Editor of the i newspaper Oliver Duff doesn’t subscribe to the “sunset of the industry” narrative as he puts it – whether that’s for the news industry, Fleet Street or even print journalism in general
At 30 he is the UK’s youngest national newspaper editor (he’s six days younger than The Independent’s Amol Rajan) so he needs to be optimistic to see out his career in our tumultuous industry.
The Independent’s cut-price (20p) stablemate was launched in October 2010 and since then has been the only national newspaper to consistently increase its print sale.
In October it was up 4.1 per cent year on year to 298,768 making it, not for the first month, the only UK national newspaper to increase sales.
While sales of The Independent continue to drop (total circulation fell 14 per cent to just over 70,000 last month) Duff points out that the combined print circulation of i and The Independent is now higher than it has been since October 1995.
He says that the launch of i has had a “negligible” impact on Independent sales and that many i readers are people who either stopped reading newspapers or else never started.
“My best letters are when I hear from someone who is 25 or 55 who says they have never bought a newspaper before and are now reading i.
“We have former readers of every other national newspaper. We count ourselves in the quality newspaper market and we now make up 20 per cent of that market.”
It has not all been plain sailing for The Independent titles since the Lebedev take-over of March 2010, with more than 30 editorial redundancies over the last year. But around 20 new digital journalism jobs have been created in recent months with 50 more recruited for the new London TV station, London Live, which sits in the Independent/Evening Standard newsroom and is due to launch in April next year.
Duff says the mood is upbeat in the growing Lebedev media empire: “It is a pretty incredible turnaround for The Independent looking at three or four years ago.
“The atmosphere here is of a media company that’s going places. It feels like a business with prospects.”
What does the success of i say about the much talked about death of print journalism?
“People like the printed product. We need to stop beating ourselves up, the printed word is going to be around for years.
“About eight million people buy a national newspaper every single morning which is extraordinary when you think how many people are getting their news for free online.
“And you can add to that the fact that Fleet Street has a digital audience numbering hundreds of millions around the English speaking world.”
Unusually nowadays, Duff didn’t study journalism but instead learned his trade through on-the-job experience. He worked on the student newspaper at Cambridge (where he studied politics) he then did work experience at The Guardian, Telegraph and The Observer in 2002 before bagging a staff job as an admin assistant on the Independent newsdesk “writing odds and sods after hours” before moving up to a staff reporter role.
His big break at the paper came when Simon Kelner offered him the job of editing the Pandora diary column – a position which he had mixed feelings about taking because “I couldn’t give a toss about celebrities”.
But over two years in the role he said he found it be a good training ground where his “sense of mischief, lobbing paper planes from the back of the classroom” held him in good stead.
He moved up to work as deputy news editor shortly before Roger Alton replaced Simon Kelner as Independent editor in April 2008. In 2010 Duff moved up to news editor and after a year in that job he was made executive editor under Chris Blackhurst (who became Independent editor in July 2011).
Duff was made editor of i at the same time that Amol Rajan became editor of The Independent, in June this year.
He sees his main challenge as increasingly giving i its own character, stepping out from the shadow (my words not his) of its older sister title.
He says: “The i started as a production job, taking what appeared in The Independent and crunching it down to a smaller format. What [previous editor] Stefano Hadfield did was he started to give it much more of a distinct identity of its own.”
Duff says in future the i will carry more of its own scoops, investigations and campaigns.
It’s a tall order with a dedicated i editorial team of six production staff. But Duff said a lot of work has gone into making sure that all 190 Independent/i journalists contribute to i.
He says: “Each desk has designated people who work for i and all journalists do dedicated stuff for i as well as The Independent.”
The early strong sales growth of i has levelled out in recent months at around the 300,000 mark, but Duff says there is still good potential to grow further – particularly on Saturdays, which are weaker for i than Monday to Friday.
“Which newspapers are our rivals? I’d say all of them. I get hundreds of emails a day from readers. I hear from readers of The Sun who say they don’t like Page Three, or The Express who say they have been buying it for years and just discovered i.
“I heard from someone who was 83 and had been buying the Telegraph for decades. They said they had just switched to the i because they wanted straight news and it was great value.
“There’s potential there to build on all of that.”
The i has a further 5,000 iPad subscribers paying £45 a year.
Perhaps surprisingly for a title which costs just 20p, Duff says i makes a profit.
“On paper the i makes a lot of money. We do that with a lot of journalism that comes from the Independent business.” He said that the Independent titles were looking to halve their combined losses to around £8m next year.
Perhaps uniquely for a UK national newspaper editor, Duff remains bullish about the prospects for future paid-for print circulation growth.
“If you look at the success of i going from zero to 300,000 in three years, there’s a lot more potential.”