How becoming the media champion of a People's Vote has revived The Independent

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.

Amid the confusion, the fudge and the procrastination surrounding Brexit, The Independent has achieved rare brand distinction as the title that is unashamedly aligned with a People’s Vote.

It made the news this month as a cross-party group of MPs, including Chuka Umunna and Caroline Lucas, held up the Indy’s eagle-branded “Final Say” petition boxes outside Number 10 as they delivered more than 1 million signatures supporting a second referendum.

The campaign has sharpened the identity of a title that was being mourned as a brave but failed experiment in quality, centrist journalism when its once-fashionable print newspaper was shuttered in March 2016.

In the 33 months since, it has evolved into a digital-only news brand with a global audience of more than 76 million readers a month. Nearly 24 million of these are in the US, which is becoming its largest market and where it has major expansion plans for 2019.

In the UK, the median age of The Indy’s 22 million audience is 38, and 62% of readers are between 15-44. It has a relatively small staff, in comparison to UK news operations of similar reach, and is profitable, largely thanks to its use of programmatic advertising to an audience that it has divided into more than 2,000 segments.

The Independent’s growth, driven by its unshrinking progressive voice on hot topics such as climate change, immigration and Brexit, and its enduring reputation for authoritative coverage of the Middle East, has defied the prevailing narrative that a global news operation cannot be sustained by a business model that depends overwhelmingly on ad revenues.

But in the past year and a half, The Indy (where I worked until 2016), has undergone a series of significant challenges to both its balance sheet and its brand reputation.

Still independent?

The change to Facebook’s algorithm in late 2017 diminished the profile of all news content and was an alarming development for a publisher that has been a loyal and enthusiastic partner of Mark Zuckerberg’s platform.

That blow came soon after the news that Saudi investor Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel had taken a 30% stake in the title’s owner, Independent Digital News & Media. The deal prompted the BBC to ask “Is The Independent still independent?"

This summer, in a pointer to where the new money was being spent, The Independent announced a licensing deal with the Middle East media house Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG), to produce versions of the news site in Arabic, Urdu, Turkish and Persian, using journalists in Islamabad, Istanbul, New York and London, and operations teams in Riyadh and Dubai. The project has the capacity to enhance, or to seriously damage, The Independent’s voice in covering the Middle East.

In a cafe opposite Northcliffe House (headquarters of the Daily Mail group, which rents newsroom space to The Independent and its sister title, the London Evening Standard), the Indy’s editor-in- chief, Christian Broughton, sets out his plans for the UK and around the world.

He is content to address suspicions over the Saudi money by pointing out that former KGB spy Alexander Lebedev, and his family, were benign proprietors of The Independent for many years. “If you have got people who are willing to back truly independent journalism and not interfere in what goes on in the newsroom I think that’s a great thing.”

As for the foreign language sites, Broughton says he is hand-picking “consultant editors” who are able to monitor the translations of stories and direct SRMG’s editorial teams to the best Independent content. “They are established high-calibre journalists who are fluent in the languages,” he says. “I don’t speak the language – and you have also got to be aware of cultural sensitivities.”

But the local teams will also originate their own content. “People can be as sceptical as they like but they don’t know what they are judging yet because it hasn’t launched. The editorial integrity and independence of The Independent is as strong as it ever was – there’s an agreement among shareholders that we are free from shareholder interference.”

The success of the venture will be critical. The Independent – which boasts big-hitting Middle East specialists Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk and Kim Sengupta – has recently invested further in its regional coverage by hiring the former Times journalist Bel Trew as Jerusalem-based Middle East and Africa Correspondent, and the Pulitzer-nominated former Los Angeles Times Middle East specialist Borzou Daragahi, who is based in Istanbul.

This is part of its attraction to US readers and it’s clear that Broughton is heavily focused on American growth. The US audience is “bigger than our UK audience now”, he says. It’s also bigger than the Chicago Tribune’s American audience, and stands eighth in the US Comscore rankings of news brands for October (behind two other UK players, The Mail and The Guardian).

The Independent plans to increase its US team from 20 to around 30 next year, and will launch US Voices, an American version of its comment section. It first arrived Stateside four years ago and has taken a different approach to The Guardian. “They opened up from day one with a very big team, and a huge confidence to do that, and they had to retrench from that position,” Broughton says. “We work on a polar opposite model – we try things small and if we can make it work and the journalism is good and represents the brand well and supports the business plan, then we expand it.”

Rather than create yet another American news site, “we are trying to present a brand that has internationalism at the core”, says the editor-in-chief. Nonetheless, the site has benefited from its natural antipathy to the president. “Donald Trump has given us a very good run of things to resist,” says Broughton, who describes The Independent as “a progressive liberal kind of place”

Backing The People's Vote

The endorsement of a second referendum, he says, has been “good to remind people that The Independent is a cross-party place”. Although some might point out that the Liberal Democrats and Greens are both enthusiasts for a new vote, Broughton insists his title remains politically unaligned – “we just have a value system” – and so enjoys freedoms that other UK news titles don’t have. “It’s such a charged issue and I think that they are so scared of offending parts of their readership that support this party or that party.”

Although The Independent backed Remain at the 2016 referendum, he claims that the paper resisted “some kind of ‘Remoanish’ campaign” for a re-run until this summer, when the course of negotiations meant it became “a point of principle” for the title to speak out. “We just thought the process was wrong,” he says. “Clearly the Brexit that was coming, whatever was going to happen next, was nothing like the predictions that had convinced the population to vote this way or that.”

He ascribes the success of the petition to the Indy’s historic record in campaigning, which he claims sets it apart from rival digital pure-play sites. “We put our necks on the line for Iraq (opposing the 2003 war) and we were banging on about climate change when it was a very unfashionable thing to do.” On the wall of his office is an old Independent ‘single issue’ front page using a data-driven graphic to campaign for proportional representation.

When around 700,000 marched to a "Final Say" rally at Westminster, held in conjunction with the People’s Vote campaign, The Independent was singled out for praise amid general criticism of the media. “To get a group of people literally to cheer your news brand is something special," says Broughton, claiming that the Indy has “inevitably” become media champion of the People’s Vote.

Much of the credit for the financial wellbeing of the title must go to Zach Leonard, managing director, digital, of both The Independent and The Standard. Leonard is a veteran of online news strategy who oversaw the pioneering introduction of The Financial Times paywall in 2001. He moved to The Times and Sunday Times, where he was again involved in the setting up of a subscription-based model in 2010.

At The Independent he has taken a different approach. The current “complexities and high yield” of programmatic advertising and guaranteed private market places mean that Leonard favours a largely open publishing model which contains a small element of paid access. “You can actually get the best of both,” he says.

Two months ago the title launched its Independent Minds subscription, which starts at £55-a-year and offers benefits including ad-free browsing, exclusive long reads, access to events and free e-books. Leonard says this is not a march to a paywall. “Our approach is to recognise that historically we have done extremely well in terms of growing our audiences and engaging with them, but also monetising them fully through advertising. To walk away from that wouldn’t make commercial sense to us.”

Leonard concedes that Facebook’s algorithm change came as a “very large shock” but says The Independent, which has been given trusted status on the platform, is clawing back lost ground. “[Facebook traffic] seems to be turning a corner,” he says. “Traffic and revenue continued to be diluted through the summer time but the autumn seems to have stabilised and we are seeing some upticks now. We are not near where we had been – I don’t think anyone could claim to be."

The damage was limited by The Independent’s strong relationships with Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) and Apple News. Unlike many publishers, this one remains very positive about the tech giants and the revenues they bring. All The Independent’s journalists are given training and objectives in search engine optimisation and data analysis tools, particularly Chartbeat, Google Analytics and Adobe.

A 20-strong data science team works with the Ad Operation Group to serve highly-segmented audiences. “A brand might be looking for female financial decision makers who own a mobile phone and are likely to take out a loan in the next three months and also drive a certain type of car,” says Leonard. “We can be that specific.”

With 34% of The Independent’s audience living in London and south-east England, Leonard says the title can combine with the Evening Standard in campaigns and “own London”.

Although he admits that the Indy is “late to the party” in terms of subscription and B2C monetisation, and hamstrung by not having a print paper to bundle into offers, he says The Independent has diversified its income. Advertising still contributes “more than 50 per cent” of the total, but it makes money from affiliate deals with the likes of John Lewis and Amazon, sponsored stories from Taboola, and branded content campaigns from its Story Studio team.

To the naysayers who argued that The Independent was on borrowed time, lacking a print product or a major subscriber base, Leonard says that its digital operation has been in the black for a long while and will continue to be so. “Some people say it has been profitable for two years – I say it has been profitable for seven years in terms of the digital entity.”

Read more from Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, and follow him on Twitter @iburrell

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