The Independent's print days are over - can they make a success of digital publishing?


The Independent is going online-only after 30 years of print. Katie Hartley, Media Product Director at Amplifi @Carat, mourns the loss of the groundbreaking newspaper - but says digital publishing has a lot to offer.

Katie Hartley Media Product Director Amplifi The Independent newspapers Publishing

The news of the Independent’s print edition closure on Thursday delivered itself like a small punch in my stomach. Yes it was the smallest of the quality set by some way, and yes it was known to struggle commercially, but it had seemingly been resilient for so long, it felt as though it would continue forever. I was comfortable with that - less choice surely isn’t a good thing for media planner buyers or society. 

However, we might be mourning the end of an era, but not the end of the Independent in its entirety. After all, it will continue its operation as a quality news provider in the digital space - to the pleasure, I’m sure, of the 70 million global unique users who visit each month.

When the Independent launched in 1986, uniquely positioning itself as a title without political or proprietorial bias with the famed ‘’It is. Are You?’’ campaign, it was by some years the junior of its quality competitors – almost exactly 200 years younger than the Times! It was the new guard, offering a compelling new proposition. 

So perhaps little wonder then, that 30 years on it is this young upstart who has sought to innovate again pitching itself as ‘the first national newspaper to embrace a digital only future’. 

The challenge is of course now whether the title can maintain its identity without the brand anchor of a print edition nor its name adorned on newsagent signage and awnings up and down the country. As an aside, I wonder how or if, the numerous television shows with the standard ‘what’s in the papers’ format will adapt to include it? Having never had a printed arm, the Huffington Post gives encouragement, but we would be naïve to assume that commercialising the digital element alone will be easy.  

Then there is the question around what this means for other newspapers. On the Andrew Marr show on Sunday, Amol Rajan, the Independent Editor, spoke convincingly of his view that they were the first to take what is the inevitable route for all. I always struggle with opinions given with the same certainty as fact, but it is certainly possible. Despite 80% of us stating a preference for consuming content in print, the transferal of reach from traditional to digital in recent years shows that for some, that pleasure is often denied in favour of the sometimes more convenient and often free, online content.  

But to take the Independent print closure as a marker for the direction of all newspapers seems hasty.

Looking at the Lebedev owned titles specifically, the Independent’s print circulation was ailing at just 56k copies. However, they are handing over its five-year-old offspring title, the i, to Johnston Press with a 270k strong circulation, bigger than the Independent was even 10 years ago! 

More impressive still is the growth of the Evening Standard following its change from a paid for to free model, now circulating the best part of 900k copies a day - nearly three times that of 2006. 

Rather than an assumed blanket direction for all, a digital-only strategy should be considered on a case by case for each publisher and while for the majority it is still the print that drives the lion’s share of revenue, it would make little business sense to close – for now at least. 

Looking to the future, I imagine how advancements with OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology, that creates a display as thin as paper that can be rolled up in the same way, could provide a solution that will satisfy both reader and advertiser preference and end this period of uncertainty.

For now, what the Independent news does highlight is the need for advertisers and agencies to consider more seriously the role of publisher brands on digital touchpoints.

Digital touchpoints have been driving growth for publishers for some time and they are now bigger than ever thanks to the digital revolution. It is now where the biggest portion of publisher content lives, with an estimated 70% never touching the print copy - and now one of our six quality brands will only be accessible in this way. 

Digital publishing offers the same powerful context as the print, a combination of destination content, engagement and trust, which can then be overlaid with the targeting and creative capabilities possible in digital. It makes for an extremely powerful proposition but is regularly undervalued in favour of cheaper digital buys that deliver the person but not the environment – a hugely important component for brand campaigns. The Independent will of course be looking to change this and they are right to take that challenge on.

We’re creating a new strategic approach to publisher planning, to better take advantage of publishers’ digital counterparts – we wish the Indy luck in convincing others to do the same. 

Katie Hartley Media Product Director Amplifi The Independent newspapers Publishing
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