Roger Alton’s task at The Independent is as simple as it is daunting. It is not about new investment, new signings or (Heaven help us) another redesign, though we’ll hear about all of those. What he has to do is nothing less than give the paper a reason for being.
The current incarnation, which is something like the tenth since launch in 1986 and was the first since then to enjoy any kind of success, is now tired to the point of exhaustion.
If Alton is to put things right, he will have to redefine the paper for its staff, readers and advertisers, and in particular he must discover for it a life after Iraq.
In doing so he will have to confront the cruel evidence of the marketplace, which is that being different does not seem to pay off.
While its rivals appear to be trying as hard as they can to be the same as each other, responding to the same demographics and the same market research in the same ways, The Independent is bravely eccentric and brings at least a small measure of diversity to the newsstands – but that has not been enough to stem its slide.
It is depressing to think how quickly the tide went out on Simon Kelner’s tabloid.
Gingerly launched as an option for readers in autumn 2003, it triumphantly elbowed aside the broadsheet edition and within a couple of months even panicked The Times into rushing out its own compact.
Slick and clever, it won shelf-loads of design awards, but style alone never sells papers. This was 2003 and Iraq had the country in its grip: the poster covers were made for such a moment, and writers such as Patrick Cockburn, Rupert Cornwell and Robert Fisk were more than capable of producing copy to back up the slogans.
It was brilliant, and it richly deserved the inverted compliment of being the only title singled out for denunciation by Tony Blair in his ‘feral beasts’speech.
Now, less than five years after Kelner’s baby was born, the covers seem strained and the stories behind them doubly so.
On the inside pages the good writers – there are still quite a few –are overused, while the news editing is often more lame than quirky. The long wait for the new editor’s arrival (his old employers held him to his notice period) has only made things worse.
The received wisdom is that if anyone can turn this around it is Alton. It may help that he has such excellent PR: his departure from The Observer was reported (in every paper bar The Guardian) in the sort of shocked terms that might greet Jeremy Paxman’s sudden retirement from Newsnight, though I never saw it written that he put The Observer into profit.
His reputation rests on the brilliance of The Guardian’s old, tabloid G2 section, which he edited, and on the energy he brought to The Observer, seeing it into the Berliner format and achieving modest circulation growth in a tight market.
Technically, as a chooser and presenter of stories, he may be among the best editors in the quality market, but The Independent will demand something new of him.
Alton’s Observer was blokey and a little vulgar, with more than a hint of the lad mag; his new readers will not want that. It came close to matching its rivals in bulk; Sir Tony O’Reilly is unlikely to bankroll that.
It was also pro-war and pro-Blair; the mere mention of either is probably still enough to send most of The Independent’s remaining loyalists into apoplexy.
Alton will not need to be reminded that when your circulation is so low, your margin for sacrificing old readers in pursuit of new ones is tiny.
So it will need to be a different Roger Alton that reshapes The Independent. At an age (60) when most journalists have given up, he must innovate like never before.
He will be helped by the bounce given by his arrival – proof to all that yet again the paper’s obituary has been published prematurely. The Roy Greenslades of this world, totting up the sales and the costs, have told us many times down the years that it was about to close.
One day, perhaps, they will be proved right, but in the meantime, like the bumble bee whose flight defies the laws of physics, The Independent remains stubbornly airborne.
This is not so odd, since national newspapers have always existed for reasons other than profit. (The real miracle – whisper it softly – is that the paper’s politics are so remarkably different from those of its deeply conservative and pro-American proprietor.)
So a renewed confidence, and a little money for hiring and promotions, will give Alton a fair wind.
Another good omen, from his Observer record, is that he does not look for the quick fix. What he needs to do, in finding the paper a political and cultural place of its own, will take time if it can be done at all.