TWENTY YEARS ago, 29-year-old Simon Kelner packed in a job as assistant sports editor of The Observer to join the fledgling Independent as deputy sports editor to Charlie Burgess. Jumping ship was not a tough call to make — not least because it saw his salary rise from £16,500 to £28,000.
“It was thrilling,” Kelner says. “However long I stay in journalism it will probably remain the most exciting time of my career. We were in the right place at the right time.”
Of the past 20 years, Kelner has spent 13 at The Independent — the past eight as it longest-serving editor. When he took the chair — after most recently having been editor of The Mail on Sunday’s Night and Day section — The Independent had the air, many thought, of a sinking ship.
“I remember the morning of 4 May 1998, when Ian Birrel, Tristan Davies and I had a coffee at Café Brera in Canary Wharf. We felt rather daunted. We walked into the office, at that time in total turmoil with editors coming and going, the ownership changing, and staff feeling insecure and demoralised.
"I remember saying good morning to the editor’s secretary. Her reply was: ‘What’s good about it?’ That was the mood.”
Kelner came in two months after Tony O’Reilly’s Independent News and Media paid £30 million for the 54 per cent of The Independent it didn’t already own.
Since then, the company has spent a lot more on The Independent, and more recently The Independent on Sunday, as both have failed to move into profit. Kelner believes IN&M’s greatest contribution has been removing the question mark from the papers’ future.
“The only question I was asked at the time was: ‘How much longer has The Independent got?’ It was difficult to recruit, there had been a huge turnover of staff, and the paper was seen as an also-ran, a plucky contender on its way to oblivion. Morale was probably at an all-time low.
“Although I had a history at The Independent, people thought I was a strange appointment, so I had to win their confidence, a very slow process which, as any editor will tell you, continues every day. You can tell the way the world has changed, because in 1998 Stephen Glover wrote a very critical piece in The Spectator saying this was the appointment that proved The Independent was on its way out.
"Eight years later he’s working for me, and I’m very happy to have him. The most significant shift during my editorship is that hardly anyone questions the survival of The Independent any more.”
Some would argue that the loss-making Independent will only truly be out of danger if it can reach break-even — a position the current advertising recession cannot be bringing any closer.
Kelner says: “Our safe harbour is to break even — if you’d asked me, what would be the biggest achievement of my career, it would be getting this paper to break even. It’s not pie in the sky, I’m determined that before my days as editor are over, I’ll achieve it.” Kelner is unapologetic that he is closely involved in the commercial side of the business and believes this is the future for editors.
“The days when an editor would go for a claretsoaked lunch with a cabinet minister, come back to the office, sign off the leaders and then head to the Garrick for a game of snooker with a high-court judge, are over.
"Myself and all my counterparts on other papers have to get deeply involved in all aspects of the business — promotions, marketing, finance, advertising, the lot.” But why does Tony O’Reilly keep signing the cheques?
“The Independent is an integral part of the group. It’s a great editorial resource and a big footprint in the world’s most competitive newspaper industry — strategically it’s very important. Apart from anything else, he loves the paper — he doesn’t agree with it by and large, but he admires its independence.”
When asked what his proudest achievement is editorially, Kelner mentions his opposition to the war in Iraq, which he says The Independent was voicing “long before it became fashionable” and which he hopes will be remembered in the same way that The Observer is for opposing Suez in 1956.
Kelner unsurprisingly also singles out the launch of a tabloid edition inside the M25 in September 2003 and the subsequent wholesale switch to “compact” format.
“It’s very heartening that 58 papers around the world have copied what we did, including The Times, which cast aside centuries of broadsheet publishing to copy us very shortly afterwards.
"What we’ve done in the last few years is re-establish The Independent’s reputation for innovation — from the compact itself, to the front pages, to our promotional innovations such as our language courses and our posters, which have since been replicated by everyone else. I also think we are in the process of establishing a new form of journalism — the viewspaper.”
Doesn’t the viewspaper model go against the original staunchly “independent” founding editorial principles of the paper?
“What we do is faithful to the traditions of The Independent, we’re an independent voice that’s not contaminated by proprietorial interference. It doesn’t have any political allegiance, and in that sense it’s faithful to the founding principles. Its nature has changed, sure. A newspaper is a living organism, it has to change with the times.
“People know our view of the world… when you’re the fourth paper in a market of four, you probably have to shout a bit louder — and for some people, we are a bit shrill. We are certainly more likely to wear our heart on our sleeve than in 1986, but I’m pretty unapologetic about that.”
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has questioned whether newspapers will survive another generation.
But Kelner — who has devoted minimal resources to the internet — has a less gloomy prognosis.
“There is nothing to suggest The Independent won’t be around in 20 years, but things are moving so quickly in the media. Who would have said three years ago that The Times would be a tabloid, or The Guardian would spend £100 million on new presses and changing shape? The industry has changed so radically that it is very difficult to look 20 years down the line.
“But I do think newspapers have to change their offering. One of the great things is that papers have proved very resilient — and what you see with the growth of the frees is that the appetite for a printed product is still there from readers and advertisers.
What paid-for papers have to do is provide the extra value and quality that frees can’t, and think more radically about how a newspaper fits into the life of a modern media consumer.
“What the last three years have shown is that if you are prepared to innovate as we have done, as The Times and The Guardian have done, there are rewards. What the success of the compact showed is if you can produce a product that is more suited to the way people live, they are prepared to pay for it.”
The future of The Independent, Kelner says, is likely to involve extending the influence of its trademark concept front pages to the rest of the paper.
“I think over the next few years you will see The Independent develop in a very interesting way. One of the slightly unsatisfactory things is that while the front page is often radical in design and editorial content and holds the promise of a very different newspaper, inside we are still pretty traditional. I’d like to push a lot further on that.”
Next year Kelner turns 50 and in 18 months will have been in the job for a decade. Is there any danger of him running out of steam?
“I feel incredibly privileged to be editor of this newspaper — there’s no other paper in Britain that I’d like to edit and there’s certainly no other proprietor that I’d rather work for ahead of Tony O’Reilly. In these eight years we’ve reinvented ourselves a few times. This will probably disappoint a lot of people on the staff — but I feel as energetic today as I felt in 1998.
“I sometimes ask myself how much longer can I do it for, but as long as Tony O’Reilly’s prepared to have me, I’m happy to be here. This paper’s in my blood.
I’m very proud of what it stands for, what we have achieved and of the staff we’ve got. And I believe in what we are doing.”