It is difficult to believe that 12 months ago all upmarket newspapers were broadsheet, The Independent seemed locked in terminal decline and a compact was something face powder came in.
What a difference a year makes.
“Quality” papers now come in an increasing variety of sizes, The Independent’s circulation has surged from 218,567 to 262,588, and their marketing team has got everyone calling tabloid newspapers, compacts.
It was September 30, last year, that The Independent surprised the newspaper industry with an innovative new tactic in the circulation war – offering readers inside the M25 the choice of a tabloid or broadsheet version of the same newspaper. The mini-Indy proved so popular that the paper was able to offer the tabloid version nationwide and then in May, kill-off the broadsheet altogether.
For editor-in-chief Simon Kelner the compact experiment has exceeded the “wildest dreams” of its creators.
When asked why it has done so well he says: “We had a pretty good newspaper before we went compact.
Our opposition to the war in Iraq had drawn attention to ourselves. I think our columnists were writing well and we had a real point of difference.
“When we went compact the format change enabled us to draw in a new audience. Then you get locked into a virtuous circle where the paper is gaining circulation, people are saying nice things about it, people who work for the paper become more confident, the paper itself becomes more confident and more people start buying it as a result.
“I think the paper is now much better than it was a year ago.”
If the tabloid hadn’t been a success, Kelner admits: “I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today”.
But as it is, his seat at Independent House, two stops up the Docklands Light Railway from Canary Wharf, is probably as safe as any national editor’s chair.
Kelner, 46, downplays the extent to which the tabloid launch was a life or death gamble for The Independent – a paper which became a victim of the broadsheet price war after briefly hitting 390,000 and overtaking The Times in 1992.
He says: “People have said to me it was a very brave step you took. I don’t think anyone ever saw it like that. It was brave in terms of the investment it took from the company, but in pure marketing and journalistic terms the broadsheet was still there and what we produced was a different-size version of the broadsheet for people who wanted it.
“What we didn’t foresee, of course, was that the compact paper would have a desireability way beyond those target areas – the commuter areas. It became clear very soon that even in areas where there was no commuter traffic they liked the modernity and freshness of the compact.”
So what about the future? The Independent is now within 100,000 sales of The Guardian and this Monday Kelner threw down the gauntlet by launching a 24-page media section in direct competition with the wellestablished Media Guardian supplement.
He says more new sections, features and writers are in the pipeline “because in this business you don’t stand still, you either go forward or you fall back”.
Kelner bristles at the suggestion from The Guardian in last week’s Press Gazette that he will struggle to sustain a weekly 24 pages “on what is a fairly small industry”.
He says: “To call the media industry a small industry either in terms of the numbers of people who work for it, or its place in British society, is nonsensical.
We may have an over-blown sense of our own importance but the media is a very big and growing factor in people’s lives. It’s an important industry and it’s one that our readers are very interested in.”
The Independent has undoubtedly had a good year – but can it be a successful newspaper when it is still losing millions for parent company Independent News & Media? Kelner says: “We’ve won a host of awards, no-one’s put on circulation like we have, and we’ve set in train a revolution that has reverberated around the world in all sorts of places where papers have gone compact.
“It’s true, we don’t make profits – but the business has been revived.
We’ve added an enormous amount of value to the business by being successful and we now have a model to make money. If we were going to take advantage of an upturn in the advertising market it was absolutely essential that we had an upturn in our circulation.
So we are very well positioned to move into the only safe harbour that any business has, which is break even and then profit.”
MIRROR TOOK SOUNDINGS AFTER PIERS’ FALL
There were rumours that Kelner was offered the Daily Mirror job after Piers Morgan’s sacking in May. Were they true? He said: “I received an approach, I was never offered the job but I did get an approach.”
Would he have taken it if it had been offered? “I couldn’t be happier where I am. I work for a brilliant proprietor who is tremendously supportive and believes totally in the creed of non-intervention and I also work with fantastic people.
“We’ve got a massive challenge ahead of us now. We are in the foothills of the ascent we have to make – so I’d like to be here when we plant the flag on the summit.
Even before the tabloid switch the Independent was making waves with innovative front pages which used the whole space for a feature style treatment of a single story or issue.
Despite the suggestion from the Independent’s own press columnist, Bill Hagerty, in Monday’s paper that the tactic is over-used, Kelner says more of these distinctive front pages are planned.
“I’ve been criticised for doing what we call concept front pages too often. We do have to be careful but, by and large, every time we do one we have a spike in circulation. Given that my job is to sell copies of the newspaper, I’ll listen to the readers rather than the media pundits.”