Media: All about ... 20 years of The Independent

Two decades on and profitability remains elusive, Alasdair Reid writes.

The launch issue of The Independent, on 7 October 1986, splashed with the headline: "Conservatives try to halt sterling slide." It was hardly one to set pulses racing.

Unluckily, the paper came into being during something of a news drought. Ironically, though, the big story in the run-up to the launch of The Independent - the kidnapping in Rome of the Israeli nuclear whistleblower, Mordecai Vanunu, by Mossad agents - spoke volumes about the state of the British press in the darker depths of the 80s.

Vanunu was in London at the behest of The Sunday Times, which wanted to spill the beans on Israel's nuclear weapons programme. He also approached The Sunday Mirror, whose owner Robert Maxwell allegedly tipped off Mossad.

When Fleet Street's finest were not making the news themselves, they acted as cheerleaders and propaganda sheets for narrowly defined interests in political and business life.

The nationals had started their drift away from the non-sectarian silent majority - a drift that has arguably continued and accelerated in the intervening years.

So the time was ripe for a fresh approach, and The Independent certainly promised that. Its launch advertising campaign - "It is. Are you?" - was a clarion call to the open-minded reader. The newspaper promised incisive clarity and simplicity in its reporting.

For some, it was too much when The Independent announced an end to tittle-tattle and gossip about the royals. But fulfilling this promise won plaudits and awards for its lucid reporting style.

It also benefited from the fact that digital publishing technologies had already been road-tested on other titles, notably with the launch of Today. From day one, The Independent's design was clean and forceful, if a bit austere for some, and especially effective when showcasing photography.

Unfortunately, big circulation figures didn't exactly follow. The paper has led a precarious existence, consistently lost money down the years and owes its continued survival to the philanthropy of its current owner, Tony O'Reilly's Independent News & Media - though he has always cited profitability as the long-term goal.

1. The Independent was launched by three national newspaper journalists, Andreas Whittam Smith, Stephen Glover and Matthew Symons, backed by £16 million in private equity. Whittam Smith was the launch editor and maintained his association with the title longest, returning as a columnist two years after he was ousted from the editor's chair by new investors in 1994.

2. Whittam Smith was succeeded as the editor by Ian Har-greaves, from 1994 to 1995; Charles Wilson, 1995 to 1996; Andrew Marr, 1996 to 1998; Rosie Boycott, from January 1998 toMarch 1998; Marr and Boycott jointly from March 1998 to May 1998; then Simon Kelner, who is editor today.

3. Circulation peaked at more than 400,000 in 1990 but the launch of The Independent on Sunday the year before was proving a serious drain on resources. By the early 90s the titles' operating company, Newspaper Publishing, was struggling to survive. Both Mirror Group and Independent News & Media had begun to build stakes and, in 1995, ownership was formally restructured following a rights issue, with the two groups each taking 43 per cent, the remaining 12 per cent being held by the Spanish publishing group Prisa.

4. In March 1998, Independent News & Media acquired full control for £30 million and assumed all of the company's debt. Analysts questioned the wisdom of this move, given the Independent's fully paid-for circulation had dipped below the 200,000 mark. It had become the victim of a cover-price war, as The Times and The Telegraph slugged it out for domination of the qualities market.

5. Many observers interpreted its redesign in tabloid format (started in the autumn of 2003 in London and rolled out across the rest of the country in stages) as a last throw of the dice. It had first-mover advantage against The Times and The Guardian, both of which eventually redesigned to a non-broadsheet format, and succeeded in putting on circulation at over 260,000, with bulks down to around 30,000.

6. Headline circulation is now 254,854 (Audit Bureau of Circulations, August 2006) but its fully paid-for UK sale is only 171,294.



- Rival publishers can glean a few lessons from The Independent's 20-year history. It was launched as the most detached and intellectually cool of newspapers. It is now the quality daily that, arguably, wears its heart most prominently on its sleeve; although the pious certainty of its front-page agendas (particularly hobby-horses such as Iraq and global warming) will continue to irritate many. For its critics, drafting Bono and Giorgio Armani in to edit and design the newspaper for a day added up to nothing more impressive than a fatuous piece of adolescent posturing.

- Whatever stunts newspapers pull these days, it seems that readers just keep slipping away.


- Vanessa Clifford, a managing partner at MindShare, says advertisers are not too put off by the newspaper's campaigning style. "Editorial opinion is one of the distinctive facets of newspapers," she says. "And if people want to read them, advertisers will want to reach those readers."

- Dominic Williams, the press director of Carat, agrees: "We are aware of how fragile its existence continues to be - and its advertising revenues, according to MMR, year on year, for the period January to August, are down by 1.7 per cent. It needs strong backers and Tony O'Reilly has said that it must make money one day. It would be a terrible shame for the whole industry if it closed, but I think for it to continue as a serious national newspaper, it must keep its circulation above 200,000."