The cover of the last printed-edition of The Independent. Credit: Cory Doctorow / Flickr

Goodbye England’s Rose: What the Independent’s closure means for print

The Independent’s closure in 2016 certainly ruffled a few feathers. Is it time to accept that digital news is the way forward?

It has been a year since the Independent published its last ever print edition. Evgeny Lebedev, the paper’s owner said “we will be the first of many leading newspapers to embrace a wholly digital future,” in a letter to his staff.

It was a shock to see the Independent close — just 30 years after its first edition. All the signs had been there, though. The younger generation typically consume media on their smartphones, eschewing newspaper loyalty for social links. The Guardian and FT had already gone “digital first”. As newspaper profits fell, there was a waiting game to see who would crack first and move to producing online content only.

Interview with Amol Rajan, former editor of the Independent and print enthusiast. Credit: Channel 4

It certainly is the end of an era. Whilst The Independent is still publishing constant online content, there is still something sad about a huge national newspaper having to make the ‘brave’ move. Andrew Jaspan, editor of The Conversation and former newspaper giant in the UK said “The Independent was brilliant at the start, because there was nothing like it in the political centre. The Guardian was too left, while The Times and The Telegraph were too right-wing. The ‘Indy’ was a breath of fresh air”. It offered the perfect balance, an excellent technique to broaden the readership. Often swaying to the left, until more recently, it offered a more consistent balanced view than most other nationals.

“Readers flocked to it”, said Jaspan, “so The Guardian, The Times and The Telegraph knew they had to act to defend their readership from the ‘Indy’. So they changed editors, re-designed their papers, hired new staff (and poached the best) and then introduced ferocious predatory pricing offers and the ‘Indy’ suffered”.

It is an irony, then that current events have begun to drive a new appetite for some newspapers. In June 2016, the month of the controversial Brexit vote, national newspaper sales increased by 3 million copies, according to ABC figures.

The majority of newspapers saw an increase in circulation in the month of the dreaded ‘Brexit’ vote — ABC 2016

Making such a drastic move to solely online publishing does imply a shift in The Independent’s readership — to specifically target millennials — the majority of which will access the news media on their smartphones, using apps or websites for free, instead of paying for a paper copy. In the two months following The Independent’s closure, the online site saw traffic rise by 12.4% and by the beginning of 2017, it was up to 90% from the previous year, boasting on average 5.4 million daily unique browsers. This is almost double what it was in February 2016, so readers must have taken well to the online-only approach.

“It was a great shame, as it was such a good newspaper,” said Henry Austin, the assistant news editor of the i and former freelancer for The Independent, “But it was necessary as everything has gone digital and you can’t keep a product going if it’s not making money anymore, unfortunately.”

At The Independent’s most triumphant, it had a circulation of around 400,000, which in recent years dwindled to as low as 56,000. With other newspapers attracting a readership of over 1 million on average, there was only one way to go for The Independent.

“Where do most people get their news nowadays?” asked Austin, “Online. I also think it’s a lot better for breaking stories. For example, Donald Trump, does and says so many things in a day, we could only make a couple of stories out of it in a newspaper. However, online, you can just keep posting and updating posts and keep people informed.”

Online is a key way for print publications to build an instant bridge between themselves and their readers. The way the world is changing means that instant news updates are a necessity, even for student publications.

Jessica Murray is the full-time editor at The Gryphon, University Of Leeds’ newspaper, has made it a priority during her time as editor to get their website back up to standard: “We have really worked to revamp the website this year. It was full of viruses and it was basically unusable — we even used to have an app but no one knows what happened to that. It’s especially important for us and our target audience that we have an online presence.” Despite this however, Murray is passionate about print and is hoping to study for a Masters in Print Journalism.

Ding-dong, News International’s dead

When you take a look back in history, it’s incredibly rare for a newspaper to close down. The last significant closure in the UK was The News Of The World. Established in 1843, the Sunday tabloid obsessed with celebrity scoops was forced to close in 2011 after the phone-hacking scandal.

Many powerful people at News International found themselves in and out of police stations and inquiries, to try and clear their names of the crime of illegally tapping into various celebrities, politicians, members of the Royal Family and even the murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, phones. The paper began drowning in accusations, and the Leveson Inquiry was the final nail in the Rupert Murdoch-owned paper’s coffin.

The scandal saw former editor of the News Of The World, Andy Coulson, who has recently been hired, somewhat ironically, as The Telegraph’s PR adviser, serve 5 months of an 18 month sentence for phone hacking, whilst Rebekah Brooks, CEO of News International, walked free after being cleared of all charges in 2014. Brooks was reinstated as CEO of News UK, a reinvention of News International, only a year later. Since the investigation into illegally acquiring confidential information began in 1999, over 100 people have been arrested. More than 90 of these arrests have been made since the police reopened the investigation in 2011, which led to the Leveson Inquiry.

Credit: The Telegraph

This video from The Telegraph shows highlights from this inquiry, which lasted for over a year, caused a wave in mainstream journalism. It changed the way that print journalism was monitored, which in the long run, has changed journalism.

Who you gonna call? Wait, Ipso? Really?

It led to the dissolution of the Press Complaints Committee, which came under heavy scrutiny after its lack of control over the phone-hacking scandal. This introduced the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which vowed to stay independent and would show no affiliation to any higher power.

Ipso was initially meant to become a Royal Charter, which basically sets the framework up for an independent organisation to follow. Royal Charters have been a part of UK history since the 13th century. Now they are often used for organisations that serve the public interest, such as Ipso. However, the chairman of Ipso, Sir Alan Moses, admitted that his organisation doesn’t meet Royal Charter standards, and probably never will do. Interestingly enough, PCC was headed up by Moses as well. Many of the board’s members in fact, were on PCC, such as the editor of The Daily Mail, Paul Dacre.

A tweet by Alastair Morgan, summing up the public’s lack of faith in Ipso. Morgan has written a book about murdered private investigator, Daniel Morgan, who’s unsolved death was central to the allegations made against the News Of The World during the Leveson Inquiry.

Many publications refused to sign up to this new regulatory body, because they felt they would again be ruled by newspapers such as The Telegraph, The Daily Mail and News UK and a YouGov survey which was conducted only a year after it was introduced, showed that 66% of those polled had little or no faith in the organisation.

Ch-ch-changes

Was it this lack of trust in the media that has led to more of a push for online journalism? In the years after, online publications have almost become a priority for the majority of mainstream media. This is not the first knock that journalism has suffered. It is an ever-changing medium, and it adapts to anything that is thrown its way.

George Brock, who is currently a Professor of Journalism at City University London and who has also worked at The Times and The Observer, is confident that journalism can adapt at this time of change: “it is certain that there is no way back to the news media of the 20th century … there is no choice but to find ways of supporting journalism in new conditions.” Speaking to him made it incredibly apparent that he passionately believes that journalism is a medium that is constantly in some state of crisis, with a constant need to reinvent itself. He claimed that he anticipated The Independent’s demise, “I saw it coming. It was the lowest performing national at the time, so it probably was right for it to make the shift.”

Trials and tribulations

The recession in the UK between 2008 and 2009 hit the industry hard. Newspaper sales have dropped 42.84% since 2001 (as of 2014). With companies going bankrupt, banks running out of money, and thousands of job losses, where was the spare money to pick up a newspaper? Even in 2008, which feels like a lifetime ago, there was free news online. If you wanted to read about the never-ending lists of companies closing and unemployment rates, you could do so online, saving a pretty penny.

This ties into the introduction of online paywalls a few years ago. The debate of ‘paid vs. free’ led to a three day conference in 2010 which saw the biggest and brightest from global news conglomerates discuss how they could make money via online news, and whether their readers would pay for the services they had to offer. News UK obviously led the pack at the time, and still does, with many other news organisations having tried and tested a variety of methods to keep the ball rolling financially. It’s been a constant discussion ever since, due to the increase in online users — with younger people having been brought up with the internet, and older people having finally got to grips with it — it is a beast that’s not to be reckoned with.

24 hour television also contributes to the troubles print has been experiencing, like in the 1950s, when television was introduced — the start to the trickling decline. Less of an explosive effect like the internet had, but still, the ease of turning on a TV and watching live footage of a breaking news event, instead of waiting for tomorrow morning’s paper. In 2015, Ofcom conducted a report to investigate how the people of Britain consumed their news media. The reigning majority out of TV, newspapers, radio and internet was TV, with 67% of adults choosing to watch television news to get the latest. As to be expected, newspapers dwindled at the bottom of the list, with only 31% using the original format to regularly stay up to date.

Proud to be different

Small but successful: the outside of Private Eye’s understated office. Credit: Stuart Chalmers / Flickr

Not all print is failing, however. Private Eye had its most successful year yet in 2016. The second half of the year saw sales rise by 9% over 2015, Ian Hislop told the Press Gazette that it was “quite something given that print is meant to be dead”. Hislop added: “I know we are niche and we are fortnightly but it is about having confidence in the reading public. I do think if people will pay £2.50 for a cup of coffee then they will pay [£1.80] for a copy of the Eye.”

Niche publications seem to be faring well in the current climate. Music magazines, such as Rock Sound have “grown in sales consistently over the past few years” according to Editorial Director Ryan Bird, which is “something that is almost unheard of in this industry”. Maybe this is where being unique in such a competitive trade pays off. A dedicated fan base of readers who are willing to pick up a publication every week, fortnight, month and provide consistently good content, which keeps them coming back for more.

Private Eye focuses heavily on its print edition, with their website and online presence taking a back seat — the exact opposite of what The Independent chose to do in an attempt to combat the decline in print sales. This is where the initiative of these niche publications could have come into play with The Independent, with more of a focus on their committed readers and investing in quality content which people will happily pay to read.

But unfortunately, it’s a little too late for the lefty broadsheet. Rest in peace old friend, but may your online content support you in returning to your innovative, spirited ways.

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