Just over a year ago speculation was rife that the Lebedevs were going to do something big with their newest newspaper acquisition, The Independent.
Many believed it would follow its sister title, the Evening Standard, and go free. No-one anticipated that their response to the biggest newspaper downturn since the Second World War would be to launch yet another title on to the UK’s crowded newsstands.
Yet a year on and The Independent’s digested 20p stablemate i appears to have found its niche with a circulation which has levelled out at around 190,000 copies a day.
Executive editor Stefano Hatfield, who joined the project shortly after launch, says: ‘I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Certainly a year ago we’d have been happy to say we’re in the 180s.”
Hatfield joined The Independent from News International where he was director of ventures at The Times. Before that he was editor of NI’s now defunct freesheet thelondonpaper from launch in August 2006 until its closure in September 2009.
He admits that i had a difficult start, launching into one of the coldest winters in recent memory and with ‘very little marketing support”. All of which raised the question for Hatfield: ‘Why is anyone going to go out and get a newspaper they’ve never even heard of and don’t really understand.”
IPL refused to comment on circulation figures until sales were first audited by ABC in January 2011, but that did little to quell speculation and in November industry sources put circulation at less than 100,000 after a debut of around 200,000.
The first official ABC figure in January was 133,472, a figure which has risen steadily since to the current paid-for level in recent months of around 190,000 a day.
Sales were given a kick in January by a TV advertising campaign fronted by comedian Dom Joly and socialite Jemima Khan, backed up by radio sponsorship spots. ‘The marketing campaign in the New Year was very important to us,’says Hatfield.
‘It wasn’t huge by the standards of News International or Associated but I think it was pretty well targeted and it really transformed our numbers, because the issue with i primarily is about awareness, there’s still a remarkable number of people who don’t know about it.”
According to Hatfield, growth since then has largely been through ‘word of mouth”. ‘We’ve had no promotion since a second burst in May, literally zero promotion, and we’ve grown through the summer,’he says.
‘That’s fantastic. We topped 200,000 a couple of days with the riots.’While 90 per cent of the i’s content comes from its big-sister title, repurposing it and editing it into a radically different format is still a big job.
The Independent, with around 200 journalists, already has barely one-third the resources of rival titles such as The Times and The Guardian.
Asked how he and his team does it, Hatfield says: ‘To be honest it’s easier to do than it is to explain. It is generally producing two papers each day out of largely the same content bank. It requires a lot of discipline.
‘We sit in at the same editorial conferences and then people are assigned on a rolling basis every day and then they go off and cut and fit a newslist for i in keeping with what they think I want and what the i brand is, and other people go off and do it for the Indy.
‘We work on that simultaneously throughout the afternoon and evening but obviously the Indy has a first edition that we don’t have, early in the evening. And we need that first edition to be off on time, otherwise it puts a lot of pressure on the production process later in the evening.
‘So what we have is some subs who come in and do Indy shifts, some subs who come in and do Indy/ i shifts and some subs who come in and do i-only shifts staggered through the day, and the same happens with designers.”
How many dedicated staff does i have? ‘There’s a few of us, there’s just a few of us. Obviously me, I mean technically I work for The Independent though I work for the i pretty exclusively every day, and a couple of other people, and then everybody else is part of an amorphous thing – they work a certain amount of time, they either change by day or by day-part.
‘Sometimes a news editor or a foreign editor works on i for the whole day or sometimes they will work on i or The Independent for part of the day then change over.”
While the i follows a different news agenda from The Independent and often opts for a more tabloid treatment on its front page, Hatfield says that it remains a ‘serious’newspaper.
‘The Independent for the first half of i’s life was quite a quirky front page, still quite thematic and i is set up to be absolutely mainstream news. So the idea of i is a 20p alternative to the broadsheet titles.
It’s very simple, you can’t get more simple than that, but in the mainstream news agenda. ‘The Indy, in the first six months, nine months probably, until Chris Blackhurst came along was quirkier, and then The Indy itself has gone much toward the mainstream.
Although for instance today [24 October] we’re in very different places, they’ve gone for the private policing story and we’ve got the Tory revolt over the EU.
‘I think it’s our job to stay within that mainstream news agenda, albeit within a serious news agenda so we’re not writing about that Only Way is Essex woman being beaten up on our front page.”
Uniquely among the national press, the i does not wear its heart on its sleeve by publishing a leader column. Instead it runs a letter from the editor on page three, penned each day by Hatfield under a picture byline, which he says is definitely not a ‘leader’.
‘One of the attractions of i is, why would you launch a newspaper that’s just like every other newspaper in a declining marketplace? So we’re trying to be different. One of the differences was that we’re going to be less didactic than maybe some newspapers.
‘The Independent is a newspaper in the liberal tradition but gives voice to people of the Right and of the Left and we try very much to balance out those voices over the course of a week.
But we will never tell people how to vote in i, whatever The Indy does. ‘I think of it as a daily chat with the readers about stuff, either stuff that’s going on in the paper or stuff that is inspired by something in the news agenda.
Really the idea is that the newspaper is much more inclusive of its readers and part of the idea of that is that I have a chat with them every day and I get an incredible response to that in the i letters inbox and on Facebook.”
Looking ahead, Hatfield says that i will maintain its politically neutral stance. On the issue of cover price, he says: ‘It’s only a year old so I don’t see the free thing as an issue.
‘If they [the Lebedevs] had wanted to launch a free they could have launched a free. The 20p price point, it’s up to us to sell as many copies as we can to make it viable,’he adds.
‘The other thing is we’re giving the combined Independent a real advertising sales story, so we’re bringing in a lot more ad revenue than has historically been the case, and that’s a massive part of the revenue mix, you can’t ignore that.
‘There’s no plans [to change the cover price], it seems to work. And we’d have taken the circulation a year ago very happily.”
According to Hatfield the majority of i’s readership, going on the ‘cumulative weight of anecdotal evidence”, are lapsed broadsheet readers, but he believes it has also attracted a significant number of younger readers who ‘want a serious news agenda but don’t want to be overwhelmed with it, and also don’t want to be preached at”.
He is confident that i has found its niche, and believes that fear of cannibalising their own full-price sales will prevent any of the other ‘qualities’ attempting a similar launch.
Hatfield says that what drives its proprietors, Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny (the chairman of IPL), is a ‘genuine love of print, a belief in press freedom and the power of the media to do things for good”.
‘They’re very proud of The Independent brand,’he continues. ‘Obviously the i is only a year old but they’ve been incredibly supportive and you’ve got to admire them for being so.”