely admired over the years.
Elsewhere, the former editor of the Independent on Sunday, Janet Street-Porter, denounces London cyclists, before reminiscing about that interview she conducted with the comatosed Sex Pistols back in 1976.
In its supplements, Radar celebrates 29 and a half years of culture, and David Lister makes the case for awarding laureates across all the art forms, not just poetry. The Independent Magazine marks its own 28 year history of photography and writing, while Simon Calder reflects on half a lifetime spent on the move in Traveller.
And for anyone interested in the media business, the Special Souvenir Supplement “The IndepENDent” is well worth a read. Faulks and Whittam Smith provide the backstory to a paper forced to battle against the odds from the outset.
The facts speak for themselves. The Independent stopped being a profitable business from the moment Rupert Murdoch reacted to the challenger brand by cutting its cover price in 1993. For 23 years The Indy’s losses have totalled £370m, the last £70m during Lebedevs ownership.
It was not a sustainable business, although some observers will note how, perhaps, the losses are not quite so dramatic when placed in context: the Guardian’s Scott Trust, for example, lost £103m in the last six months of 2015 alone.
Another familiar figure in the last edition is Chris Blackhurst, the former business editor and editor of the Independent. He joined the paper in 1992 at what would prove to be its highest moment in print (although no one knew then), having just overtaken the Times with copy sales of more than 440,000 – some ten times larger than sales in its final days.
Blackhurst describes how the paper’s spirit and élan was adopted by its City pages – with corporate junkets eschewed and independence savoured. However, his years of experience and business acumen made him more aware of the paper’s financial predicament than most.
I remember interviewing a very battle hardened Blackhurst around the Indy’s celebratory 25th anniversary, the dour Cumbrian had seemed haunted by its possible demise, and openly questioned how long it could survive.
"People I know always tell me they don’t have time to read newspapers," he said. "I think we all have to all recognise that even though we have lots of devices that apparently have been created to give us more time. The fact is they have the opposite effect. My kids don’t read any newspapers, that’s a really depressing thing, because they are the future."
The Independent’s future now hangs in the balance. Many journalists will not be making the transition to digital-only operation, while others will be significantly scaling back their commitments.
Among those not making the move is media editor Ian Burrell, a veteran of the paper for 20 years. He uses his last outing to try and define the typical Indy reader over the years.
For 2016, Burrell offers: “The modern Indy reader lists climate change as a major concern, is overwhelmingly against Brexit and backs Hillary Clinton for the US presidency. A hefty 38 per cent support the Labour Party, although there is also strong sympathy with Liberal Democrat values.”
Does this sound like a distinct enough audience to cater for online? Competition will be fierce, some players are already huge and the Independent is undeniably late to the game.
Part of its plan going forward is the Independent Daily Edition available to download on tablets for £12.99 per month. And in a twist to the paper’s iconic launch advertising, its last printed back page simply asks: “It’s changing. Are you?”
The answer, in terms of consuming news online, is most definitely ‘yes’. But when it comes to paying for it the future is far less certain.
Arif Durrani is the former head of media for Campaign and ex-editor of Media Week