Monday 18 October 2010

A strategy to save The Independent

The Independent is set to re-launch as a stripped down youth paper for 18-34 year olds. Can it work?


The newspaper industry generally is in decline with circulation figures falling. Advertisers are looking elsewhere – most notably the internet – for alternative ways to connect to target audiences. There are success stories out there - but they are few and far between – showing how people will pay for content if it is necessary, irreplaceable, and unshareable but with so much free content available how do you make any journalism meet this criteria?

News content is delivered via a wide range of formats and is now most notably shared through blogs and social media like Twitter or Facebook so a digital strategy, as in the business world, has to be fully integrated with the look and feel of the new paper.

Questions to address ahead of re-launch

Is aim to make newspaper profitable, to increase circulation or to develop a completely new platform for delivering the Independent’s content? Only when this is clear can a definitive strategy be devised.

Who is the paper’s target readership? The current content is too broad trying to be all things to all men but is a readership of 18-34 too narrow? Just look at the rapid decline of readership of lads mags who were targeted at the heart of this sector.  

Can the paper ever sell meaningful amounts outside London? Does the owner want it to?

Summary of Possible Solutions

1.       Investment in genuine ground-breaking, appointment to view, investigative journalism of the kind that many fear has disappeared from the industry. The owner of The Independent, Alexander Lebedev, has made a series of positive statements regarding his commitment to investigative journalism. Surely the next step is to follow up on this commitment? The Guardian, working in partnership with Der Spiegel and the New York Times, led the world with the story of the US Army documents about the war in Afghanistan compiled by Wikileaks. This shows how content can drive readership if it is unique.  

The Independent’s heritage is of courageous and independently minded, free-spirited journalism so take this to a new level at a time when other papers are too reliant on celebrity fluff pieces. Set up a new scholarship in investigative journalism at a major university with a good track record to attract the very best of the next generation of free-thinking journalists. Back this up with an in-house special investigations unit at The Independent to work on breaking new and impactful news. Finally, set up the unit but announce it to the world with its first story rather than raising expectations.  

2.       Reflect the views of the majority of the country. The tagline below the banner on the front page is ‘ Free from political ties, free from proprietorial influence’ – this is a grand statement and a point of difference but isn’t sufficient to attract a large and loyal following, only a must good product which chimes with the views of the general population will do that.

The Independent takes pride in being free from political ties but this doesn’t mean that the paper cannot reflect the majority view of the population. It’s what The Sun’s great success of the last 30 years has been built on.  

Brits take a broadly liberal/right of centre view of life. To ape the approach taken by David Cameron as Leader of the Opposition – by targetting the issues that mattered to the majority of the country – could bring rich rewards. The Independent can do the same by targeting issues that resonate with most people. Increasingly the liberal/conservative (small l, small c) majority don’t have an ‘in-house’ newspaper reflecting their views. The Guardian is too liberal, the Telegraph too conservative while The Times seems to have lost any real backbone. The Independent could well fill tht gap in the market.

3.       Take a leaf out of the Daily Mail’s playbook. The Daily Mail is much maligned but is also fantastically successful as Sir Paul Dacre knows his readership, and so provides a product they want to pay for whether in print and on-line. The lesson: find a unique selling point for the paper.

4.       Invest in some content that is then charged for as a way to attract new readers. Most content isn’t necessary or seen as necessary by readers it is, on the whole, optional. With the rise in free content it is all too easy to go elsewhere. Create content that isn’t optional and increase the number of people purchasing a product from The Independent. Look at what the Telegraph Media Group has done and their investment in digital. Learn from their mistakes and steal their good ideas. Make it easier for people to grab and share content from The Independent. If people want to share a good story, great comment piece or insightful analysis help them to do it.  

5.       Scrap the Independent on Sunday and instead publish a lifestyle focussed weekend paper on a Saturday. With newspaper circulations falling daily papers at weekends are unlikely to last too much longer – be at the vanguard of the change rather than a ‘me too’. Save money but also create something unique.

6.       Create Independent communities and grow the brand. In the online world you can get advertisers to pay more if you can demonstrate individuals spend longer on any one website. Create communities to build affinity with the Independent brand – a place for people to go if they are independently minded.

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