Independent in outlook - but united in purpose

It has become a media cliché to say that The Independent has always embraced difference. Even so, it’s true enough. Challenging convention is scorched into the paper’s DNA.

(l-r) Roger Alton, Daryl Fielding and Simon Kelner will seek to build the Independent's circulation
(l-r) Roger Alton, Daryl Fielding and Simon Kelner will seek to build the Independent's circulation

From The Independent’s iconic launch advertising campaign, back in 1986 (“It is. Are you?”), the paper has sent a clarion call to the open-minded reader and clarity and simplicity and innovation have been its bedrock ever since.

Now, the paper is installing a new management triumvirate to take this philosophy forward through the next phase of The Independent’s life.

The editor, Simon Kelner, is stepping aside, after ten years in the role, to make way for the former Observer editor Roger Alton.

And the paper has a new commercial director, Daryl Fielding, a former managing partner at Ogilvy, whose job it will be to forge a different sort of commercial sell.

Kelner is determined that the new partners fully share responsibility for The Independent brand. “In the past, newspapers have tended to be a confederation of republics,” he says.

“What I would like to do is bring the functions of editorial, marketing and commercial together so that we go forward with a unified purpose.”

This united trio is determined to uphold The Independent’s pioneering approach, while stepping up to the very different challenges that newspaper publishers now face.

(l-r) Fielding, Alton and Kelner

And what challenges. In the early years of Kelner’s decade-long editorship, not much changed.

But the rise of free newspapers, the demise of the broadsheet format and the imperative of the internet have latterly collided to change the course of newspaper publishing.

Kelner himself has already established a reputation for agenda-setting. He has pioneered the distinctive “viewspaper” format and was the first editor to make the transition from broadsheet to compact.

Then again, in the real-world digital revolution, The Independent has been dreadfully slow to provide readers with a rich online experience. Only recently did the paper finally revamp its website to do better justice to the values of the printed paper.

Still, it’s testament to Kelner’s vigour and determination that The Independent continues to punch well above its weight, despite copy sales the lowest in its market: the latest ABC figures recorded a sobering – but market-consistent – 4.45 per cent decline on last February to 252,435.

And Kelner has steered the paper through some brutal cost-cutting and mounting speculation about its ownership (the Irish media owner Denis O’Brien has been building his stake in The Independent and Independent on Sunday’s parent, Independent News and Media, to just over 20 per cent) without wavering on his principles. Readers would never know.

Outspoken, uncompromising, expletive-studded

So why is he giving up editing? Kelner says that, after ten years, he’s notched up all the great things you can expect to as a national newspaper editor.

“I’ve been incredibly privileged and very, very lucky. But I’ve done it now. After a decade it feels right to move on.”

Will he miss the ego-tripping that accompanies the role of a national editorship? Kelner pauses for a little mental chin-stroking. “Well, if I couldn’t get a table at Scott’s I’d be terribly disappointed.”

Inevitably, Kelner has already been spending plenty of time on wider management issues, and the retirement of The Independent’s former managing director Terry Grote and the arrival on to the market of Alton made for a rare alignment of the fates that sealed the restructure.

Kelner and Alton have been friends for years and Kelner is happy to admit: “I think Roger will vastly improve the paper that I’ve been editing; he’ll re-energise the place.”

Alton is known for his outspoken, uncompromising, expletive-studded, thoroughly decent and self-deprecating style, and for being one of the most consistently successful editors in recent newspaper history.

The Observer was named newspaper of the year at last year’s British Press Awards, Alton was the man who introduced the hugely successful and sector-defining Food, Sport, Music and Woman supplements to The Observer package, and he oversaw a circulation growth in a declining market.

Quite why Alton left The Observer is a matter of some speculation, much of it centering on the state of his relationship with The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, and the sharing of resources between the two papers.

Kelner is clear that as editor, Alton will be in full control. “I intend to have absolutely no influence on what goes on in the paper.”

Alton, of course, says he has a whole series of thoughts about the paper, but it’s too early to discuss them publicly: “One of the great hallmarks of The Indy is, for example, the brilliant use of its front page. How do we develop that, and take it forward? That is a big question.”

Increasing online importance

“I think consumer issues will become increasingly important,” he goes on, “but the paper should reflect the wide range of people’s passions.

"This is particularly true for Independent readers, who have such diverse interests. It is also vitally important to convey a sense of fun and to have in mind always what women want and enjoy.”

Alton is also well aware of the need to play the digital game, though he’s refreshingly, rather
unfashionably, passionate about print.

“Our online offering is clearly crucial to the development of the paper, but if I had the answer to how the future relationship between old and new media will pan out, I would probably be sitting in The Bahamas now.

"No-one knows the answer to this, but if there weren’t any newspapers sitting on the counter in Mr P’s shop down my road, someone would invent one because, still, people like them and enjoy them and they perform a necessary and complex service.”

And to the final third of our new triumvirate. The Independent, as everyone knows, doesn’t make any money.

It will be Fielding’s job to make sure that the new editorial focus and management strategy are packaged commercially to ensure that the paper doesn’t lose quite so much.

To newspaper stalwarts, Fielding is a far from obvious choice of commercial director. She has never worked in newspapers.

And she most definitely isn’t part of the cosy, essentially male, club of space-sellers who have endless amusing stories about each other.

Quality, not just quantity

She is a capable senior manager who has worked on some of the country’s best-known brands, such as Dove and The Labour Party.

“Far from obvious” could almost have been Kelner’s brief for the post. Kelner says he was determined to find someone for the role who understood the business, but who could bring a completely new perspective.

“Our commercial proposition is not just about numbers, it’s about quality, maximising the quality of our readership.”

Fielding is already in step with this idea. “Most advertisers look for value, of which price is only one
factor,” she says.

“The numbers are important, but so, crucially, is the quality of the readership. Our readers are primarily young, affluent, mobile – and they’re conspicuous consumers. They are a very valuable target audience and I think we can do more to leverage this.”

And she’s undaunted by her inexperience. Her familiarity with client-side economics will help, she says.

“My understanding of the way clients work will be important. Clearly, I have a lot to learn, but I also think, coming from the outside, I will bring some new thinking and can challenge the status quo.”

In a matter of months, Fielding will have a full-colour paper to sell and Kelner is promising some design improvements. “I hope by the end of this year The Independent will look vastly different,” he says.

As the incoming editor, let’s give Alton the last word: “We need to build circulation, and one very simple way is to get people to buy the paper more often. The Independent is already a brilliant product and my aim would be to make it an indispensable part of any interested and engaged person’s daily life.”