Top Performers of 2004: Medium of the Year - The Independent

Turning The Independent into a compact was a circulation success and it gave a shot of adrenaline to the quality newspaper market as a whole.

Two years ago if you'd had the temerity to forecast that The Independent was about to grab itself a place at the forefront of innovation in the national newspaper market, you'd have been met with a stunned silence. Followed by nervous laughter. The sort of laughter people are pushed to when they're suddenly certain they're in the presence of a deranged lunatic.

Two years ago, let us not forget, The Independent was on its last legs - and columnists in the media sections of rival newspapers were preparing, more in sadness than vindictiveness, to write wistful yet knowingly superior obituaries. The Independent's circulation (including a hefty percentage of bulk sales) had dipped below 150,000 in December 2002 and the theory was that if it didn't claw its way back above the 150,000 mark in 2003, they might as well call it a day.

Circulation did indeed rally into the spring but by summer it had fallen below its December figure once more. Shame, but there you had it. The figures never lie. The title had had a decent shot at immortality and indeed had already claimed one modest chapter in the history of newspaper innovation.

Because, yes, it had been a stunning proposition when it had launched in the late 80s.

Intellectually, it was stark, austere, neo-Republican, aloof even; and yet visually it was as sophisticated as anything we had seen in the newspaper market, featuring wonderfully etched production values and superb black-and-white photography given the biggest possible canvas. It was visually stunning and it shamed all its broadsheet rivals into a major rethink and ultimately to embrace more visually literate values.

But surely, the lightning of genius strikes only once in every generation or so? It was hardly likely to light up The Independent again. And after all, in the past decade or two, there have been few big ideas in the newspaper market. True, the 80s saw the increasing use of colour in news sections and the development of newspapers as micro communities of supplements, sections and reviews.

The 90s, though, had been a desert in terms of innovation. The newspaper industry as a whole, some commentators believed, was just desperately tired - and the best it could hope for was to achieve some dignity in decline. And if you'd bought into this theory, you might also have bought into the notion that The Independent was perhaps the most weary organisation of the lot. It is the smallest publisher in the market, after all, and can't even boast an unhinged egomaniac for a proprietor.

We all know what really happened next. Lightning does strike twice. And the compact revolution set in train in September 2003 by The Independent's editor, Simon Kelner, isn't merely an awesome success story in terms of the paper's own circulation figures (up 21 per cent to 264,594 a year on from the compact launch), but a massive shot of adrenaline for the quality newspaper market as a whole.

The rest of the market hasn't quite worked out what's hit it yet and rivals are tempted to cavil ungraciously, arguing that The Independent's circulation gains have come at too high an investment cost and that these gains are unspectacular, building as they do from such a low base. They also say that The Independent's growth will run out of momentum soon - and then we'll see.

We will indeed. Meanwhile, whether we like admitting it or not, we will all continue to look and learn. Because the revolution has been about far more than shoehorning weighty content into a new format - it's been about making that content live and breathe. And in producing a campaigning and passionate, yet intelligent paper, The Independent has shown that there is profitable ground to be occupied on the liberal left between the Daily Mirror and The Guardian. More than anything else, it has made everyone - from its readers to advertisers and their agencies - regard newspapers in a new light.

The Independent is a more than worthy winner of Campaign's Medium of the Year.

A mention in dispatches must also go to Channel 4, which, after a recent period of uncertainty, emerged as the biggest television winner in 2004. The station saw its share of viewing bounce back and, because of the corresponding increases in advertising revenue, was put on a more stable financial footing. With profits expected to exceed £70 million, it is gratifying that this will be reinvested in the 2005 schedule.

Channel 4's former chief executive, Mark Thompson, who left at the beginning of the year to become the director-general of the BBC, must take much of the credit for putting Channel 4 back on the financial straight and narrow. If it hadn't been for the difficult cutbacks that he was forced to make upon his arrival in 2001, then the increased on-screen investment would never have happened.

But it is also to the credit of Andy Duncan, the surprise choice as Thompson's replacement, who came up with a vision for Channel 4 that dismissed his predecessor's proposed merger with five. This would have diluted Channel 4's distinctiveness and threatened its unique public service remit.

Looking to the future, Duncan is committed to securing Channel 4 within a multi-channel world. The big challenge for Duncan and his executive team over the coming years is to convince both the Government and regulators that Channel 4 is still something worth preserving.

IPC Media and Emap Consumer deserve praise for taking the brave and expensive decision to create the men's weekly market back in January with the launches of Nuts and Zoo. IPC's Nuts emerged as the circulation winner after the first six months (290,337 average sale against Zoo's 200,125), but between them the two managed to shift more than two million magazines a month and created a new advertising environment for advertisers keen to reach a young male audience each week.

The titles offer an alternative to men's monthlies or daily tabloid newspapers and, unusually for weeklies, have become a sought-after environment for a range of advertisers including 3 and Adidas. Amazingly, young men show no sign of tiring of the sight of Abi Titmuss minus clothing every week.

Recent winners: Sky (2003); five (2002); Glamour (2001); Metro (2000); Freeserve (1999).


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