ESI Media: Digital-only Independent can thrive because 'we believe in journalism'

The advertising boss of ESI Media has claimed The Independent can thrive as a strong digital-only brand because of its journalism and that other publishers will be looking to follow suit by shutting their print editions.

Jon O'Donnell: belief in journalism
Jon O'Donnell: belief in journalism

Jon O’Donnell, the commercial director of ESI Media, the owner of The Independent and London Evening Standard told Campaign: "If we believe in the journalism beyond anything else, we have to believe going digital-only is the right move.

"Being a global, digital pure-play means we can be nimble and agile, but with the fantastic heritage of the newspaper compared to the upstarts like Buzzfeed."

He expressed regret about redundancies, following the announcement of the closure of The Independent's print edition and the £24 million sale of its cut-price sister paper, i, to Johnston Press.

But O’Donnell said it would have been impossible to sustain The Independent as a standalone print title. "The paid-for print market is under considerable pressure," he said.

Industry estimates seen by Campaign show print advertising revenues at The Independent fell as much as 60 per cent in January against a year earlier, making it one of the weakest performers in a declining market.

O’Donnell said The Independent was likely to be seen as a trailblazer with its move to digital-only.

"It reminds me of when the Standard went free [in 2009], there was a huge hoo-haa but if it hadn’t gone free, it would have died. If The Independent didn’t go digital-only, it would have died."

He went on: "We went to tabloid first [with The Independent] and a lot of people followed, and I think a lot of other people will be taking a long, hard look at their print models."

O’Donnell maintained ESI Media’s remaining assets, including TV channel London Live, are in good shape. "All our businesses are in growth. London Live will break even next year, The Independent web site is in profit, the Evening Standard is in profit. It’s a positive story."

He was part of the launch team of i, which debuted in 2010 and used some content from The Independent to produce a cheaper, more digestible read for younger readers, particularly women.

"We took a brand that everybody told us wouldn’t work, grew circulation to over 300,000 and took a significant share of the advertising market. The team did an amazing job to get the price it got. We could not be more proud. We built an amazing brand out of nothing."

Disclosure: the author writes occasional columns for the London Evening Standard, publisher of ESI Media

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