The Man Who Saved The Independent

July 1, 2011

"We may be a crap team, but we have a good time."

Simon Kelner’s retirement seems as good a moment as any to come out of temporary blogtirement, and to say: I love the man, and he saved the Independent, and I don’t care who hears me say that. This will not be universally popular with friends who loathe him and who he fired or abused or drove to distraction.

Kelner took over the Independent at a time of despair and decline. Ownership and management by Mirror Group Newspapers had been a disaster for the paper, and frequent changes of editor left it critically weak. Simon did more than fulfill the minimalist goal of keeping it alive; he gave it back some some swagger, even if that was precisely what some like least about it.

Let us not forget the paper’s Time of Troubles. There were five editors of the Independent during the short period (1995-8) I was deputy foreign editor and then foreign editor: Ian Hargreaves, Charlie Wilson, Andrew Marr, Rosie Boycott, and Andrew Marr again (briefly). Even if each of them had been brilliant editors the result would have been chaos. They weren’t.

Marr, the newsroom’s candidate and fabulous writer and broadcaster, was a catastrophe (he says so in his excellent book, My Trade). Wilson loathed the paper, its journalists and its readers, though he was a good news editor with a good sense of what sold. Hargreaves was insightful and thoughtful and gathered a star team around him, but the timing wasn’t right, the resources weren’t there and management never backed him. Boycott was terrific – a hand grenade thrower and very charismatic – but very shortlived, and probably a better weekly editor than a daily.

Simon knew the paper well: he had been deputy sports editor at the creation in 1986. When I returned to London in the 1990s from Brussels, I was warned against him by a foreign correspondent of Levantine instincts: he would “destroy the paper,” this guy said. In fact I found him entertaining, funny, insightful, news-focussed and hard-working. He bought me lots of drinks, which helped, and gave me a lift home, so I would forgive him a lot for that. He left and went to the Mail, working on features, but we continued to have the occasional drink or twelve. When I was appointed Washington bureau chief in 2008, I went to see him at the Mail to say goodbye. He wasn’t around, and I was little disappointed to miss him; he called me on my way to the airport to tell me he was the new editor of the paper, and my new boss.

Why was Simon a good editor? For a start, unlike all of those above, he had the confidence of the owners. He and Tony O’Reilly, the sports-loving proprietor, would spend long and happy hours on the golf course or at the race track. Journalists disparage this, seeing proprietors in the model established by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop – the odious, dim, overbearing Lord Copper. O’Reilly is smart, affable and happy to mix it with his associates and his ownership of the paper was overwhelmingly positive; Simon and he worked mostly hand in glove.

Secondly, Simon was able to reinvigorate the paper, within narrow resources. It became more populist, which was good: the original team, led by the saintly Andreas Whittam-Smith, had aimed high, for a market that was too small to be sustainable. Simon took a small chunk of a larger market, the upper mid-market left-of-centre. And with the shift to tabloid, he made an advantage of a necessity: changing format saved money and repositioned the paper. He had little cash and few staff, but the result was readable and more agile– the paper had become stuffy and fearful in the 1990s. First the tabloid, then the i (the short short version of the paper) helped destuff it and to give it back some swagger, a quality Simon has in bucketloads.

Thirdly, Simon injected the paper with a new set of values. The founding fathers of the paper (Whittam-Smith, Steven Glover and Mathew Symonds) were ex-Telegraph, Oxbridge, establishment figures. This was a revolution from above, not below. 

Simon has a distance and a perspective that helped him steer the paper in a different direction. he is non-metropolitan – he comes from the north somewhere (does it really matter where? Ah, the tyranny of facts. Manchester, I think). He is non-Oxbridge. He comes from bits of journalism that most national editors only ever see in news conference or at the Christmas party: sports and features. Sports, let it be remembered, was one of the glories of The Independent, and to those who don’t read the sports pages in newspapers: you are missing one of the few areas of news where the facts really matter and readers will tear you to shreds if you get them wrong, and where good writing still matters. As for features: the Mail does them really well, and they sell papers. Most readers will spend more time over a coffee with the feature sections than the hardbitten hacks in Home or Foreign News would find conscionable, and even they will probably read the magazine in the toilet, not that long dreary piece on transport policy.

The staff didn’t always appreciate having new values injected into them, and Simon didn’t always wield the needle as gently as he might as slid it into their collective buttocks. Swagger can sometimes edge into arrogance and disdain, in the paper and in person. Other things Simon didn’t do. He didn’t confront digital, and the paper has been slow to catch up. He had little patience with those who sought to question what he was doing or to second guess him, and that led some to leave or be fired when they might have stayed. The paper as it stands lacks some authority because the emphasis has been on innovation, change, youth and flash. There is a cost to this, as the Johann Hari saga shows – a star columnist who stole quotes from others’ stories and used them unattributed. This is an editorial failure and should be acknowledged as such.

But: when I think of the writers the paper still has, whether or not I agree with their views, it is clear that Simon has also kept the paper’s sense of itself, to a remarkable degree, and its insight. On the foreign side of the paper, which I follow most closely: John Lichfield, Rupert Cornwell, David Usborne, Robert Fisk, Andrew Buncombe, Patrick Cockburn, Mary Dejevsky… but also younger writers like Guy Adams, Daniel Howden, or the current foreign editor, Archie Bland.

Why is he going? He has done it for longer than he wanted; he has been ill and would probably like to have a nice time again. He told me when he was appointed he would do it for a decade – and that was 1998. He came back after Roger Alton stumbled under the weight of the paper’s many challenges. The Independent has now reinvented itself and is re-entering a happier time (the end of Labour, the return of the Conservatives and the odd role of the Liberals is good for the paper, and it has some buzz again). He didn’t get on with the new proprietors as well as the old, I think. I doubt the Hari affair had much to do with it, though maybe it cemented his view he wanted to move on and the owners’ view that they needed someone new – someone with more conventional experience (Cambridge, Business Editor), more gravitas, less hair. And so we have Chris Blackhurst, the paper’s tenth editor, I believe (Andreas, Ian, Charlie, Andrew, Rosie, Andrew, Simon, Roger Alton, Simon, Chris).

I won’t romanticize it (too far). The paper has lost money, writers, advertisers, authority and the lives of many of those who work there are tough and unrelenting. Many good people are no longer there simply because of lack of cash or flashes of spite (or both). Simon can be egoistic, short-sighted, obscurantist (oh, look it up), bad-tempered, vain and that’s on a good day. But there wouldn’t be any paper without him; it would have died in about 2000. He is the second-greatest editor of the paper after Andreas and he is The Man Who Saved The Independent (TMWSTI).


About getting shot

May 20, 2010

From time to time, a Western journalist on assignment gets shot. It gets into the news and it upsets their family and friends. If they survive, they write about it, and the paper puts it on the front page, if they write for a paper.
This week, that was Andrew Buncombe from The Independent. He was apparently hit in the thigh by shotgun pellets while reporting from Bangkok. He seems OK at time of writing, which one judges by the fact that he has a piece on the front page of the paper.
It is an admirable piece, evocative and immediate first person reporting though with less use of the vertical pronoun than he might have indulged in given the circumstances. His injury is mentioned some way through the article, is not its main feature. and in my edition, anyway, is not featured on the front page. It made the BBC news this morning, though, so they will have sold papers, his wounds.
And that is his job: selling papers. He is very good at it. As a talented young home reporter Andy made a name for himself in London, went to Washington to cover America, which he did with great credit, and then got a job in India covering Asia from New Delhi. He is an unassuming guy with a great sense of humour and a nice turn of phrase.
Selling papers means the Independent will make a little more money today than yesterday (or lose a little less) which is good. That the paper still has correspondents of the calibre of Andy is a minor miracle, given their resources, and the fact that he was in place in Bangkok is testament to the paper’s continuing commitment to international news. But it is spread thin. Andy covers Asia, which extends from the Kamchatka peninsula to Afghanistan, including China and India. “Being there” is a critical part of Andy’s job, the bit he enjoys most and which is probably most important. “Being there” means seeing things and speaking with people and, sometimes, getting shot.
Lots of other people got shot, of course. Non-journalists get shot and it doesn’t make the front page or Radio 4. Lots of Thai civilians got shot and their faceless, nameless bodies lie on the street in the photographs we see in the papers. When a journalist gets shot his or her name and face get in the paper, and make us take notice of the fact that someone is loosing off shotguns in places where civilians get hurt. Which is the job of a foreign correspondent.
The “foreign” part matters. Foreigners bring a degree of detachment and distance (sometimes helpfully, sometimes not) to reporting. And the fact that Andy has reported conflict elsewhere gives him an advantage in reporting. Injuries to foreigners also get taken more seriously than injuries to locals. That is wrong, but given that it is a fact, it is good that an injury to a foreigner brings attention to what has happened to many others in silence.
Andy probably has insurance and a flak jacket (not on his arse, though) and an evacuation service and hostile environment training, and a foreign editor who (mostly) loves him, and a salary and expenses. These are the benefits of being a foreign correspondent and not a local or a stringer or a tourist or a citizen journalist. Citizen journalism has done terrific things, but if you ask people to put themselves in harm’s way to sell newspapers then you need to do more than just thank them. And we should ask people to put themselves in harm’s way to sell newspapers, because that ensures things get reported quickly, effectively, plurally, openly, that people with skill and insight and experience bring us the first draft of history. Selling newspapers means getting timely, authoritative information to large groups of people, at its best.
It costs. It costs lives, of course, but it is also expensive. My interest in its continuation is partly emotional but partly professional concern for seeing international affairs reported by professionals with appropriate support through multiple channels. This means money. I remember a foreign editor, years ago, being told by a colleague that a correspondent had been caught in a helicopter gunship attack. “He is OK,” the colleague said, “but the hire car is a write-off.”
“Hire car?” Said the foreign editor. “Who told him he could hire a car?”
The correspondent was fine. I hope Andy is also fine and wish him and Nisha well.


The Independent: Onwards and upwards!

March 28, 2010

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.


Indie’s Kelner interviewed

May 25, 2009

“I love newspapers and I love this newspaper. It’s my grand amour.” My old boss and friend Simon Kelner of The Independent. Human dynamo, bon viveur and journalist to the core. I fondly remember one of his many catchphrases, dredged from the depths of his time covering rugby league: “We may be a crap team,” he would say fondly, “but at least we have a good time.” I probably owe him money.


Time next to make content pay?

March 22, 2009

More reports that some leading media are considering a turn to paid content. “Because there’s too much ad inventory on the Internet, Time Inc. publications including SI.com, Time.com, CNNMoney.com and EW.com will experiment with mixing paid and free content in the next 8 months, EVP John Squires told reporters gathered today at the company’s NYC headquarters,” reports the Business Insider.

“Could The Independent be the the next newspaper to charge for its online content?” asks PaidContent, and of course then answers its own question a bit but not completely. “Very possibly, according to newly appointed Independent News and Media CEO designate Gavin O’Reilly, who took over from father, Tony, last week. He tells The Telegraph (ironically, the article doesn’t appear to be online): “Our experience has been that the web is a financially deflationary area. I think we will see more and more content moving to subscription… We are looking at some charge structure.”‘

New York’s Newsday has already announced its intention to try, which evokes criticism from RecoveringJournalist. “Newspapers have enough problems right now without trying to deliberately (as opposed to accidentally) cripple their Web businesses. But Newsday is going to try.”


Independent cuts

March 13, 2009

The Independent, my old newspaper, is going through cuts.