Feature

Industry reaction: Independent must regain its relevance and voice

LONDON - After weeks of fevered speculation, Independent Print Limited, a company owned by the Lebedev family, has acquired The Independent and Independent on Sunday in a deal that promises to "safeguard the future of the business".

Industry reaction: Independent must regain its relevance and voice

Media agency heads who remember the excitement surrounding the launch of The Independent tell Media Week whether they think the UK's first quality tabloid has a future in the hands of Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev...

Andy Jones, chief executive of Universal McCann

At its launch, The Independent was a big issue. It introduced a genuinely independent positioning and was a breath of fresh air in a highly politicised press market.

The supporting ad campaign, "It is. Are You?" is memorable even today, and successfully positioned the paper as an important new voice. There was a completely different media landscape back then, and The Independent was a welcome addition.

However, The Independent has since lost its way, and it remains to be seen whether the paper has a future. At the moment, The Independent is neither fish nor fowl, and as a result it has become less relevant.

This is not entirely its own fault. The various ways the paper has tried to resurrect itself have either not worked out or - such as the innovation into tabloid-format and its campaigning stance - have been swiftly copied and swallowed by the market.

There is no evidence Lebedev has tried to influence editorial policy at the Standard, and I hope he doesn't unduly influence day-to-day editorial matters at The Independent either. If he does, the paper would lose its original USP, so brilliantly captured in the early ad campaigns.

 

Marc Mendoza, chief executive of Media Planning Group

I remember the poster campaign for the launch of The Independent well. At its launch, the paper was bold and brave, and challenged readers to question their own perceptions.

But although The Independent still tries today, it no longer has the critical mass. Lebedev has maintained the editorial independence of the Standard and it has paid off. If you look at the way people now actively hunt out the paper in the evenings, it's entirely different to how they used to reluctantly succumb to the previous free newspapers.

But with the Standard, Lebedev hasn't had to reinvent the wheel. The Independent is an entirely different challenge. There is possibly no longer room for four quality newspapers in the market. If you look at the two smallest, the minnows as it were, one is propped up by a charity [The Guardian], and the other is now sustained by a Russian billionaire.

With Lebedev's deep pockets, of course The Independent has a future. But will it be able to differentiate itself enough to be an independent, viable business proposition? I doubt it but I hope it can. There is genuine affection for it in the marketplace.

 

Liam Mullins, head of press, the7stars

The Independent has always served an audience who read it because their parents didn't. Free thinking and left-leaning, it offers a different perspective on news and current affairs. It has become known for striking front covers and a different way of telling the news - and there is still an audience for that.

In the 1980s, The Independent regularly sold more than 400,000 copies, and it was an alternative to the run-of-the-mill journalism already out there. Lebedev needs to find a similar niche now. Is that a free model? I hope not. Is that a well-targeted, well-written, well-priced product? I hope so.

The Indy fell into the trap of kow-towing to the big agency networks, incentivising volume at the expense of yield. Media planners and buyers can make-or-break a title, especially when the actively purchased figure starts to wane. If enough of the key influencers can get back behind the title, it may start to benefit from that.

Recent initiatives, including press directors receiving the paper from Monday to Friday, despite waking me up at 3.30am as it comes through the letterbox, puts the product back into decision makers' hands.
 
Relaunching The Independent as a free title would be a disaster. While the Standard has driven its circulation, and indeed in some cases its yield up, it has become broader, outsourced more editorial and become more celebrity-driven. 

The Indy regularly runs a book with a higher pagination than the Daily Mail. However, at the same time, it has a cover-price of a pound, and has to convince its readers to pay it. If Lebedev can get his maths right, then surely there is money to be made.

 

Andy Benningfield, trading director, Maxus

The introduction of The Independent sought to provide readers with views and opinions rather than hardcore front page headlines. With no politically motivated allegiance it aimed to rival the Daily Telegraph and The Times, but in reality the editorial viewpoint veered towards the centre-left, closer, some would argue, to that of The Guardian.

While the paper has faced difficulties over recent years, the fundamental approach has remained unchanged - with strong support for ethical and green issues, for example - which appeals to opinion-formers or early adopters, who are much sought-after by advertisers.
 
While there is limited reach compared to the larger titles, the Indy still offers some unique cover and frequency of the type of readers that can make a campaign go further.

Editorially, it needs to sharpen up, having become the mouthpiece for the Green Party in the eyes of some. However, the low capital cost entry to a quality audience remains attractive to many agencies and advertisers.
 
The market is not too crowded, providing each title continues to maintain the key points of difference, both editorially and in terms of the market they deliver.

There has been speculation the title may go free, which would be an exciting development, and certainly shake up the market.  This would need to be in conjunction with a fresh editorial positioning, and the kind of controversy that Rod Liddle might have brought as editor could well have done just that.

 

Jonathan Durden, founder of PHD and media consultant

Editorially, Alexander Lebedev seems to know what he's doing. He's turned the London Evening Standard into a paper I, as a Londoner, am proud of once again. So hopefully he can freshen up The Independent. With a circulation now less than 185,000, and that includes bulks, I don't know if there is a business case for it.

The Independent seems to be run more like a hobby at the moment. Lebedev has bought a comic, but he's proved he has a flair when it comes to enthusing editorial staff and recognising the value of more feature-based editorial and analysis. There has been a slow decline for all newspapers in their current form, and I think they need to focus on more than news.

Although The Independent would not be a loss if it folds in its current form, I'd rather it was in the marketplace than not. If Lebedev can bring something new to the table, distribution-wise or content-wise, than he could be doing everyone a favour. The industry needs all the innovations and new blueprints it can get.

 

Steve Goodman, managing director, print trading, GroupM

The deal has to be a positive thing for The Independent - it will definitely be a much-needed injection in the arm for the paper.

So far, Lebedev has delivered on his promises for the Evening Standard - the circulation is healthy, readership is up and the quality of the editorial is still good.

They've got a great team at The Independent, and although I've had issues with the editorial in the past, there is no doubt they will address those concerns. Whether the paper is free or paid-for, the quality of the editorial will have to be very high.

 

Dominic Woolfe, director of outdoor, press and radio at Starcom

Overall the sale is a positive thing. The Indy is a great product but it needed something. The interesting thing will be what Lebedev does with the Sunday paper. The Observer has just had a relaunch and the Sunday Times is by far the market-leader. Is there a need for The Independent to have a Sunday paper?

I think it’s been so far so good for Lebedev’s purchase of the London Evening Standard, but I’m not sure whether The Independent will follow the Standard and go free.

If it does, it will have an effect on the journalism. My gut feeling is that it won’t go free in the short term, but there will be some price-cutting and price promotions to get the circulation up.


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