Simon Kelner became Independent editor two months after Tony O’Reilly’s Independent News and Media paid £30m for the 54 per cent stake of the papers which it didn’t already own.
Since then the pair appear to have been particularly close – as signalled by the fact O’Reilly was the first person Kelner phoned when he picked up the newspaper of the year prize at the British Press Awards in 2004.
So with hindsight it is perhaps not surprising that Kelner is the man O’Reilly has chosen to succeed Terry Grote as managing director of The Independent titles.
It is a rare promotion for an editor. National newspaper MDs nearly always come up through the commercial side of the business.
Kelner was at The Independent from the start. At 29 he left his job as assistant sports editor of The Observer to become deputy sports editor of the newly launched Independent in 1986.
Of the past 22 years, Kelner has spent 15 at The Independent – the past 10 as its longest-serving editor. When he took over – after having been editor of The Mail on Sunday’s Night and Day section – The Independent had the air, many thought, of a sinking ship.
He said in 2006: ‘The most significant shift during my editorship is that hardly anyone questions the survival of The Independent any more.”
But question marks over its future have returned in recent months as Irish telecoms billionaire Denis O’Brien has built up a 21.7 per cent stake in parent company Independent News and Media. This compares with chief executive O’Reilly’s 27.46 per cent holding.
O’Brien has said he would sell the loss-making Independent titles if he took control.
Kelner has said that The Independent’s ‘only safe harbour’is for it to finally move into profit, a goal that has eluded IN&M so far. So this will be his biggest challenge as MD.
Kelner sees the launch of a tabloid edition inside the M25 in September 2003 – and the subsequent move to become fully compact in April 2004 – as his biggest achievement. It is a tactic which was copied by The Times just seven weeks later – and also been mimicked, he says, by more than 58 newspapers around the world.
His other innovation was the creation of the ‘viewspaper’model – with the frequent use of campaigning poster front pages. And he has cited The Independent’s opposition to the Iraq war as one his proudest achievements, which he hopes will go down in history like The Observer’s famous opposition to Suez in 1958.
In bald ABC terms, Kelner has improved The Independent’s market share versus The Guardian. In 1998, The Indy sold 220,000 copies versus around 400,000 for The Guardian – last month the gap stood at 246,584 versus 358,142.
But closer analysis of the data shows Alton still has a mountain to climb if he is to catch the circulation of his former title.