Goodbye then to another national print title. The Independent has been haemorrhaging readers for over a decade, and having been first roughed up by Rupert Murdoch’s crushing price war, has been finally finished off by the digitisation of the industry. The last print run will be sent out sometime in March.

 

It’s a shame for lots of reasons, although perhaps not many of them very pertinent to the ad industry. The journalism was, in parts, world class. If, for example, you ever really wanted to know what was going on in the Middle East, Robert Frisk was probably your best bet for enlightenment. He represented journalism of a type not much seen in print these days; wearing his weariness, experience and insight lightly enough to be easy to read, yet not so lightly as to lose sight of his righteous anger with the world. It could be iconoclastic in a way that other titles couldn’t too, avoiding the Fleetstreet conventions of Royal family coverage to offer (in the words of original editor Andreas Whittam Smith): “No coverage whatever to the Royal Family unless the story had solid news value.”

 

In the mid-90’s, the paper wasn’t just a fixture (itself an achievement), it seemed a necessary staging point between the right of The Times and The Daily Telegraph and the left of The Guardian, a proud defender of both market capitalism and social liberalism. But then those were the days when a large Lib Dem minority in Parliament seemed necessary too. These are more polarised times – perhaps the natural audience just doesn’t exist anymore.

 

As mentioned above, Murdoch played a role in squeezing the paper in the first place. His predatory pricing (The Times for 10p!) almost brought the paper to the brink back in the late 1990’s. But again, the culprit here is one that has even wider implications than a Murdoch on the UK print industry: the rise and rise of digital, of fast and reliable internet and of the ubiquity of mobile devices. The paper ends on a lowly run of, in a recent count 28,000, which, as former deputy editor Archie Bland noted made it available in more outlets than it sells copies.

 

Cold eyed advertisers won’t mourn the loss of a format with so few impressions. Why should we? But we should mourn the loss of a print title that was so willing to innovate. The launch of the compact ‘i’ in 2010 remains something of a breakthrough, one of the rare recent moments of positive upheaval in the print market, selling far more copies than it’s bigger sibling and proving there remains a gap in the market for very accessible (but paid for) quality content.

 

The ‘i’ has been sold to Johnstone Press, in part to fund the digital future of The Independent and we’ll have to wait and see what the future holds for the diminutive paper. The Independent owners, ESI Media, via current editor Amol Rajan, have insisted that they are fully committed to the digital only Independent:

 

“We are read by millions every day – but they are reading us digitally, through their mobiles, and via social networks. I know it is a hard thing to say here and now, but I want the message to go out loud and clear that even after we cease to print, in spirit and in impact this great newspaper will live on.

 

“We have huge, global ambitions for our website, backed by multimillion-pound investment from our owners, the Lebedev family. They have invested more than £60m in this great institution over six years. Having sold our stablemate title, i, they have the chance to fund the next chapter in our story. In plotting the next few years, it makes sense for them to invest that money in the digital product.”

 

The current digital Independent needs to monetise quickly and have to provide value for us advertisers and the readers, it’ll have to increase traffic hugely to attract brands and provide attractive content to attract the readers that brands need. ESI Media have spoken of opening bureaux in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and the US in a bid to expand their coverage and potential readership.

 

The Independent has faced the same problems that all newspapers face in the 21st century: Print titles are losing readers YoY while digital struggles to make money. What the future holds for the newspaper industry is difficult to predict, but it might – given its past attempts at innovation – still be worth paying attention to the Independent, the paper that was never afraid of risks, for clues.

 

By Oliver Brown