The Independent: Onwards and upwards!

I worked for the Independent for ten years and loved it; and I love it still. It is all very well for detractors to talk about the good old days, or lament the change of ownership, or decry the fact that the new owner used to work for the KGB,  but the fact is: still it moves, and it now has a future.

The newspaper has continued to break stories, and to attract talent. The foreign correspondents in particular remain remarkably unchanged (though age has withered them, like the rest of us). Robert Fisk, John Lichfield, David Usborne, Rupert Cornwell, Andrew Buncombe, Donald McIntyre – these are amongst the best correspondents of their time, anywhere.  (If I left anyone off that list, don’t read anything into it. It’s Sunday). It has a global audience and it should play more to it.

What matters is: is it still independent, meaningfully? Is there a place in the market for it? Can it survive commercially? And are these questions intertwined?

My view is that it can survive commercially, but it will need to reduce and focus still further. That means losing some paid circulation, not doing everything a full service paper does, getting more webby so it can deliver to the global audience that values it most highly, and focusing on what it does best rather than OK (or badly). What it does best is global news and comment, in my view. It isn’t resourced to do domestic or business news, which require more investment than it can make. And it is better at making an argument than many papers: it is scrappy and it likes the underdog.

Is it really independent in anything but name? Yes. It is not politically parti pris (which the other papers in general are). Better to make a virtue of this than suffer because it doesn’t have the reflexive, loyal audience that the others have.  This asset has been less valuable for the past fifteen years than it might because there has been little in the way of two party competition to be independent of; it should now be more valuable. And equally, it needs redefining as the paper hopefully recognizes that its audience is global.

As for the ownership: that ceased to be meaningfully independent years ago, when the Mirror Group got its paws on the thing, and then O’Reilly. Forget it; that bit was over a long time ago. But it is still worth making the point that the new owner is an important part of the action.

So this guy is a Russian: so what? There are some great Russians and some not so great Russians, and this one seems pretty good. And he worked for the intelligence services: so did some senior executives on one or two other large British and American media companies over the last fifty years (you know who you are). Some of them were rather less ready to acknowledge it; and some of them were less bright, entrepreneurial and imaginative. The fact of having worked for an intelligence service is not a negative, any more than having worked for a foreign diplomatic service. His record doesn’t seem to indicate that he ever tortured anyone (unlike at least one short-tempered Scottish editor of my association).  No guilt by association, and no xenophobia please. Better a bright Russian ex-spook than some dim Englishman who can’t find his ass with both hands, a map and a copy of the Rough Guide to Asses.

Lebedev is an asset to the degree he is a voice for tolerance, pluralism, and rights in the world – and that certainly seems to be his intention. The fact that it is a useful calling card for him is worth recognizing, but that was also the case for Tony O’Reilly. That is how papers work, especially those that don’t make money. He will need watching (all owners do). But his ownership is a net positive for the paper. He has money and he knows what he’s getting into.

Is there a place in the market for Mr Lebedev and his Independent? Yes, since it sells; but not at the level of expenditure it commands now. It will have to shrink and jobs will have to go. That is an upsetting fact, but a fact. It cannot keep losing (this much)  money. It will have to find new models for production and sales, and make those work. The Independent spirit is to make do and mend and that will have to go even further. It spends much more than it earns. Funding that isn’t “investing,” it is throwing away money that could fund better journalism.

Is it worth it? Yes. The space in the market for a paper that is critical, readable, incisive, has character and insight, looks where others won’t and speaks its mind is still there. It just has to cost less and make more money. Easy.

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