I remember the launch of The Independent in 1986 – the same year that Eddy Shah launched his revolutionary (and now defunct) Today newspaper (Colour! Ooh! Print that doesn’t come off on your hands! What witchcraft is this?). This was a tumultuous year for Fleet Street. In addition to the aforementioned new launches, it also saw Rupert Murdoch relocate his entire stable of papers to the notorious Wapping Fortress in a controversial move designed to destroy the power of the print unions.
The Independent was founded by a consortium of (mainly) ex-Daily Telegraph journalists who wanted to establish a new quality broadsheet untainted by party political affiliation intrusive proprietors. Launched with the slogan “It is. Are you?” it very quickly poached a lot of curious readers from The Guardian (whose centre-left stomping ground the Indy was trying to muscle in on), The Times and The Telegraph, reaching a peak of 400,000 copies sold daily. It’s been in terminal decline ever since.
This week, after months of protracted negotiations, Independent News and Media sold both the daily and the Sunday Independent titles to Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev – the man who last year bought the London Evening Standard and immediately turned it into a freesheet, directly challenging the business model of daily newspapers head on.
The question now is: what’s he going to do to the Indy? Slash the cover price to zero and give it out at train stations? Once that would have sounded utterly implausible but it could very well happen. What will this mean for the other broadsheets (and the tabloids for that matter), given that they are – almost without exception – losing readers and money in a downward spiral? Will they be forced to do the same in order to compete? What will this mean for quality journalism, which is already seen as an expensive luxury in the low-margin digital age? I can’t help but worry that this is going to be very bad for British newspapers indeed. Anyone who picked up the free papers produced in London until last year (London Lite and The London Paper) could tell you how utterly awful they were. Ditto the staggeringly popular Metro given out all over the country every morning. It’s a pitiful rag full of copy-and-paste reporting, feeble reviews and recycled celebrity photographs. Yet given the choice between that and actually paying for a newspaper, a very large number of commuters opt for the former. As a newspaper lover, I find it very sad that people are content to make do with this characterless, editorial-free, exercise in blandness. If The Independent takes the same route there’s a danger it will be run along similar principles, taking all the other papers down with it in a race to the bottom. Sad times.