The rise and fall of The Independent

A newspaper cannot be judged on copy sales alone, but when it comes to evaluating a title's relevance and influence, there is still no better barometer.

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Looking back on The Independent's 23-and-a-half-year history, the paper's circulation figures provide a narrative that goes to the heart of its battle for survival.

As the only daily broadsheet to launch in the UK in the twentieth century, the arrival of The Independent in 1986, a newspaper created by journalists without a meddling proprietor, made an early impression on the crowded newsstands.

Earlier that year, Rupert Murdoch had resolved a bitter stand-off with the print unions by moving his newspaper business overnight to Wapping. It proved a watershed moment for the industry but, in the immediate aftermath, had not endeared the public to the idea of the omnipotent media mogul. The stage was set for a free-thinking, non-partisan alternative.

The Independent's first six-monthly audit to June 1987 revealed a net average circulation of 292,703 copies a day. This compared to 1,146,917 for The Daily Telegraph, 493,582 for The Guardian and 442,375 for The Times.

Reflecting the Cold War tensions of the day, The Indy's debut lead story involved a dispute between the US and Russian forces amid mounting accusations surrounding the sinking of a Soviet submarine (pic 3). At the time, new owner Alexander Lebedev was working for the KGB in London.

The Independent entered a quality press sector dominated by Murdoch and Conrad Black, but the new entrant was quick to leverage its unique position.

Supported by a much-lauded and highly salient ad campaign created by Saatchi & Saatchi, by the second half of 1987, the young upstart had managed to boost average copy sales by a further 68,000 to 360,887.

Its first poster ad consisted of two seemingly identical peas in a pod, while a TV spot featured a line of sheep following one another into a butcher's lorry. Both ended with the now celebrated copy: "The Independent. It is. Are you?"

Buoyed by initial success

A strong editorial team, led by Andreas Whittam Smith, succeeded in differentiating the paper from its rivals, and by the last six months of the eighties it was averaging a daily circulation of 411,953 copies, within touching distance (less than 20,000 shy) of both the Times and The Guardian.

It was a promising start for a paper that owed its existence to the advent of desktop publishing and, with the absence of a millionaire mogul, relied upon more than 30 financial backers.

Buoyed by this initial success, the Independent on Sunday launched in January 1990, under the editorship of Stephen Glover. It debuted with a six-monthly average of 352,335.

The first splash of the Sindy set the tone for a newspaper with a political and international stance, leading with Nelson Mandela's request that the South African government end its state of emergency and legalise the African National Congress before he was freed from prison (pic 6).

Both The Independent and its Sunday counterpart were well-positioned to chart the collapse of Margaret Thatcher's leadership of the Conservative Party, and the daily paper enjoyed bumper circulations in excess of 410,000 throughout 1990.

But Britain was heading into a recession, and although no-one could have known it at the time, by the time Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister in November 1990, The Independent had already peaked. The next two decades would be overshadowed by circulation declines and management collapse.

Mounting pressure

Tough trading conditions and a fragmenting media landscape were compounded by one man in particular. For much of the nineties, Murdoch's News International racheted up the pressure on The Independent (and the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian) by pursuing a fierce price-war that resulted in the Times slashing its price from 45p to 30p to eventually 20p, and 10p on Monday.

Despite the Australian falling short of his long-term aim to sell one million copies of The Times per day, the relentless circulation drive left The Independent, with its shallow pockets, reeling.

Financial problems began to mount for parent Newspaper Publishing, and in the mid-1990s it was forced to move away from the neutral banks which had originally backed The Independent, and accept stakes from agenda-driven media owners, David Montgomery (Mirror Group) and Tony O'Reilly (IN&M).

By the time The Indy moved to Canary Wharf in 1994, its average six-monthly circulation had been flattened to 281,044 copies a day, more than 10,000 copies below its launch figure.

Several attempts to stabilise operations at the Indy ensued, but as Andrew Marr, who became editor in 1996, recalled in his book My Trade: "The editorship of The Independent in 1996 was less a poisoned chalice than a pint glass of lukewarm ricin.

"The paper was being fought over by two rivals who hated each other. Its circulation was low, by far the weakest of the national broadsheets. Budgets were correspondingly tight and morale was rock-bottom."

In the last six months of the nineties, The Independent was averaging daily copy sales (including bulks) of just 224,391, and The Independent on Sunday 247,486.

Renewed investment in marketing and a number of redesigns helped stem the losses of the daily paper, and its average circulation remained largely unchanged for the first three years of the new millennium.

The Indy also began experimenting with clearing much of the copy from its front pages in favour of striking full-colour photography (pic 4), or bold statements (pic 5) - devices traditionally considered more newsweekly magazine fare.

Breaking the publishing mould

The paper can also claim credit for leading the way with a number of newspaper promotions, such as posters, booklets and language courses, the most successful of which were soon  adopted by rivals. But such small, industry innovations would soon pale in the face of what was to come.

In September 2003, The Independent introduced a compact edition alongside its broadsheet. It proved a brave and timely move for an increasingly mobile age and was soon copied by The Times and inspired The Guardian's Berliner format.

The launch helped boost ailing copy sales by 15% in its first year. The daily recorded a six monthly average circulation of 257,721 in the first half of 2005, its highest figure since 1997, and its highest market share (11.7%) since April 1996.

Ivan Fallon, chief executive of Independent Newspapers, described the initial £5m outlay in producing the compact as "the best money we've ever spent".

He added: "The perception of The Indy has altered completely. We have gone from being the ailing Indy to being described as innovative, pioneering and bold."

The broadsheet edition of The Independent was dropped altogether in May 2004 and the new compact continued to develop the "art" of hard-hitting campaigning front pages.

And despite the 'viewspaper' front covers attracting criticism from both within the press and government, the new size and style helped The Indy buck the circulation malaise exacerbated by the digital revolution in the mid-noughties.

Average circulations kept above 250,000 until the last six months of 2007, but then suffered double digit falls over the next year.

But the last 24 months have been brutal for The Indy, with redundancies and in-fighting attributing to its circulation freefall.

In October 2008, the newspaper's former editor turned managing director, Simon Kelner, told Media Week: "We intend to be here long after this recession is over," but admitted: "We can't afford to be 12% down year on year [again] in a year's time."

Since then, daily circulations at the newspaper have tumbled more than 20% to January's historic low of 185,815, and more than a quarter of those were heavily discounted bulk copies.

The publishing group's second biggest shareholder Denis O'Brien told Bloomberg TV in September: "There's no point in us as a company subsidising a newspaper that really nobody wants to read in the United Kingdom."

25 March 2010, enter Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev...


How Alexander Lebedev became a British press baron

All circulation figures in this story include bulk copies for The Independent, which in the last available audit (January 2010) accounted for nearly 50,000.