Down But Not Out: Why Indy’s Print Demise Doesn’t Presage The Death of Newspapers

I was, were you? The Independent newspaper will join one of the best-known advertising campaigns of the 1980s in the media graveyard next month, finally fulfilling the many exaggerated reports of its imminent demise over its three decades of life.

Even though I am a fan, having bought a copy of the first edition in October 1986 and worked for the paper for a decade during the Noughties, I accept that there is no more reason for the ordinary punter to mourn its demise than that of Rover cars, Opal Fruits or Our Price stores.

The reason the news that the Indy titles will go online-only while its sister paper the “i” is being sold to Johnston Press has grabbed so much attention is put down to the fact that it is another nail in the coffin for the printed newspaper and a step closer towards an epochal event (for anyone over 30) when all papers will be digital.

Just as only a few people were hardened David Bowie fans but everyone shared a sense of loss.

However I think that collective feeling may be missing the point. The Indy is shutting its print editions for very idiosyncratic reasons: it has always lost money; its relatively new owners are tired of subsiding it; the number of reporters is shrinking; and it is the weakest player in field selling just 40,000 full-priced copies a day.

The Indy has always had to innovate to grab a slice of the British newspaper arena, which must be one of the most crowded markets on Earth. It was the first to offer thematic coverage; the first broadsheet to go tabloid; the first to offer one story on its front page; and the first to offer a cut-price “lite” version.

Thus the announcement by owners ESI Media that The Independent is to become the “first national newspaper title to move to a digital-only future” was not so much PR spin as a genuine statement of innovation.

Despite the gloom and doom the fact is that the Indy has gone digital; it is not likely The Guardian, The Sun or even the Financial Times will follow any time soon (although The Times does have “form” in following whatever the Independent does, so perhaps watch that space).

Earnest predictions of the death of the book, the death of television, the death of the cinema and the death of the theatre have all proved to be wide of the mark.

Without being Canute-like, it is reasonably likely that printed newspaper will be with us for some time. Our weekday nationals sell 6.82 million copies a day while another 2 million regional papers change hands every day. Sure the national figure is down from 12.06 million in 2001 so they’re down but not yet out.

Then there is a host of free papers from the national Metro to London’s Evening Standard down to the local freebie that cover not just every town but sometimes different parts of the same place.

The whole concept that is digital news websites is still a work in progress: are they an online copy of a newspaper, an updated flow of breaking news or a gateway to a whole host of lifestyle material and gossip?

The FT is plainly in the former camp with the second one added on, while the Mail online (the Daily Mail’s digital version) has a strong focus on the lifestyle pieces, not-really journalism, and celebrity stories.

Neither is anyone sure whether to offer everything for free and rely on advertising, or erect a pay wall. The FT, again and The Times are in the latter category while The Guardian is at the forefront of free-at-the-point-of-access journalism.

Whichever is right on those two spectra of content and price it is likely that online news will look more different in 10 years time than print news will do.

WHATEVER THE MEDIUM, THE OUTFITS THAT SURVIVE WILL BE THE ONES THAT COVER NEWS IN DEPTH AND BREADTH

As news and so-called news websites flourish, newspaper may find they have a competitive advantage in being able to offer genuine, well-sourced, well-edited and well-written news stories amid a large universe of second-hand, plagiarised stories and unsubstantiated rumours.

People may find that when something awful, such as the Paris bombings or the election of Donald Trump, takes place they are more likely to grab of a copy of a newspaper then type in the name of the event into their browser and hope for the best.

The reason that The Independent has gone online may be more to do with the fact that its news coverage had become highly thematic and selective. While the quality of commentators such as Patrick Cockburn, Kim Sengupta and John Rentoul is unrivalled, readers might have looked elsewhere for a greater breadth of news coverage.

To survive as a news organisation requires a heap of staff to really get inside the issue whether it is domestic politics, foreign affairs, business or sport. Anything else just skates over the top.

A former colleague on the Indy’s business desk recently posted in a Facebook tribute that, when we worked there, there were as many as 15 journalists on the beat. Earlier this year when he visited, there were three.

That is probably why the Indy went online as that model might work in the digital arena. Whatever the medium, the news outfits that will survive will be the ones that can cover the issues in both depth and breadth. Whether there is an economic model that can sustain that is something that may take several years to tell. In the meantime I await the opportunity to add a copy of the last edition of the Indy to join the first in my own personal mini-media museum.

More about the author

About the author

Phil has run Clarity Economics, a London-based consultancy, since 2007 and, before that, was Economics Correspondent at The Independent.

Phil won feature writer of the year Work Foundation Work World media awards in 2009, and was commended by the Royal Statistical Society in 2007.

He is the author of Brilliant Economics and The Great Economists.

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