Magazine article The Spectator

The Independent's Past Isn't as Rosy as It's Painted. but Its Future Is Not All Black Either

Magazine article The Spectator

The Independent's Past Isn't as Rosy as It's Painted. but Its Future Is Not All Black Either

Article excerpt

The tenth anniversary of the Independent, which fell last Monday, has not exactly been greeted in a mood of respectful awe. Jonathan Fenby, the paper's first home editor, wrote a grumpy article in the Evening Standard complaining that the Independent had gone downhill since he left it two years after its launch. The editor of the relaunched Punch used the occasion to dig up an anonymous source who poured a good deal of manure over the paper's three founders, particularly me. Apart from these two thoughtful and disinterested contributions, there was general silence in the press. Even sympathetic journalists don't like discussing the Independent. It is a dream gone wrong.

I can't really complain about this view of things, having written a book which attempted to describe the paper's fall from grace. Let us just say here that it was caused by overreaching, vanity and hubris - pretty normal human failings - and a large dollop of ill fortune, plus some inexperience. But my book was also about an enduring achievement. As I write, I have today's edition of the Independent in front of me. It looks pretty handsome. I'm glad it's there. It seems to make a difference. In a stack of newspapers in the corner lie copies of the Independent on Sunday. I'm glad this paper is here too. I think you could make a good case for saying that it is better than the Observer, which has been around for more than 200 years.

A list of what has gone wrong is not difficult to draw up. The Independent started out independent, now it is co-owned by Mirror Group Newspapers and Tony O'Reilly's Irish Independent group. The sales of each title stand very close to an alltime low: the Independent is selling roughly what it did in its dog days only four or five months after its launch. Both papers have lost a lot of money (though the Independent did make a profit of over 3 million in the boom year of 1989) and continue to be unprofitable despite round after round of cost-cutting. As to editorial quality, the Independent, whose foreign news was outstanding, whose photography and design were once greatly praised, is no longer preeminent in any single area. Though it's pretty good, it's no longer the best at anything.

But don't let us exaggerate the editorial falling off. Journalists who worked on the Independent after its launch sometimes remember those early days in too rosy a light. They forget that, apart from a single month in which it outsold the Times by 1,000 copies, it has been the worst-selling of the four quality newspapers for all of its life. They may also forget the improvements which the Independent's launch provoked in other titles. There are no secrets in journalism, and the things the young paper did well its rivals were sometimes soon doing better. What the Independent has seemingly lost is its ability to innovate, though pace Mr Fenby this lasted well beyond his early departure, the Independent's very good Saturday magazine being launched without the benefit of his presiding genius, as was the Independent on Sunday. It is the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and the Times that now seem to have the best new ideas.

I suppose of all the failings it is the loss of independence which galls the paper's early supporters most. But their concern may be partly based upon a misapprehension. …

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