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).


Can non-profit journalism save the day?

September 20, 2010

The non-profit sector and the media continue to flirt with each other, and even have the occasional offspring. This morning, the Guardian launched its website on global development, http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development. Madeleine Bunting introduced the new baby on the oped page and the web. It is interesting because it is funded by the Gates Foundation, and indeed they are credited on the site’s home page. The peg is the UN summit on Global Development in New York, though the partnership is longer lasting and more substantial.

“It is the first time the Guardian has developed a partnership with a major charitable foundation to fund a strand of its core journalism,” says Bunting. “Part of the agreement includes safeguarding the Guardian’s editorial independence. Both organisations are committed to making achievement of the UN goals a central strand of the new site. But alongside the challenge of working in a partnership with a foundation, the site has set itself a big ambition of curating a global conversation about development.”

Beyond editorial independence, a second (and related) issue is that not everyone agrees about development: its importance, how it is funded, what results are possible or desirable. There are lots of different audiences, and as Bunting says: “The problem about these different audiences is that while they often have much knowledge of the subject, they don’t much like talking to each other. Part of the challenge on the new site will be to host all these conversations – all of which are crucial to the debate in their very different ways. Will that mean that everyone gets cross at some point or another with the site? Probably.”

Non-profits have an agenda, a way of working and resolving conflicts, and they have  financial interests. It will be interesting to see how the new experiments work out. How easy will the site and its funders be with controversy? And with mistakes? And with conflict? All of these things are somewhat inevitable in reporting. The cultural issues will be significant if the new journalism is to mean more than just taking a handout.

My own brief experience in non-profits is that there are massive opportunities for both sides in teaming up, or working alongside each other, or even in replacing each other from time to time. Non-profits are starting to make interesting moves into the field; journalism is starting to look for other funding .

There are many different models. ProPublica is essentially a news venture that focuses on developing public interest stories and finances them through foundation grants and individual donations. It aims to get its stories into mainstream publications and media where possible. FreePress puts more of a political and social message around non-profit and low-profit ventures. The Guardian is featuring journalism funded by the non-profit sector, but not guided by it. National Public Radio (often forgotten) is a hybrid of public and private funding. Human Rights Watch produces its own media, more or less, and hired a bunch of journos.

Not surprisingly, this flirtation between non-profits and journos has excited a lot of policy wonkery. Duke University’s Sanford School looked at the options in this series of papers, based on a conference. This conference at UW Madison examined some of the ethical issues, including who was an acceptable backer. And the Nieman Journalism Lab has looked at what makes non-profit journalism legit, and proposed some standards. This blog covers the issues.

Despite the anguished ethical debates, conflict of interest is only part of the issue: it is at least as much a question of conflict of cultures, and this will be hard to bridge, as Mary Walton explains in the American Journalism Review. “Says Laura Frank, who is navigating the new channels as head of a startup, the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, “People think, ‘Oh, wow. You don’t have to deal with advertisers,’ but it’s kind of the same thing. Foundations are used to funding something and having control over it. You have to explain to them that there is a firewall: ‘What you’re funding is the act of journalism for the benefit of society.’ ”

There are a couple of bigger questions for the non-profits and foundations, too – like: why fund journalism? “I have in my wallet three million dollars,” said Jack Shafer, media critic of Slate, at a symposium on investigative reporting quoted in the AJR piece.  “The opera wants it, the ballet wants it, the museum wants it, the YMCA, poor kids in Africa want it.” Why give it to journalists? Or journalism? Or news? Or media?  Can they get more by handing over money, or internalizing the resources and doing it themselves? What bang for their buck do they get?

Newsosaur, a blogger who writes on the news and business, is completely unconvinced. It would require far, far more money than the charitable sector is capable of providing to pay for all current newsgathering, he says. “So, let’s stop dreaming about a visit from the Non-Profit News Bunny and get serious about discovering some realistic possibilities.” To be fair, no-one is saying that everything will go this way, but he has a point.

The trend can only continue; I have some (non-rhetorical) questions about this:

  1. Is this a good use of money (Can’t they get a proper job)? Why does journalism deserve charitable status or money? What are the non-profits getting out of it that they couldn’t through other means?  Why pour money into activities and people that apparently weren’t capable of generating it themselves?
  2. Will this produce good journalism (Up to a point, Lady Bountiful)? Does the institutional culture of journalism work with a foundation culture? Will people still pick fights, dig dirt, kick against the pricks? Or will it tend towards the worst aspects of non-profits and trade journalism: inward looking, clubby, self-satisfied? Does the need to sell and be read actually have a role to play 9and can these be decoupled)?
  3. What about competition (Mr Gates)? What impact will this have on other media that remains revenue-focussed? Will it price some of it out of the market? Will there still be a role for competition in the coverage of, say, development through (for example) the New Internationalist (a workers co-op, btw). Does it make sense to have competition in any case?
  4. Does this only work for some things? Does this decouple investigative and public interest journalism from the city beat, sports, financial, community reporting, politics etc? One of the advantages of the old model was that everyone competed for space and shared resources; is that over? Does public interest journalism now exist in a subsidized, gilded ghetto?
  5. What happens to the stuff that gets left out? We accept that not all new business models will cover everything. So: if some stuff can be paid for (business, sport and celebrity); and some can be locally  or crowd-sourced (community news, reviews etc); and some gets paid for by non-profits, what falls through the cracks? What can’t be covered by money, vanity, love and charity? And does it matter? Reporting on mental health? Local government?

I Could Do That (ICDT) 20-9-10 Updated

September 20, 2010

Some media  job opportunities from this morning’s Guardian Media Section and Ned’s Job of The Week:

Press Officer at Clarence House, working with HRH Prince of Wales. Paddy Haverson, head of comms, is probably one of the nicest people in the world; this would be a really interesting job, whether you are a republican or royalist.  http://jobs.guardian.co.uk/job/1027147/press-officer-clarence-house/

Writer for Bluefrog, a specialist marketing agency working for the charitable sector. You won’t retire wealthy (20-30k) but a good niche and if you’ve just banked a couple of years salary in redundo, an interesting opportunity. http://jobs.guardian.co.uk/job/1027161/writer/

WorldView Project Director. A UK scheme to improve UK understanding and awareness of the developing world via the mainstream broadcast media. Would suit TV person with a bleeding heart. Not a bad whack either for the non-profit sector; linked to the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association. http://jobs.guardian.co.uk/job/1027424/worldview-project-director/

Advisor Media Relations and Special Events, Pan American Health Organization, Washington, DC. I had never heard of this lot before; would suit communicative, healthy, Spanish speaking Washingtonian. Got this from Ned’s JOTW.  http://www.comminit.com/en/node/323369/ads

Senior Specialist – Public Relations, ABA, WASHINGTON, DC. Working with the criminal justice section, so a few years doing the courts would help. . Got this from Ned’s JOTW. https://www5.recruitingcenter.net/Clients/abanet/PublicJobs/controller.cfm?jbaction=JobProfile&Job_Id=10422&esid=az

Director of Alumni Affairs, Office of the Dean, McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University, Washington, DC. “The Director of Alumni Affairs is responsible for all alumni programming designed to engage the alumni of the McDonough School of Business (MSB) with the school in meaningful ways.” (Someone else looks after the meaningless ones?). Wouldn’t hurt to be a Georgetown alum oneself I would have thought.   Got this from Ned’s JOTW. http://www12.georgetown.edu/hr/employment_services/joblist/jobs.cfm

Content Writer and Editor, Contract Position, Christensen Fund, San Francisco, California. The Christensen Fund (www.christensenfund.org) is a fifty-year old foundation in Northern California with a long history of funding the arts, environmental conservation, and education — locally and internationally. Lots of writing and editing. Got this from Ned’s JOTW. http://foundationcenter.org/pnd/jobs/job_item.jhtml?id=308200023

Director of Public Relations, Demand Media, Santa Monica, California. Demand Media is one of the new content factories, churning out articles that meet the demands of the online ad industry. Smart model; and interesting to work for the people that were supposedly responsible for putting journalism out of business…  Got this from Ned’s JOTW. http://jobs.prweekjobs.com/careers/jobsearch/detail/jobId/29776879

Associate Editor, Ford Foundation, New York, New York. Relatively junior job, for someone with 3-5 yrs experience as a reporter/writer. Someone more senior might still be interested as part of a process of converting out of media, though. Ford Foundation unlikely to run out of money any time soon. Got this from Ned’s JOTW. http://foundationcenter.org/pnd/jobs/job_item.jhtml?id=307800020


Watching the Detectives

September 9, 2010

There are really only three ways of getting information: look it up, ask someone or steal it. The third option is often referred to by euphemism; yet increasingly the grey areas that used to exist in this regard are gone, even if practitioners are finding that hard to handle.

The current News of the World scandal in the UK – over illegal efforts by journalists to break into the voicemails of public figures, and the failure of the police to investigate it – is a reminder of the reality and prevalence of information obtained by deception, and the problems around it.

Journalists, policemen, spies and investigators all know this, and all engage in all three methods to some extent. All know two dirty secrets: that the first two methods, legal and slightly dull, account for the vast majority of information that they get, despite the mystique surrounding their professions. They demand hard work and diligence. And: what remains, the covert acquisition of information by nefarious means, is far from glamorous, often illegal, unreliable, and not neccessarily worth the risk involved. Yet they often stick with old, trusted techniques, however lazy or dangerous or illegal. Sometimes, they can generate information no other method would, and sometimes that is worth the risk.

It isn’t always illegal to obtain all information by deception; it can’t be, as the statute couldn’t be drawn up that broadly. It is, however, illegal to deceive some people in some ways for some reasons (telling a bank official you are someone else, to get their bank statement or their money for example. But it varies widely and by country. It is hard to prove. And the exceptions are significant.

All four professions tend to believe that they are justified in taking information: the public good justifies it in their minds and indeed often in law. That seems to be one of the main issues with the NoW. It sees itself as a crusader for truth against elites, and so may well not have seen much wrong with cracking the voicemails of the rich and powerful.

Several things are wrong with this. Firstly, the relevant UK law – the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act – includes no public good defence. Secondly, it is hard to see that all the stories that resulted from phone hacking are in the public good. Most are low gossip. And if you think that the judgement of an elitist, then consider: who judges the public good here?

Another defence: “stealing” is seen as somewhat relative. If I break in to your house and take a necklace, that’s stealing. If you leave your front door open and I pop in and take a look at your diary, is that stealing? If I don’t deprive you of the thing, and don’t break anything to get in? Am I stealing if I overhear your conversation? Find a letter you dropped? Read a document you forgot to delete on a public computer?

Cracking a voicemail involves accessing the system with the right number and knowing the PIN code. The message is still there, and using someone else’s PIN – well, is that illegal?

Yup. The statute is relatively clear. Read the law.

Indeed, much of what used to be routine in the investigative world is indeed now illegal. Getting bank account data and mobile phone bills is illegal, in most developed countries. People go to prison and pay fines. Bribing officials or policemen to get information is also mostly illegal. Getting hold of peoples’ rubbish and using what you find – letters, phone bills – is harder since people have got wise and shred their mail. This encourages people to use quick, cheap, reliable tricks. And they fall in love with these, since they have an air of mystique, secrecy, intrigue.

The world of private detectives, journalists, intelligence officers and so on has turned to electronic information because it’s easy, people are careless, the law isn’t always clear, it’s often hard to prove wrongdoing, and the other avenues are tough.

Each believes they have the right. They work together very closely and the best in each profession respects the others. And each tends to believe that what it does is in the public interest.

That is one of the critical points. What precisely is the public interest? Who defines it? Anyone? The Met? The NoW? The reader? The courts?

The reality of the NoW case is that the paper seems to have been very aggressive in using available techniques against all possible targets, with poor judgement about when and why. It had the resources, the editorial backing and the management space. In this case, however, this wasn’t jusitified from an editorial, legal, or risk management viewpoint and probably wouldn’t even have got them decent stories. Voicemail is a blunt instrument.

The activities of the paper’s investigative journalists are stories of legend: but no-one is talking about clipping the wings of legitimate inquiry. This was low-end stuff, not the undercover work of the paper’s star reporters.

Why wasn’t it thoroughly investigated? Because it would have been hard, because there would have been an attitude of “worse things happen in the jungle,” because none of those charged with investigating will have seen it as wholly their job, because some will have seen it as a victimless crime. The evidence and investigation (despite what the TV leads you to believe) will have been tough to piece together. Who accessed this voicemail? From where? How? And should the police let everyone know they might have been hacked? How would they know?

So – some will see this episode as a serious breach of the law by politically motivated people that felt they could act with impunity and worked in cahoots with the police. Others will regard it as an inevitable product of new challenges around electronic security and privacy. A third group will see it as journalism on the edge (for good or ill).

There is some of all of these, but in the end this was a professional failure at every level. This was poor investigative technique deployed to gather poor stories by lazy journalists who couldn’t be bothered to do real investigative work: develop sources, dig dirt, and get smart.

There’ll be more of this. Corporate, political, commercial interests will play happily with the people that do this work because they love it, and believe it right to expose the private lives of public figures. They always have done and they always will. We should make better laws and police them better, because the existing system doesn’t work. Meawhile. buy a shredder, don’t use email for difficult stuff, and don’t leave voicemails.


The Job Of The Week

September 6, 2010

One of the best places for a comms professional to find news about jobs is on the Job Of The Week email. This is mainly, but not exclusively, US, and includes most forms of comms – PR, internal comms, social media.   

It comes in the form of a long email, and can be found at www.nedsjotw.com. It is put together co-operatively by members who send jobs.  If you find out about a job opportunity in communications, send it to Ned Lundquist (lundquist989@cs.com), and he’ll share it. Sign up by sending a blank e-mail to JOTW-subscribe@topica.com. There are over 11,000 subscribers.

Some examples: 

  1. Communication for Development Specialist (Polio Eradication),  UNICEF, New Delhi, India
  2. The Phoenix Art Museum is seeking a Director of Marketing & Public Relations
  3. Fall Intern, Marketing Strategy & Operations (unpaid internship), Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Atlanta, GA
  4. Senior Manager; Corporate Communications (PT), AstraZeneca, Wilmington, Delaware
  5. Lecturer: Social and Behaviour Change Communication, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
  6. Marketing/Communications Manager, Oregon Zoo, Portland, OR
  7. Associate Director of Alumni Relations Communications, The American University, Washington, DC
  8. Art Director, Photography, Victoria’s Secret Direct, New York, NY
  9. Internal Communications Manager, Tesco-VMA Group, Hertfordshire, UK
  10. Communication Specialist, Outreach to Development Professionals,  L-3, United Nations Children’s Fund, USA

I’ll be posting a few more items about jobs in the next week.


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.