Should other papers follow The Independent's digital lead?

Amol Rajan was editor of The Independent from 2013-2016

Throughout its 30-plus years, The Independent has had a reasonable claim to be among the most innovative news publishers anywhere.

Its launch in 1986, by three Telegraph hacks who felt there was political space and a gap in the market to launch a high-minded, non-partisan, internationalist publication, was an act of courage.

In 2003, Simon Kelner, its longest-serving Editor, had the vision to produce broadsheet journalism in 'compact' or tabloid size, and to say that in the age of the internet and 24-hr news it was viewspapers, not newspapers, that people wanted.

In 2010, it launched a sister paper called i, which was sold six years later for over £25m, and has a circulation of around 270,000. I see it everywhere.

The launch of, now renamed, was the most successful spin-off site of its kind, producing mobile-friendly, ultra-social, video-heavy content that young audiences lapped up.

When I was editor, we flipped the masthead from horizontal to vertical, so that it ran along the left-hand side of the front page.

We won several awards for our design soon after.

Last year, The Independent undertook the most radical newspaper innovation of all, abandoning print to focus on digital platforms.

On Friday, we got the most definitive verdict yet on whether or not that move was justified.

A Saudi investor ploughed tens of millions into the company for a 30 percent stake.

Whether this does indeed value The Independent at around £100m, as has been mooted, is unclear; but senior figures in the industry told me over the weekend that a valuation of six times revenue would be standard.

The Independent's revenues were £14.7m in the year to October 2016, and will have grown since because of a sharp rise in traffic, driven by the Trump phenomenon, UK general election and an exceptionally hectic, terror-filled news agenda.

As news of the investment sinks in, staff at the publication, some of whom have been in touch with me, are wondering what this means for them. The answer is: in the short term, not much.

The Independent now has money to fund expansion, including potential Urdu and Arabic services.

And while guarantees of editorial independence have been written into the shareholder agreement, the truth is The Independent - a ferocious critic of the Saudi regime, with several of the best Middle East correspondents in the world - cannot be seen to hold back in its criticism of that country, and so won't, for now at least.

After the sale of i to Johnston Press, and the closure of the print title, The Independent is making a few million pounds in profit each year, despite taking on some overhead costs from elsewhere in the business. Revenues should cross £20m next year, if they haven't already.

As a result, there has been interest from several potential buyers.

I worked at The Independent for the best part of a decade. Throughout that time it was plagued by a reputation for penury, with constant cost-cutting and stories in rival publications about how bad the finances were. In the year to September 2011, The Independent lost £22.3m.

Even if you take a much lower estimate of the value - say, £60m - the idea that in 2017 The Independent would be profitable, valued at £60m, with a monthly global audience of around 120m unique browsers and 6.5m daily unique browsers, would have seemed utterly implausible throughout virtually all of my time at the paper.

Should other newspapers follow The Independent's lead, and also abandon their print versions to focus resources online?

The answer, as you'd expect, is complicated.

A unique case

When it shut as a newspaper, the circumstances of The Independent were very specific, and unlike those other papers find themselves in right now.

First of all, its circulation was so low that it was in serious danger of getting de-listed - i.e. not stocked by some retailers. That would have set off an embarrassing chain of events.

To some extent, the secular decline in the circulation of the paper - massively accelerated by the fact that you could buy another newspaper with much of the same stuff, called i, in the same shops for a fraction of the price - made print closure inevitable.

Obviously my aim as editor was to raise circulation, but it turns out that's very hard in the age of the internet.

The fact that print circulation was so low meant that, despite several price rises, the revenues from selling the newspaper were smaller than at other newspapers.

The Independent online still has several outstanding reporters and columnists from the print days, but its tone is undoubtedly far removed from the newspaper - just as Mail Online is very different to the Daily Mail, being more celebrity-obsessed and prurient.

When riding two horses - print and digital - publications face a choice: whether to keep editorial values the same across both (as happens at The Financial Times and New York Times, for instance) or to let the digital operation flourish with its own unique vibe.

That is the approach taken by both the Mail and The Independent - though it's more complicated than even the print/digital dichotomy suggests.

If you look at the homepage of, it seems fairly true to the spirit of the paper, which was serious and upmarket. This morning there is smart reporting about the NHS, Brexit and Venezuela.

However, on social media, where I now consume it, The Independent has a very different tone. Some call it populist; others clickbait (and I look forward to endless friends, tweeters and perhaps - if I'm lucky - Private Eye telling me I've sold out for not using the c-word more regularly in this piece).

I call the tone on social media salacious, or viral - and recognise that it is mixed together with some high-minded stuff too. When I looked yesterday afternoon, the two top videos on The Independent's Facebook page were: "Man teaches himself to backflip in an afternoon" and "Russian cat adopts abandoned baby monkey."

At the time of writing, the top item is a video of a dog, below these words: "This dog was close to death. Then something amazing happened."

None of those would have made the newspaper.

Then again, isn't it right that that a global publication should try to produce material that appeals to as wide an audience as possible? If you want 6.5m daily unique browsers, as opposed to 36,000 (print) readers in Britain, then maybe cat and dog videos will need to be part of the mix.

More to the point, you have to consider being different things to different people. A homepage for people who loved the paper and care about Venezuela. A Facebook feed full of videos that can go viral. Some people call this selling out - others call it commercially savvy dexterity.

So for The Independent, there has been a fundamental editorial shift too, which is a vital consideration for those contemplating going digital-only.

The transformation of The Independent's commercial fortunes has arisen through a relentless focus on traffic, in turn driven by an advertising rather than a subscription-based model.

If you are ultimately funded by advertising rather than directly by readers, there is a real chance it will distort your editorial values.

So aside from having a circulation so low that you may be forced into the move anyway, and can more easily afford to do without cover price revenue, a preparedness to change your editorial tone - on social media at least - can help drive the traffic that generates big advertising income.

Not every, or even many, publications would be prepared to do this.

There was a time when The Independent and Financial Times occupied very similar upmarket terrain, albeit with different emphases. But "Russian cat adopts baby monkey" isn't going to appear on any time soon.

Of course, you could always charge readers for your journalism, but that is a subject for another day: for now I'm considering whether moving to a fully digital ad-funded model is the way to go.

The other key factor, of course, is personnel: who you hire - and fire.

The Independent has a much, much lower editorial cost base than places like The Times, Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph, both because it has fewer people, and because those people are younger and cheaper than at those other titles. This cost base will now grow as the publication expands.

Shutting a print operation involves a tremendous amount of pain and sadness, particularly for those made redundant. However, the newspaper trade is under such pressure that this is happening even at places that continue to print.

The Guardian, which posted annual losses of £44.7m last week (including exceptional costs: the underlying losses are significantly lower) has let go of hundreds of staff in the past year.

The mystery of influence

One of my heroes is Geoffrey Crowther, who was editor of The Economist from 1938 to 1956 - appointed at the age of just 31. His advice to young writers aspiring to craft cogent arguments in The Economist style was: "simplify, then exaggerate".

I have always thought this a marvellous motto, and my approach to leadership, whether in a cricket team, newspaper or anywhere else, has been to do the same. Work out what differentiates you from the competition, and then focus on it relentlessly. Simplify, then exaggerate.

That is what The Independent has now done.

The massive advantage for a digital-only business is the focus it provides. There is more likely to be a clarity of mission across all levels, with everyone pulling in the same direction.

Together with the huge savings in distribution - no more printing things in bundles and sending loaded lorries around the country, while giving retailers a cut - and a cheaper, younger workforce, this clarity can make going digital hugely appealing.

And so we come closer to answering whether or not going digital-only might be the right course for other publications too.

Put far too simply, the case for is: clarity of mission, a long-term view, pursuit of a global audience, and no distribution costs.

Put far too simply, the case against is: a possible change of editorial tone (if you are advertising-funded), a huge amount of pain through lost talent, and no guarantee you'll be able to drive the same revenues online that you could in print - especially given Facebook and Google are gobbling up advertising dollars.

And then there are the many specifics that will attach themselves to each case.

But there is one final, elusive reason why I suspect most publications will not, for the time being, abandon print altogether - even though doing so eventually, say in a decade or two, is inevitable.

It's about influence.

For some reason - and having thought hard about it for years, I still can't quite fathom it - being in print gives you a degree of influence in certain circles that you can't get from being online only.

In Westminster, for instance, politicians are still ludicrously obsessed with what's in the papers. Something about there being a hard copy in the corridors of power, or in the bundles that sit outside CEOs' offices each morning, gives newspapers an enduring influence that is impossible to measure yet impossible to ignore.

I would venture that even when it was losing millions, had a small website, and a circulation of under 100,000, there was still some bizarre but tangible way in which The Independent was more influential than it is now - for all that a Saudi property tycoon has just ploughed millions into it.

That will change, of course. As a young generation who never read newspapers acquire the levers of power, they will pay more attention to eyeballs on websites.

For now, however, the unique magic of print, and the influence that comes with it, is the principal reason I think few publications will soon follow the lead of The Independent in going fully digital - despite a dazzling commercial renaissance that carries lessons for the whole industry.

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