A view from Chris Blackhurst

Newspapers, don't fear innovation - embrace it

Right, I might as well admit it. I was one of those who thought the i newspaper would not fly.

I was the City editor of The Independent’s sister, the Evening Standard, five years ago and sufficiently senior enough to be shown a dummy and asked for my view.

My main concern was that it would cannibalise The Independent. Given that 95 per cent of its content was to come from The Independent, the low-cost, albeit briefer, alternative was bound to prise readers from the parent.

Where I was wrong was that i quickly established its own identity with a different audience – students, professional women, older folk – who wanted an objective, intelligent, cheekier, less expensive and not so physically demanding read.

If there was some erosion of The Independent’s readership, it was not easily discernible. i moved inexorably through 200,000 by persuading disillusioned buyers of pretty much all the existing titles across the spectrum to give it a go, plus it attracted people who were not purchasing a paper at all.

Every time the product was promoted, its circulation rose with no equivalent drop in sales of The Independent. Its success meant that The Independent, which I went on to edit, was able to sell its journalism to advertisers based on a combined circulation figure, which soon eclipsed that of its arch-rival, The Guardian.

Overall, i has been a triumph. But its fifth-birthday congratulations has masked a sad truth about the current industry, which is that such large-scale innovation is rare – and less frequent still where print is concerned.

In other sectors, extending the Independent brand with a new variation on the original would be commonplace. But, in papers, it’s hardly ever attempted. If it is, heated discussions about destroying the main title are bound to result.

Yet there are other products, not just i, that show it can work – with even more spectacular results. MailOnline bears only a partial resemblance in the choice of subjects and the treatment it affords them to the Daily Mail. But does the latter suffer because the website likes to linger over the Kardashians? Not a bit.

They complement each other. The lesson of i and MailOnline is that there are untapped audiences out there, if only you’re brave enough to look.

The Sun has recognised this by turning its website free. Some say its paywall was a costly mistake as it shut itself off from the huge global online audience that its smaller print rivals won. But The Sun wasn’t wrong for trying.

News publishers must innovate to survive.

Chris Blackhurst is the former multimedia head of business at The Independent and London Evening Standard