Indy editor goes 'back to the future' with redesign

Amol Rajan hopes to make his mark with a newspaper makeover that he promises will be a 'classic with a twist'. Arif Durrani reports.

Amol Rajan: 'New-look Independent is classic with a twist'
Amol Rajan: 'New-look Independent is classic with a twist'

Amol Rajan is so unlike any other newspaper editor I have ever met, it is hard to know where to begin. It is not his age (30), his background – state-schooled in Tooting via Kolkata – or even, gosh, his skin colour that makes him stand out.

It is his energy and openness that are most striking. The passion with which he talks about his job reveals a lack of pretention and genuine respect for all those around him. He is well aware of the changes in the business, having begun his editorship of The Independent in June with another round of job losses. But he is determined to adapt.

"This place has been through a lot of redundancies, there has been a lot of pain over the years," he says. "But there is an incredible stoicism among the staff. It’s almost like they have been beaten so many times, they can take it."

Welcome to The Independent today, where the Blitz spirit has taken hold, and not without good reason. Two years ago, when I interviewed Rajan’s battle-hardened predecessor, Chris Blackhurst, on the paper’s silver anniversary, he raised doubts about whether the paper would survive another 25 years. Since then The Independent’s headline circulation figure has tumbled a further 60 per cent, from 176,983 to just 69,388 last month.

The dramatic drop has been exacerbated by the decision to pull back on the scale of its bulk copy sales to hotels, airports and restaurants as print and paper costs started to rise in 2011. But having its circulation slip below 70,000, with only 51,968 copies now actively purchased since its 20p price rise in July, must have set alarm bells ringing.

'There is an incredible stoicism among the staff… like they have been beaten so many times, they can take it'

Rajan, who has been with the publisher in its various guises for six years, admits he was in the boardroom this summer defending the print edition of The Indy. He argued that it remains integral as a feeder mechanism at the heart of a media group that now houses four newspapers (also The Independent On Sunday, i and London Evening Standard), two websites and is soon to launch a television station, London Live.

"I said, ‘this is why you should keep The Independent going’, and that [strategy] was strongly backed," he asserts. "The commitment of the board and the owners to keeping The Independent as part of the stable is very strong."

He draws some solace from the fact his battle is far from original. "I’ll be disappointed if tomorrow’s circulation is below today’s," he says. "I remember in [former editor] Andrew Marr’s book ‘My Trade’, he was always disappointed by the circulation figures. I am always going to be disappointed by the figures – but that’s in the context of knowing what’s going on in the industry, and our price rise, and knowing what our strategy is."

Rajan’s rise to the editor’s chair, his "dream job" after realising he was not going to play cricket for England, is the stuff of wildest fantasy. Looming large is the influence of one man who has since left the building, but whose name still carries immense respect in the office: Simon Kelner.

It was Kelner, The Indy’s editor between 1998-2008, who gave Rajan his first major break. They met when he was a Cambridge graduate working as a "mike boy" on Channel 5’s Wright Stuff. Kelner was a guest on the show and Rajan made a beeline for him. He recalls how impressed he had been with an "incredibly galvanising" speech the editor had made at his university three years earlier on his opposition to the Iraq war. He pleaded with him on the studio floor for a job. Twice.

His tenacity paid off. Rajan was invited for an interview soon afterwards. To say he was "green" hardly covers it. After one month on the news desk he was sent to Portugal when Madeline McCann’s parents had been arrested. He was tasked with filing a 600 word descriptive feature, a "colour piece", from Praia da Luz.

"[News editor] Pete Victor phoned back," he recalls. "He said ‘about this colour piece? I like the intro, I like the payoff, it’s all very nice, but what the fuck is with all these references to the magenta sky, the lilac walls and the terracotta brickwork?’... I thought I had written a colour piece – I didn’t know what one was."

Five years after joining the group, having worked on the news desk, sports desk and as deputy comments editor, Kelner paved the way for another career defining moment for the then 28-year old, this time putting him forward to be media advisor to the group’s owner Evgeny Lebedev. His close proximity to the well-groomed Russian, whom he describes as "ferociously clever" and someone he still talks to most days, did not do his career prospects any harm.

"I owe him [Kelner] completely everything, and I think he is aware of that," he muses. "He has supported me. He has always invested in young talent. Olly Duff [the executive editor of i] would also say he owes Simon everything."

Sitting now in his second-floor corner office in the publishing melting pot that is Northcliffe House, Rajan is growing into his role as the editor of a quality newspaper. Looking out of a window with generous views, and with the capital's tallest church spire - St Mary Abbots – watching over him, he says: "It’s an amazing office. I feel completely, absurdly privileged."

He adds apologetically: "This doubles up as a meeting room. I spend as little time in here as possible."

His PA tells me later Rajan regular spends 12-14 hours in the building.

A new redesign with roots in the past

Rajan speaks quickly and excitedly, peppering his thoughts with references to political events, business launches and high-profile individuals that highlight a voracious appetite to soak up all around him. Boardroom support is invaluable, but he knows he needs to stabilise the newspaper’s circulation as a matter of urgency.

This week’s redesign forms a major part of his plans to change the conversation. With its new content formula, a black vertical masthead, pared-back use of colour and classic serif fonts, the restyled Indy (like the compact edition, campaigning front covers and i before it) is another bold play from the publisher.

The editor says he has consciously gone "back to the future" with the launch, having spent several months in the archives of the early editions produced by Andreas Whittam Smith, Stephen Glover and Matthew Symonds. Back in 1986 when the paper shook the market, Smith, the founding editor, referred to it as being "classic with a twist" – a phrase Rajan has recycled for his own vision.

"It was an amazing paper. It was radically different, politically neutral, with huge pictures and real gusto," he says. "The Independent still has amazing journalism, amazing names, but it looks not enough like The Independent and too much like the i."

He is well aware the odds are stacked against him. The Independent’s team of 160 or so journalists is dwarfed by its rivals, not least the 550+ at The Guardian. He guesses his editorial budget is a third of what even his predecessors commanded too, and about a tenth of that spent on the Mail titles next door. So the focus is now on "maybe a dozen areas we can do absolutely better than everybody else".

Politics is top of the agenda for the "free-thinking" newspaper. By recalling the spirit of its founders, Rajan hopes to reinforce the paper’s Enlightenment values and strike a chord in what he considers to be an increasingly "sceptical but engaged" age.

"A lot of people don’t want to be hectored by a paper that is shouting and telling them what to think about the world," he says. "I want really smart analysis and I want to know what the big stories are, and to feel like I’m in the company of really smart women and men...

"We have an amazing political staff – Andy Grice, Steve Richards, Nigel Morris, Ollie Wright, John Rentoul, Don MacIntyre, Andy McSmith – and that’s just on the daily. Middle East – we’ve got Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn: it doesn’t get better than that."

With one eye on the next general election, he wants to prove the paper still has "skin in the game". Rajan is a fiercely political animal, and clearly values the access to Westminster his job affords. He has yet to get time with Prime Minister David Cameron, but hopes to change that before Christmas, Like his newspaper he does not align himself to any of today's three main parties, preferring to view himself rather romantically as a Whig - "My party is a party of [William] Gladstone, John Stuart Mill and Edmund Burke".

He believes UKIP's Nigel Farage "is the most important man in politics in many ways". Referencing David Marquand's seminal book The Progressive Dilemma, he believes UKIP could yet split the right in much the same way the centre-left was divided in the last century.

Sharp focus on Brooks and Coulson affair

Current affairs that play well to The Independent’s positioning of being the paper of no party or faction include phone hacking and the trial of former News of the World editors, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. Rajan admits to finding them both "incredibly impressive individuals in their own way", but as last week’s front covers suggest, he has no intention to stand on the sidelines.

"I think there’s a huge amount of shock at the scale of hacking," he says. "I think there’s been a feeling for a long time that there was a nexus of power between Britain’s media and political elite which was verging on unfair and unjust.

"I am shamelessly principled. I hope it doesn’t sound sanctimonious, we’ll leave that to The Guardian, but I really think the press should try and report things that are true. I think the implication of our Brooks and Coulson splash headline is that it can’t be some rules for one bunch and other rules for others. It’s very interesting that Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson were having a six year affair at the time when the News of the World were reporting on other peoples affairs."

The Indy’s compact commercial saviour

No one should doubt Rajan’s commitment to the cause, or his ability. But the commercial reality of life at The Independent can similarly not be overlooked. The newspaper’s ad revenues in the 12 months to October 2103 fell 9 per cent to £20.6 million year-on-year, according to Nielsen figures. In the same period, advertising for the national press as a whole fell 5 per cent.

However, the Independent’s concise offshoot i continues to gain traction. With circulations pushing 300,000 it offers much needed scale for the group, while ad revenues for the daily digest have rocketed 20 per cent in the last year to £18 million (Nielsen). The brainchild of managing director, Andrew Mullins, many now believe without it, Rajan would not have a paper to edit.

Rob Lynam, head of display at WPP’s media agency MEC, notes how over the past couple of years, advertisers have warmed to buying the combined reach of The Independent and i. He says one unexpected trend, as i settles down is that it actually has an older median readership age (49 years old) than The Independent (41). 

Lynam, whose clients include Orange, Lloyds and Visa, adds: "As a joint package it’s certainly useful, especially for clients in telecoms, motors and finance. The i has given the company an air of vitality it otherwise would not have had. Instead of the focus being on an eroding newspaper, we have been talking about a success story. If it hadn’t been for i, I can’t imagine the Independent being relevant for many advertisers today. It was a bold move, opinion was divided but it has worked out for them."

Three years after its launch, the significance of i is not lost on Rajan. He says: "Mullins is God essentially. He is the most unbelievably impressive person I’ve ever worked with in any shape or form. He’s had the two best ideas in recent newspaper history – it was his idea to launch i, it was his idea to go for it with the free Evening Standard. We are incredibly lucky to have him.

"I speak to him everyday. We have got a lot stronger in this company at developing relationships between editorial and commercial. Everything I do which I think matters for our future, I run past Andy. I trust his judgement more than anyone."

As a group, ESI Media is reported to be on course to lose £11.8 million in its financial year to October, an improvement on the £16.6 million it lost in 2011/12 but still far from its stated goal of profitability.

Get ready for London Live

The company’s evolution continues. Staff at The Independent are in the process of being relocated, along with those at The Evening Standard, to make space for the group’s London Live TV venture taking shape on the floor below. Blackhurst is the man tasked with editorial integration and in baking local television into the operation. The prospect of being a group of four newspapers, two websites and a TV station on Freeview’s Channel 8 is something Rajan finds "completely thrilling".

Rajan was married in September, but it’s no great surprise to learn his honeymoon in the Caribbean has been put off until the new year. Not that you’ll find him complaining. The former editor of University of Cambridge’s Varsity magazine is enjoying ever moment of the ride.

"What can be better than being editor," he says. "Having that freedom, and a proprietor that backs you to the tune of millions of pounds every year: Who says ‘go and do something fascinating, cause some mischief, disrupt stuff, surprise people. Write what other people won’t write'. That privilege carries you through."

But Rajan, and the rest of the loyal staff toiling long days on The Independent, needs this redesign to work. Even negating bulk copies, the paper cannot afford to see another 16 per cent decline in copy sales like it has over the last year. One thing's for certain, this newspaper is not going down without a fight.

"I’ve no patience with the kind of defeatism others have tried to attribute to us.They slightly underestimate us," deadpans Rajan. "There is an incredible energy and determination in this office, and people are pushing really hard for the paper to survive. And more than that, for it to be a really strong paper again."

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