Brand Health Check: The Independent

The Independent
The Independent

LONDON - Could the time finally have come to put the ailing newspaper out of its misery?

Few of those on the receiving end of a Brand Health Check face such a dire prognosis as The Independent. Even Denis O'Brien - the second-biggest shareholder in the paper's holding company, Independent News & Media (IN&M) - is predicting that it will close by Christmas.

It might, therefore, seem a better time to bring in the undertakers than a resuscitation team. However, there are still some faint indications that The Independent might have a future.

Last month, in an all-too rare announcement of relatively good news, IN&M made a tentative prediction that its declining ad revenues could be stabilising. However, a 0.9% rise does not make much of a dent in the 14.9% decline in revenue across the group for the first half of 2009.

IN&M is also attempting to restructure its debts with lenders in a last-ditch attempt to stave off its demise. Already the ostensibly liberal - but sometimes editorially confusing - Independent has moved into shared offices with unlikely bedfellow the Daily Mail to cut costs.

Yet, with September's ABC figures showing that sales of the title had dropped by 15.6% year on year to just 186,490 - of which a little more than half were sold at full price - there are serious questions over whether this particular patient is worth saving.

We asked Marc Sands, former marketing director of Guardian Media Group, and Keith Wells, group managing director of specialist media branding agency Turquoise, whether they would switch off the newspaper's life support machine.

Diagnosis   Two industry experts on how The Independent can rebuild its circulation

Marc Sands former marketing director, Guardian Media Group

Despite a first-rate editorial team, The Independent is commercially and editorially irrelevant. It is commercially irrelevant because too few people read the output, in whatever format it is delivered. It is editorially irrelevant due to chronic underfunding. Producing quality original journalism day after day does not come cheap.

The Indy has kept quiet about the recent trend of newspapers removing bulks from ABCs because, if it did this, it would become apparent how few people purchase the publication. 

Healthy circulation is based on a combination of three factors: first, quality journalism and a regular supply of relevant and unique stories; second, strong marketing and vibrant promotions; and third, appropriate distribution of the product.

In my opinion, The Independent fails to deliver consistently on all three fronts.

All newspaper organisations are suffering falling profits and declining circulations. It is increasingly apparent that only the very nimble or those with the deepest pockets will survive.

The Independent is the least well-placed title to pull through. Even if it does, what is left may not be worth the paper it is printed on.

Remedy

  • Invest in the editorial product and market it properly. This is a minimum three- to five-year plan.
  • Create a single compelling weekend product along the lines of the FT and reinvigorate the weekday offer.
  • The Indy used to be innovative, but has done little since becoming the first broad-sheet to go tabloid. Maybe it is now the time to be as radical again. How about being the first quality national news-paper to go digital-only?

Keith Wells group managing director, Turquoise

In 1986 it was easy to 'get' a newspaper with the challenge: 'It is. Are you?'

Mrs Thatcher was in No 10 and most of the country was in opposition. You could even tell the difference between Labour and the Tories.

After 23 years, 'it is' in trouble. The Independent's circulation is tanking, only half of its sales are at full price, and its shareholders are publicly discussing its possible sale or closure.

The title has been a pioneer in the use of photography, layout and formats, but it has suffered the same fate as those in other markets who have seen competitors copy their ideas, improve on them and take the commercial credit.

Tony Blair called it a 'viewspaper', and maybe that's its biggest problem. As pioneering as The Indy has been, it can often take the tone of a worthy lecture, justifying the 'Indescribablyboring' tag it has been given by Private Eye.

People are used to instant information and they may not even care so much about the quality of the writing, another traditional strength of The Independent. Concerned, clever and committed as it is, the sad reality is the paper often looks irrelevant and a touch random now.

Remedy

  • Take the idea of 'independence' beyond its current boundaries: become a forum for ideas and exchange.
  • Redefine the initial challenge of 'It is. Are you?' Stimulate and provoke, but don't finger-wag.
  • Lighten up: everything about The Indy feels heavy - issues, design, tone of voice. It can and should be much more inspirational.
  • Learn from online: as bad as the print figures are, the number of unique users for the online version have grown by about 10% year on year.

 

 

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