Close-Up: Newsmaker - A year in the life of the first quality compact editor

The Independent's Simon Kelner has his sights set on The Guardian. It's become a sport across the national newspaper business to take credit for The Independent's decision to launch a compact edition.

Everybody reckons they thought of it first. But The Independent, under its editor, Simon Kelner, bit the bullet and a year ago launched a tabloid-sized edition alongside its broadsheet in London.

It has proved a circulation success (its August sales were 20 per cent up on the previous year to 262,588). So much so that in May, it dropped its broadsheet edition and became the first 100 per cent quality compact.

And Kelner, who has edited the title for six-and-a-half years, is keen to nail the myth that the launch had been on the blocks and ready to go for years. In fact, he says, his inspiration was drawn from the world of FMCG marketing and a trip to the supermarket to buy toothpaste. Usually, the observation that Colgate toothpaste comes in several sizes, plus pump action, would lead to social excommunication but for Kelner it turned out to be a "eureka" moment.

"It seemed to me that every consumer product had a variety of shapes and sizes and designs to attract the consumer," he explains. "And then I thought newspapers are the only product where the shape and size is dictated by the producer rather than the consumer's wishes. So I thought: would it be possible to 'Colgate-ise' our newspaper?"

We meet in his spacious office in a corner of The Independent's editorial floor in Docklands. He's busier than usual because it's party conference season. He's just done two days at the Liberal Democrat conference and will spend three days at Labour's.

Kelner is quite short and chubby, but full of energy. As one friend puts it: "All that chubbiness is a florid mask for a razor-sharp intellect on absolutely every issue."

He answers questions in a relaxed manner and can afford to be confident; he's the first editor to win Editor of the Year twice (he is the current holder of the title) and The Independent was recently named Newspaper of the Year at the British Press Awards.

It's a massive contrast to a year ago, when its circulation was 210,000 and falling and there was constant speculation that its proprietor, Sir Tony O'Reilly, was thinking of selling the unprofitable title.

The Independent soon rolled out the compact outside London. But not everybody has been bowled over. Critics have suggested the editorial product, especially news, has been watered down.

Unsurprisingly, Kelner refutes this: "I'm convinced that the paper, although it was very good before it went compact, is a much more confident and self-assured paper now. I love the tabloid size but we're still pushing the frontiers of how you do a quality tabloid newspaper, experimenting with the form and learning tricks every day."

Kelner's supporters credit him with an unswerving commitment to causes that he believes in - the Iraq war is one issue that The Independent has been passionate about and was the first newspaper to come out against Tony Blair's actions. Friends describe him as a classic social democrat, agitating on any issue where he feels there is social injustice and refusing to back down in the face of pressure from government fixers. There is no doubt that Kelner has taken the newspaper to the left.

Stephen Miron, the managing director of The Mail on Sunday, previously worked at The Independent with Kelner. He says: "Simon has got massive hunger and passion and has been through the more turbulent times at The Independent. So he's earned the right to be credited with the success of the compact."

Within three months of the compact launch, Rupert Murdoch decided to copycat the idea and launched a compact Times in parallel with its broadsheet.

Kelner says: "I certainly wouldn't want to exclude readers of The Times but we do seem to be appealing to different markets. Ours is a younger, metropolitan, more modern-thinking audience."

Kelner is certainly in tune with this chunk of his audience. He writes the GQ food column, which involves him entertaining a celebrity guest at a London restaurant, and he has become friends with dinner companions including Alex James from Blur and Tracy Emin.

He's also a member of a dining club that includes the GQ editor, Dylan Jones, as a founder member. But a fondness for the high life doesn't get in the way of work. Friends say he might occasionally be out until 4am but he's always at his desk early in the morning.

This perhaps has something to do with his hard Northern stock. Born in Manchester in 1957, he worked his way up through the sports pages of newspapers including the Sunday Correspondent before editing The Observer magazine and then The Mail on Sunday's Night and Day magazine.

His fanatical support for rugby league (he follows Swinton) is unusual in media, although he also supports Manchester City. Kelner plays football once a week with the same set of friends he's played with for 16 years and goes to the gym at least twice a week. This helps to keep him grounded, he says.

But is there a sense of job done after the compact launch? No, he says.

"I'm still enjoying the job, more actually than at any stage."

He says he wants to do at least another two years to become The Independent's longest-serving editor.

He says he was approached by the Daily Mirror to replace Piers Morgan but wasn't interested. He rules out ever editing a red-top: "I don't think I'd be very good at it. This is the newspaper for me."

The O'Reilly factor is certainly an important one in Kelner's desire to stay at The Independent - he's well known for allowing his editors to plough their own furrows and keeping his own views out of his papers. He's also been unstintingly generous in backing the compact launch but now has the aim of making the title and its Sunday sister profitable.

There was a setback because The Independent underestimated the impact of the launch on its advertising revenue.

"It's no secret that we had a tough time when we launched the compact because we gave the advertising industry something new, and quite complicated to get their heads around," Kelner says. "We took a bit of a hit revenue-wise. A compact quality paper is not such an outlandish concept now and we're very happy that we've got a new commercial director in Simon Barnes and things are moving very much in the right direction."

The target for profitability is mid-2006. Improvements to the product are part of the strategy -the first of which was the launch earlier this week of its Monday media section, which he hopes will help build circulation and bring in advertising against strong competition from The Guardian.

And Kelner has The Guardian in his sights. Although he accepts that his paper probably won't keep growing at 20 per cent year on year, he feels that overtaking The Guardian, which currently sells around 100,000 more copies at 364,504, is a realistic ambition.

The Independent has been close in the past only to fall away. But Kelner says: "Two or three days of the week we're within 60,000 copies of The Guardian and the gap is getting smaller."

So while it's been a triumphant year for Kelner and his team, the real test of The Independent's mettle is about to begin.

QUESTIONNAIRE

Age: 46

Lives: Marylebone, London

Family: Wife Sally Ann, daughter Phoebe, 15

Favourite ad: Marmite - you either love it or you hate it

Describe yourself in three words: Editor of Independent

Greatest extravagance: I send all my clothes to the dry cleaners

Most treasured possession: Tiffany collar stiffeners my wife bought me

Living person you most admire: Nelson Mandela

Motto: Always go to bed when someone starts singing American Pie

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