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'We are in a category of one' says Independent as it distances itself from newspapers and digital pure plays

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

The framed front pages that hang on the wall of the Independent's boardroom in Kensington, central London, could be left to fade as artefacts of an ultimately failed experiment in 20th century publishing.

But Christian Broughton, who as editor of the Independent’s digital operations was close to the decision last spring to shut the print newspaper down, looks around him at these yellowing symbols of dead tree media, and sees an unlikely blueprint for a successful digital news model.

The ingredients were always there, he says, in a brand famous for innovation, unashamedly youthful in tone, international in outlook and ahead of its time in reporting climate change and fighting social prejudices – the sorts of issues that engage a serious young audience online.

For almost all of its precarious 30-year existence the Independent clung to life like an undernourished infant. Starved of financial support, it struggled to preserve its dwindling readership in the face of fierce competition from wealthier and better-resourced rivals. Having worked for the title for 20 years until the presses stopped rolling in March, I know the story intimately.

And yet, in contradiction of the expectation of most media commentators and rivals who marked its demise in print with obituary-style farewells, the Indy is enjoying a remarkable resurgence as a digital-only product. I've been surprised myself by the speed of progress.

'More than twice the size of BuzzFeed'

Results from the National Readership Survey, released last month, showed that the Independent had grown its audience reach to 21.1m in its first quarter as a digital-only publication, up 46 per cent year-on-year and prompting one executive to crow that in the UK it was "more than twice the size of BuzzFeed". Audit Bureau of Circulation figures show the Independent to be the fastest growing player in the news market, with 4 million daily unique visitors, up 62 per cent year-on-year.

Once seemingly condemned to trail fourth in a UK market of four quality news titles, the Independent has outgrown the paywalled Times and rivals the Telegraph with a fraction of the staff. It is still a long distance behind the Guardian (9.6 million daily uniques) but has avoided that paper's massive financial losses. With its year end approaching, the Indy will declare a profit, despite having doubled the size of its digital newsroom and taken on added contractual costs since the shuttering of the print product.

Six months after that traumatic event, Broughton says "a lot of my anxieties have been eased". He looks at newspaper readers now with some bewilderment. "When you see people holding pieces of paper that they pay a lot of money for every day to read news which is out of date by the time it’s in their hand, it does seem like a strangely traditional choice of how to absorb your news."

The days when the Indy was stuck in fourth place seem from another era and the title, he says, now exists "in a category of one", as neither a "digital first" newspaper brand like the Telegraph or Guardian, nor a digital pure play startup like Buzzfeed or Quartz.

He proceeds to highlight the shortcomings of those two rival groupings.

The old “broadsheet” newspaper competitors, he claims, are hindered by trying to ride two horses – print and digital – at the same time. “We are so much more focused on what the future looks like digitally because we don't have that inherent compromise that you have if you are ‘digital first’, which means you are still trying to do two things. We are only trying to do one now.”

He notes how chief political commentator John Rentoul is happy to script ‘explainer’ videos on the Labour leadership struggle, and that chief sports correspondent Ian Herbert was diverted from Olympics reporting to visit and write on a restaurant feeding the homeless in Rio, after an earlier remotely-written piece on the subject gave the Indy a viral hit on Facebook. The Indy could “really prioritise what our Facebook audience read about”, says Broughton, without having to “negotiate with people who want that journalist to do something else for print”.

As for the new breed of digitally-native publishers, they are lacking in brand heritage and experience, he claims. “We have reported on wars and atrocities and political events that pre-date so many of the digital pure plays,” he says. “It takes years to build that up, even in the very rapid world of online news. We have already got a history that we are proud of.”

Some might argue that the Indy didn’t feel like it was building much up when it closed down the paper with a circulation of just 54,000 (including 15,000 bulks). But Broughton notes that the title has been “the fastest-growing quality newspaper website” for three years.

Still serious about news?

The shift in focus has undoubtedly brought a change of tone. Yesterday’s Independent Facebook account has offered a video clip of an “adorable” red panda, an interview with porn director Erika Lust and analysis of David Cameron’s role in the growth of ISIS. A Twitter post comparing Jeremy Corbyn’s 1980s anti-apartheid campaigning to Cameron’s time at the Bullingdon Club felt closer to student union political debate than the corridors of Westminster.

Broughton argues that the Independent is in a position to appeal to both a young audience and to older readers with a youthful mindset. It “doesn’t struggle to find serious young readers”, and its readership is “slightly younger” than its rivals, but it “has always been a youthful brand”, he says. “That doesn’t say you have to be young to read it but it’s a state of mind. It goes with those liberal, progressive values.”

These older but “youthful” readers might be reluctant to read BuzzFeed, he suggests. “The pure play brands feel like they have a very hard-defined age demographic that they are targeting. They feel a bit ‘Skins’ (Channel 4’s youth drama). Whereas we can write about things that interest young people in a way that does feel grown up and quality, because we do have a 30-year tradition. It puts us in a different category – I think it puts us in a category of one.”

Distinguished foreign correspondents Patrick Cockburn and Kim Sengupta are still making “just as many expensive trips to destinations as they always have done”. The digital pure plays, he says, lack “the resonance of ‘here’s Patrick Cockburn writing about ISIS’ or ‘here’s Robert Fisk writing about Iraq’ or ‘here’s Andrew Grice writing about the Labour party leadership’. You can’t just grow that overnight.” It could also be noted that other talented Indy journalists have not bought into the paper’s future and have left, notably political editor Oliver Wright (to the Times) and Whitehall correspondent Charlie Cooper (to Politico).

At the start of the century, the Independent was among UK pioneers of digital news publishing, not so far behind the Guardian. Starved of investment it quickly fell off the pace until its website became a source of concern among journalists working for such a supposedly modern-minded title.

Broughton is reluctant to say it should have moved more quickly online. “A lot of organisations wasted a lot of money in the early days,” he says. “I don't think anyone at Quartz is saying ‘Why didn't we do this 10 years earlier?’ In digital you can pick up audiences far quicker than in traditional media.”

Even so, he says that the Indy’s core values in print amount to “an incredibly successful blueprint for a digital news company”. When “the internet is full of biased blogs”, the title’s claim to stand aside from party politics is an asset. It has always had an international outlook and has a long track record in fighting prejudices such as homophobia, racism and Islamophobia. “The truth is that everyone is looking at the same problems around the world; burkha bans, persecution of homosexuals, racism…,” says Broughton. “These are global problems and they pick up global audiences if you write about them in the right way.”

The Indy was once caricatured in TV satire for “just” putting “a picture of a whale on the front page with the word ‘Cruelty’ below it”. But its credentials in environmental campaigning are another asset in finding serious young readers. Most importantly, through its daring use of images, its groundbreaking “compact” format and its digested sister-title i, the title has a tradition of innovation – DNA that will be crucial to its digital future.

Print past lives on

Broughton claims that the print edition lives on with the Daily Edition, a £12.99-a-month app that replicates the experience of reading the paper and has grown subscriptions to more than 10,000. Production of the Daily Edition “preserves some of those [traditional newsroom] rhythms of the day…morning news conference, afternoon conference, leader conference,” says Broughton. The app’s requirement for a traditional front page story “gives you the discipline of always having to pull in a great splash”, he claims, whereas some digital-only publishers “don't have a really vital surprising story every day”.

But the Digital Edition is not going to pay for a newsroom which grew from around 50 to more than 100 when the paper closed. The Indy is upping its foreign-based team, with new correspondents in Beirut and Nairobi, and plans to expand its US operations. “The numbers are so great that there’s a big opportunity there,” says Broughton. This will not be the “bravado journey” of other UK publishers, he claims. “A lot of people have thrown a lot of money at America and some have walked away with their tail between their legs. There’s no need on day one to employ 100 journalists in an office on 5th Avenue, you can just incrementally grow and see the areas that the US audience pick up on.”

The Independent is poised to relaunch its Independent Live app, for a more immediate experience than the Daily Edition, and is repositioning its home page to offer a less frenetic reading environment, especially for readers who are discovering the brand. All this content is free, which leaves the Indy heavily dependent on advertising revenues.

In a recent interview with Digiday, ESI Media's chief digital revenue officer, Scott Deutrom, complained of the dwindling returns the publisher was receiving for content posted to Facebook’s Instant Articles, part of a growing industry clamour over Facebook’s treatment of news.

Broughton says he remains optimistic. Facebook is here to stay and provides “a brilliant platform for serious journalism”. The big internet companies are fighting each other for news content, he says. “You’ve got Apple, Facebook, Google all falling over themselves to be people’s main source of [news]. Everyone wants a piece of news and that’s great for the industry – there are still adverts in these things.”

Say what you like, the Independent has greater confidence now than when it killed the print edition six months ago. “Hopefully we have ended up being vindicated,” says Broughton. “I hope that what seemed to outsiders like a radical and slightly crazy thing to do is seen in a different light now.”

Ian Burrell was the Independent's media editor until the closure of its print edition. His column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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