i targets paid-for sale of 300,000 and predicts print circulation growth for the 'foreseeable future'

i front page CROPPED

The death of the Independent in print brought a boost in sales across most of the national dailies. But taking by far the largest slice of the pie was former sister title the i, now in the hands of Johnston Press.

Overall the concise daily posted a month on month growth of more than 5 per cent (including extra bulks), according to April’s ABC audit figures, and an overall rise of nearly 14,500 with a total circulation figure of 284,434 copies.

That rise is the “best part of 33-34 per cent of the last Independent news trade circulation number”, Richard Thomson, marketing operations and content sales director of Johnston Press, tells Press Gazette.

Not only is it a “massive success” in his eyes, it was also a surprise.

Expectations were for a rise of four or five thousand extra sales month on month out of the Independent closing, he says, claiming the actual figure is “testament to a lot of hard work from a lot of people” but also down to the fact that JP had “optimised the hell out of the opportunity [presented by the Independent closing]”.

He explains: “As part of the deal that we struck with [Independent owners] ESI media we were able to run a full page ad’ in the Independent for the last five days of its publishing promoting i. So we were able to talk directly to Independent readers.

“Obviously at that point they knew the Independent was closing and they were of a mindset to start thinking about where their print loyalty would lie thereafter.”

He reveals that JP was also able to communicate directly with the Independent’s six thousand subscribers as part of the purchase deal.

“We wrote to them directly promoting i encouraging them to trial i and that’s worked very well,” he says. “And then if you roll back the clock 20 odd years when Today closed, the Daily Mail spoke directly to Today readers off the front page for the first week, effectively welcoming Today readers using the Today masthead.

“Oly [Duff, i’s editor] did exactly the same thing for us with i and for the first fortnight of i under Johnston press ownership we welcomed Independent readers on page one very prominently.”

Earlier this month the i re-launched in Northern Ireland, having pulled out of the area some years back.

He says there are also plans to explore “the depths in which we editionalise i” in Scotland, where JP has a strong existing infrastructure, and that the publisher will be looking at improving access to i outside the UK.

“We’re working hard on making sure the quality of our availability is right, because obviously our title is only five years old,” says Thomson. “Awareness is probably not as high as you perhaps might think.”

It’s all another step towards the goal of reaching a total circulation of 300,000 copies, which Thomson says is his ideal figure for the paper.

“We’re so close to 300,000, I would be lying if I didn’t say that’s where we would like to be – around that number,” he says.

And he says he wants to do this through paid-for sales, rather than bulks which currently comprise 69,409 out of the i’s 284,343 total.

You can see what The Times have done. Year on year they’re about 40,000 copies up on bulks – all in airports and airlines.

“It’s an incredibly costly game and I’m not convinced that you get the repayment back in the form of commercial advertising revenue. We want to do it organically through news trade and traditional sales, not through bulks.

“I don’t think we’re going to grow month on month every month for ever more, but I do think that for the foreseeable future we should be registering year on year growth.”

There are currently no plans to hike the price on i, retailing at 40p in England, although “inevitably at some point we will look at it,” says Thomson.

And among its 51-strong editorial team, including 34 journalists from the Independent and/or outside papers and 17 existing i journalists, Press Gazette is assured there is “absolutely no talk of redundancies across the i team whatsoever”.

He said that i remains in profit: “We’re in a very good shape from a circulation revenue point of view and that revenue is 60 odd per cent of the overall revenue of the business.”

Last month also saw the launch of inews.co.uk, i’s online offering, which he said attracted 638,000 unique monthly users in its first month. While the focus may be on growing print sales, the i is officially digital-first – he said.

According to Thomson, JP is looking at a “dozen or so” titles for a paywall trial that may take place later this year, but he says going behind a paywall is not an option for inews.co.uk.

He said: “We’ve got a great website out the door, good traffic numbers, a phenomenal print performance. If you want evidence that you can launch a website and not damage print because the two things are appealing to two different audiences this could be it. Time will tell.”

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