The Independent may be leading the way (again)

VIEW FROM THE PRESSBOX: The sports desk at The Independent included many outstanding writing, editing and photography talents. The loss of another national newspaper title, albeit to go digital-only, should remind us all of the need to make our journalism pay. By STEVEN DOWNES

I first worked at The Independent some 30 years ago. I was in an office overlooking the Bunhill Fields cemetery. I filed what seems likely to be my last piece of copy for the newspaper this week. It was an obituary. Perhaps someone is trying to tell me something.

The first edition of The Independent, from October 1986
The first edition of The Independent, from October 1986

In all of yesterday’s justifiable hand-wringing, expressions of regret and analysis of the newspaper business following the announcement that The Independent and the Independent on Sunday are to print their last paper editions next month (Professor Greenslade’s, over at the Guardian‘s now predominantly online-only media section is a good starting point), the majority view seems to be that the Indy‘s switch from newsprint to digital-only won’t be the last.

Indeed, the Independent taking the plunge into a web-only world might now make it easier for others to follow suit, just as they did when the Indy went from broadsheet to “compact”. Friends and colleagues speculating yesterday were suggesting that The Guardian, which is trying to cut £50 million from its losses with yet another demoralising round of job cuts, might be eager to follow suit.

If anything, the only surprise is that it has taken the owners this long to pull the plug on the use of ink and dead trees: it was more than 18 months ago that I first heard a suggestion that The Independent would abandon newspapers when its latest printing contract ended, which was then supposed to be some time last year.

Of course, what most media commentators have failed to mention is that the SJA went digital-only a decade ago. Why waste money on printing costs and distribution (in our case, envelopes and postage), when we can get our news and information out to our members in a far more timely manner than by sending out already dated quarterly newsletters?

All that the management of our national and regional newspapers now have to do is to find a way of making online news pay, to enable proper investment in their journalism, something which appears to have eluded them over the past 20 years. Meanwhile two generations have been born who would never dream of paying for their daily dose of news. That is why The Independent, which was selling 428,000 copies a day at its peak, today will sell fewer than 30,000 copies, while all its carefully crafted news reports and features, including its sports coverage, are freely accessible online.

I was asked to give a talk recently about working in sports journalism to a culture festival in Thornton Heath (yes, I know…) which was attended by two dozen people, none of them over the age of 25. I didn’t want to disabuse them of the romantic notion of a lifelong career as sports journalists, but I did think it was worthwhile to highlight something to them.

“How many of you paid money for a newspaper this morning? Put your hands up.” Not a thing.

“What about this week? Have any of you bought a Sunday paper, a local paper, a magazine?”

One hand went up. Just one. If your daily crust depends on sales of the Daily Bugle, then you’re going to go hungry.

This is not meant to be the second obit I’ve written this week: it is not a “print is dead” piece. After all, in the very same High Street Kensington office as the Indy, under the same Lebedev ownership, is a newspaper title which is financially very successful. The Evening Standard works on a model in which they give away their product at every Tube station and railway terminus in the capital every weekday of the year. That’s because the Standard‘s guaranteed, free circulation to a reasonably targeted London audience allows them to sell huge volumes of advertising at proper rates.

Other print models are available. Private Eye was celebrating record sales figures this week, largely because they restrict their brand of satire, political commentary and investigative journalism to the fortnightly magazine, and no, you won’t find their content being given away online.

But we, as journalists, depend on the management of the publications we work for, in whatever medium that may be, ensuring that our Unique Selling Point, our journalism, is in some way paid for. If we give away our work for nothing, no one else is going to value it very highly either.


THERE IS AN element of the Independent announcement this week over which the fine detail has yet to emerge: the sale of the i newspaper to Johnston Press, reportedly for £24 million.

The i became another one of the innovations from the Independent’s 30-year lifetime in print which was deemed successful. A reduced price, boiled down version of The Independent. In effect, they cannibalised their own content.

It was the much-reduced and overworked production staff who just had to re-sub virtually every article each night, down to the bite-sized chunks required for the i edition. Given that most of the i‘s content was generated from the editorial budgets of The Independent, it will be interesting to see what arrangements are made for the new digital-only Indy to fill the pages of Johnston’s acquisition.


THE DEMISE OF The Independent has also prompted musings on the talent working on the paper, especially on the sports pages, when it launched in October 1986. The quality of its printing – using Atex editing computers and what were then modern presses – and its bold use of stunning photography, the likes of which previously had only been seen in magazines, made it really stand out on the newsstands.

The paper’s first sports editor was the urbane Charlie Burgess, recruited from The Guardian. From a newspaper-owning family (they still run Cumbrian Newspapers), together with his deputy, Simon Kelner, they recruited a terrifically impressive team, as Joe Lovejoy remembered yesterday.

Henry Winter: from 6pt results sub to poster boy for football writing
Henry Winter: from 6pt results sub to poster boy for football writing

“It was the best paper in the country when it started,” Joe recalled, either from a sun bed somewhere in Spain or in the depths of south Wales, the homes between which he divides his time. “The football writers were Paddy Barclay, me, Paul Wilson, now chief football writer at The Observer… there was Steve Bale, who became chief rugby writer at the Express, Neil Wilson, who was the doyen of athletics correspondents, Paul Hayward, who has been chief sports writer at the Telegraph, Mail and Guardian and Martin Johnson, the wittiest cricket correspondent I have ever had the pleasure of reading. The list goes on and on.

“We also had John Roberts, who came up with the immortal line about Kevin Keegan not being fit to lace George Best’s drinks, and Geoff Nicholson, who was a must-read on rugby and golf.

“We pissed all over the competition on a daily basis.The Times had to reduce its price to 20p to compete.”

As well as the sports photography of David Ashdown, the less-well-heralded staff on the sports desk at The Independent included the likes of Hugh Bateson, Chris Corrigan and, in those very early days usually found grinding out 6-point results and being let out for good behaviour to do the occasionaly football match report was a youngster called Henry Winter. Now what ever happened to him?

Kelner, of course, went on to edit the paper, a rare foray into senior management for someone from “the toy department”, while these days Burgess is doing some consulting work with a bit of Magic Circle conjuring on the side.

Shame he couldn’t pull a rabbit out of the hat for his old paper.

  • Steven Downes is the Secretary of the SJA who once filed copy for The Independent from a track meeting in a Sarajevo war zone, where the starter’s gun was the only shot fired
  • Next week’s View from the Pressbox: David Walker, sports editor of the Daily Mirror
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