The end of print for The Independent?

It happened recently in the US, but could it happen here? Roy Greenslade writes today about his kill or cure plan for the Independent — kill off the print version and carry on as a digital paper.

As the Independent prepares for a round of 90 editorial job cuts he argues in his Evening Standard column today that Independent News & Media must bite the bullet and stop spending a small fortune every year (around £12m) publishing the Independent as a newspaper.

He suggests the radical plan for the paper’s survival in the week that Roger Alton, editor of The Independent, said he feels a “terrible personal failure” for the newspaper’s struggling performance but has ruled out a sale in the immediate future.

The personal failure is not his alone. Well before he arrived after his high achieving stint at the Observer the Independent was listing like a ship in a breakers yard. Sales of the paper fell 16.29% year on year in October to an average circulation of just 201,019 copies.

The paper has been in decline for some time and increasing the cover price to £1 in this market seems like madness. It certainly struck Alton as such. He saw fit to attack it in a Sky News interview earlier this week.

What lies ahead, says Greenslade, is a “real chance to lead the digital revolution towards its next, inevitable phase”, which is slowly winding its way towards us and claiming victims as it goes.

Just look at the Christian Science Monitor in the US as an example. That venerable paper, that once sold as much as the Independent, is preparing to cease publication and go online only (with a weekly magazine in support).

And look to Rupert Murdoch’s recent comments on The Future of Newspapers where he said “that newspapers will reach new heights in the 21st century” but that these would be digital ones.

He said the real business of newspaper owners “isn’t printing on dead trees” and that newspapers themselves are not the medium, but rather the qualities that good newspaper businesses embody — great journalism and judgment.

Back to the Independent, Greenslade makes a solid argument and it is one that everyone knows well by now. Closing a failing paper (or a magazine for that matter) will “save trees, save ink, production and distribution costs. There is marketing as well, of course, and in doing it, as Greenslade says, “the paper will take a giant step into the digital age”.

It is that first step that is the hardest as it will be Sir Tony O’Reilly admitting defeat. He clearly holds the paper quite dear. It has been said before that it is his calling card. British national newspapers are a generally impressive affair and much admired. He would lose that, but he too must face up to reality. To the new reality even.

As part of that new reality is the esteem in which some news and blog sites are now held in. Look at the recent US Presidential. It was in a large part a digital election and proved a bonanza for respected political websites such as The Huffington Post, Slate and The Page.

So yes there is much merit in what he suggests. The only fly in the digital ointment is the same fly that exits in the printed world. The Independent is bottom of the pile and that is even more true in the digitally world.

In the recent electronic ABCs The reported a rise in unique users, climbing 5% to 8.4m. The Guardian, market leader here, increased its users by 7.4% month on month to a record of almost 26m.

The Guardian soars online, but revenues are still elusive and becoming more so in times like these. What would that mean for an electronic only Independent? One imagines that the digital product would have less staff than the paper one (although this assumption may be incorrect). It would still struggle in the face of its rivals far behind the Guardian and fourth placed Times Online for that matter that recorded 20.5m uniques.

We also have no clear idea what would happen to the Independent’s site online should it lose its number one promotional tool — the newspaper itself.

What impact would the loss of the paper product have on those 8.5m uniques? Big question and no answer close to hand. IN&M have apparently looked at this scenario and ruled it out because of the huge loss of ad revenues and estimated the gap between print revenue and online-only revenue would be as large as £30m a year after all the cost savings.

But as the paper continues to lose ad revenue offline and readers the gap is not going to stay that way. There will be additional online revenues as well to squeeze that gap closer.

It would be a leap in the dark, but my feeling as well is that sooner rather than later we will know the answer to that question as some takes a leap into the unknown. Will the Independent last another year? It has to be worth a bet.


  • I Scream Man

    I read The Independent and love it not just for its bold use of front covers but. I feel, generally offers an independent read – can’t see how this will replicate on-line unless it does something really clever and create a channel out of the website rich in content, and make better use of video which no news site has managed so far (talking heads, kittens chasing laser light and teenagers falling off skateboards doesn’t really do it for me).

  • Andrew Harrison

    i tell ya…10 years and this will be the norm.

  • Will Callaghan

    I started my web publishing career at a local outpost of one of the majors and print vs web was a popular topic of conversation. I remember comments like:

    “You work in IT, you’re not a proper journalist”

    “Print’s going to be around forever. What you’re doing is just a fad”

    “Can you fix my printer?” … and other IT Help Desk related jibes

    To which I replied “I have no idea whether the web is going to kill newspapers but why leave it to chance? You can invest small amounts wisely in your web presence and cover your backs.”

    A decade on and a lot has been invested although I’m not sure how wisely. It upsets me to think about the wasted opportunities.

  • Alastair Duncan

    The economics of advertising revenues over editorial and production cost don’t necessarily change with the whole paper bit removed. There is enormous corollary (try saying that when you’re in the wig and pen) between online uniques and paper readership indicating that consumers like to use both ‘channels’. Totally agree with the general crapness of telegraph tv and a brave step into the digital age for any newspaper is to get the full media experience up to scratch.