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?

Economist puts up the wall

October 6, 2009

The Economist has put in place a pay wall for some content, the latest sign of a coming trend. But it isn’t the Great Wall; more a hedge.

“Beginning October 13th, we will be limiting access to certain sections of our site to subscribers only,” says Ben Edwards, Publisher of Economist.com. “Over the past few years, Economist.com has become a hub for intelligent discussion, with news commentary, blogs and an award-winning debate series. We will continue to encourage both subscribers and non-subscribers to participate in those conversations. We will also enhance the experience we offer our most loyal readers by expanding our subscribers-only features.”

“Currently, all content published within the last year is free of charge. Soon, this access will be limited to articles published within the last 90 days. The print edition contents page, which offers a convenient way to browse articles and features from the latest issue of The Economist, will also be limited to subscribers only.”

As PaidContent notes, “The press release calls this “experimentation with a new website pay wall”. But the magazine, which is proving especially resilient in print, is rejecting the opportunity to go entirely pay-for.”

The Guardian notes that “The Times and Sunday Times yesterday revealed plans for a readers’ club with a £50 membership fee to non-subscribers, another example of newspapers attempting to develop new revenue streams from loyal readers rather than following a high-volume strategy.”


Biz news focusses on Wall St, not Main St

October 6, 2009

Most economic and business news in the recent recession focussed on policy and markets – New York and Washington, in American terms. So says a study released by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

“Citizens may be the primary victims of the downturn, but they have not been not the primary actors in the media depiction of it.,” it says.

Newspapers probably do a better job of reporting the local aspects and the people stories. “Newspaper front pages stood out for devoting the most attention to the economy, offering more localized coverage, giving voice to a more diverse range of sources and producing a higher level of enterprise reporting than other media sectors,” the study says.

Business and economic news will probably benefit – overall – from the shift to digital. People pay for it, and want both quick, fast-moving stories and deep analysis. But the content they will want – or want to pay for – will be market-focussed. Local economic news – which can matter a lot for local business development people, and for local communities – will likely suffer. Worth remembering: it is not just investigations and local politics that will be hit as newspapers fold. It is easy to just take agency and slam in the Reuters or Dow Jones copy.


Rescuing The Reporters

October 3, 2009

Internethead Clay Shirky does what he calls a “news biopsy” and discovers: “real” news is one sixth of a paper (and of its staff). “I wanted to see how much newspaper content was what Alex Jones calls the iron core of news — reporters going after facts — and how much was “other stuff” — opinion columns, sports, astrology, weather, comics, everything that was neither a hard news story or an ad.”


Wolff on Murdoch’s internet phobia

October 3, 2009

Fascinating piece in Vanity Fair by Michael Wolff on Rupert Murdoch and his attitude towards the internet. Younger, tech-savvy readers will find it hilarious; older, inky-fingered sorts will find themselves feeling strangely warm towards the man. “Murdoch’s abiding love of newspapers has turned into a personal antipathy to the Internet: for him it’s a place for porn, thievery, and hackers.”


Do Limbaugh and Sun affect voters?

October 3, 2009

Do the media shape politics, or are they themselves shaped by it?

The Sun newspaper has just announced that it has stopped backing Labour, and instead backs the Conservatives. This is, in its way, a very significant event: the paper’s decision to back Labour in 1997 removed the last prop from the Conservative government of John Major, which lost the subsequent election.

But the media don’t make elections, despite the Sun’s claim in an earlier election that “It was the Sun Wot Won It.” Academic John Curtice has made a small cottage industry of analysing this claim, and is pretty clear that it wasn’t, and it won’t be this time either. “Certainly Labour’s leadership took the supposed power of the newspaper sufficiently seriously to devote considerable effort during the course of the 1992-7 parliament to persuading the paper’s staff and above all its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, that ‘New Labour’ was a party they could back,” he says. But: “When it comes to the outcome of elections, the disposition of the press does not make much difference at all.”

The Fabian society’s blog reports this and analyses it here. The Independent demolishes the thesis. “The idea that people read their favourite newspaper’s instructions and then robotically go out and vote is laughable – and certainly not borne out by any evidence. Moreover, in this instance, The Sun is plainly following public opinion, rather than shaping it. The opinion polls show that the public mood in much of the country swung against Labour some time ago.”

“The real influence of newspapers lies not in their hold over the votes of their readers, but in their hold over elected politicians.”

Meanwhile, David Brooks, conservative columnist at the New York Times, makes the same points about talk radio hosts, and Rush Limbaugh in particular. “Over the years, I have asked many politicians what happens when Limbaugh and his colleagues attack. The story is always the same. Hundreds of calls come in. The receptionists are miserable. But the numbers back home do not move. There is no effect on the favorability rating or the re-election prospects. In the media world, he is a giant. In the real world, he’s not.”

And he agrees, too, that the politicians and various others conspire to make it look as if these guys matter. “They are enabled by cynical Democrats, who love to claim that Rush Limbaugh controls the G.O.P. They are enabled by lazy pundits who find it easier to argue with showmen than with people whose opinions are based on knowledge. They are enabled by the slightly educated snobs who believe that Glenn Beck really is the voice of Middle America.”

“The rise of Beck, Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and the rest has correlated almost perfectly with the decline of the G.O.P. But it’s not because the talk jocks have real power. It’s because they have illusory power, because Republicans hear the media mythology and fall for it every time.”

The media are part of the complex political ecology of decision-making, opinion forming and attitude shaping, but only part; and they are as much acted upon as actors. Simple conspiracy arguments about the “power of the media” mistake cause and effect, misunderstand the way people consume media, and over simplify the decisions that ordinary people take about politics.