Media Forum: Has The Indie got a rosy future?

Is The Independent merely an exercise in vanity publishing? Alasdair Reid reports.

Dangerous things to forecast, revolutions. Especially media revolutions. But the truly unfortunate thing, from the point of view of The Independent newspaper, is that we've witnessed two of them in fewer than five years. It has been devilishly difficult for a modestly resourced title to keep up.

Having trundled along quite happily for decades with nothing much happening in the way of change, the UK's quality titles (most of them at least) decided in 2003 and 2004 that it was time to reinvent themselves in radically new compact formats; and the dust hardly had time to settle on that upheaval when the industry shocked itself into embracing Web 2.0, with all the zealous passion that you'd expect from a latter-day convert.

The irony is that The Independent actually led the first revolution. Sadly, it has lagged behind in the second. While The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Times have been reinventing themselves as multiplatform media content providers, The Independent has ploughed its own rather regular furrow as a paper-and-ink newspaper with a cute little digital annexe.

And when its editor-in-chief, Simon Kelner, announced, as he did recently, that a programme of redundancies at the paper was necessary for "structural" reasons, it only threw into greater relief the fact that, actually, The Independent has restructured hardly at all - compared with its rivals.

Which makes you suspect that these are merely cost-cutting measures, pure and simple. And that in turn tends to remind you that the paper continues to lose money (around £10 million a year in recent times), even under the proprietorship of Tony O'Reilly, not a man who much cares for lame ducks.

The Independent's reinvention as a tabloid was heralded by many commentators as "a last throw of the dice" for the title. And, indeed in circulation terms, the gamble has arguably paid off - in 2002, sales were threatening to drop below the 200,000 mark. Its February 2007 Audit Bureau of Circulations figure was 264,182.

But, as 40 staffers prepare to clear their desks in the latest restructure, should we have any confidence in the paper's future? Of course we should, Simon Barnes, the commercial director of The Independent, says. He points out, for instance, that the paper has been delivering ad revenue growth - in the 15-20 per cent range - in what remains a tough market.

He adds: "Our online work is also developing. We're getting significant growth in the audience we deliver, and our online commercial revenue more than doubled in 2006. It will do something similar again this year. We are working towards a more integrated cohesive proposition for both readers and clients, but we want it to deliver a return on investment.

"Like everyone else, we constantly adapt, evolve and re-invigorate our business. We're not perfect, but we improve every day and we're winning. I doubt many could claim the same. What's not to be excited about?"

That's not exactly how Marc Mendoza, Media Planning Group's managing partner, sees things. "It's only a matter of time now," he predicts. "The Independent adds nothing to a schedule and it's just not something that any media planner is ever worried about. From a reader's point of view, it's quite a nice product. Actually, given the levels of editorial resource there, it's astonishing. But its numbers are so low that no-one takes it seriously and it just hasn't kept up on the online side."

That aspect is worrying, Vanessa Clifford, a managing partner at MindShare, agrees. She states: "It's true its circulation has been holding up recently - and it has managed to hold on to most of the people it attracted when it went tabloid. But the challenge now is digital. It can't stand still. If it does, I'm inclined to believe that it will lose out, because consumers are not going to stop doing what they are doing - accessing news from an ever-increasing variety of sources."

But Dominic Williams, the press director of Carat, confesses he's a reader and a fan. He concludes: "I think what Kelner has done there over the past few years has been fabulous. And, yes, they are up against it, not least because all their rivals have such deep pockets. But I'm not too worried about the editorial cuts because basically it's something that every paper has been trying to do. It doesn't mean they aren't investing in editorial content. I have faith it will be around for the foreseeable future."

YES - Simon Barnes, commercial director, The Independent

"Our brands are in fantastic shape with a fabulous, desirable and unique DNA. While national print revenues have shown decline for the past two years, The Independent has delivered growth."

NO - Marc Mendoza, managing partner, Media Planning Group

"From a media agency point of view, The Independent is an irrelevance. It has become an exercise in vanity publishing and the only question is how long Tony O'Reilly is going to keep pumping money into it."

MAYBE - Vanessa Clifford, managing partner, MindShare

"It has been holding up in circulation terms, but the huge challenge now is digital. It just has to evolve to embrace other platforms. If it continues to stand still, it will merely look foolish."

YES - Dominic Williams, press director, Carat

"Yes, I agree it's true that senior Independent managers haven't been as vocal as some of their rivals when it comes to the digital challenge, but I have every faith that they know what the challenge is and are addressing it."

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