'Farewell To The Flesh': A Digital-Only Future for The Independent newspaper?

This week’s takeover of ailing UK newspaper The Independent by Russian oligarch (and ex-KGB man) Alexander Lebedev has certainly got tongues wagging. The parlous state of the newspaper was certainly made all too clear when it was announced that it had been sold to Lebedev for a mere £1.00 (and a £9.5 million ‘Golden Goodbye’ from former owners Independent News & Media, in exchange for taking the paper’s liabilities off its hands).

So what next for the paper? Rumours that it will be given away free like Lebedev’s other newspaper, The London Evening Standard, continue, despite its new owner apparently assuring Prime Minister Gordon Brown that it won’t be.

Yet what will happen? Certainly Lebedev will invest a considerable amount of money in the paper, not least because his media properties back home in Russia have always had both his wallet and his backing to rely on, though presumably avoiding any conflict with him. Yet whether this will translate into a viable – let alone profitable – newspaper remains to be seen.

As a broadsheet (despite being tabloid-sized since 2003), The Independent sells only 183,547 copies a day, its Sunday edition a mere 155,661. Compare this to its closest rival, given their shared centre left outlooks, The Guardian, with 284,514 a day, or the right wing ‘qualities’ – The Times and The Telegraph – with 505,062 and 685,177 respectively. It is perhaps with good reason that The Sun’s* notorious ex-editor Kelvin McKenzie described this sector as the ‘unpopular press’ – certainly even The Times makes a yearly loss, whilst The Guardian continues to haemorrage money.

It may simply be the case that there are too many titles in an already over-crowded and undervalued sector of the press. A cynical observer may at this point argues that Lebedev’s actions are those of a billionaire oligarch who has just bought an expensive toy, perhaps evidenced by his son, Evgeny, being placed in charge of the operation. Yet this misses one important point – quality journalism costs money and may in fact be economically nonviable in today’s climate. Outside of rich benefactors and public bodies, how else is it to be funded?

This brings us to the online angle. One possibility Lebedev could pursue is to simply close the newspaper’s print arm altogether and focus on its online version, much as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Christian Scientist Monitor have already done. This does however still pose problems. Apart from the difficulties of making a profit from advertising alone, the centre left web news market has arguably already been colonised, by The Guardian whose site attracts 20,499,858 unique visitors a month versus Independent.co.uk’s paltry 7,215,928. The TV licence-funded BBC News Online also poses a considerable obstacle – not least with its 350 million page impressions a month. It has better resources, an internationally renowned brand and, some critics argue, a left-wing bias that competes with the Independent’s own similar editorial line. What niche can an online-only Independent occupy?

One suggestion comes from an unlikely source. Libertarian politics blogger Paul Staines, also known as ‘Guido Fawkes’, has always been scathing at what he refers to as ‘The Dead Tree Press’. Yet he also seems to have an attachment to The Independent – going so far as to suggest the paper should go completely digital and become moderate conservative, but also embrace technology the other newspapers have so far not explored – namely an application that allows it to be read by iPhone subscribers, an option Staines sees as a possible financially viable future for print media. Though, perhaps simply by dropping out of print altogether, The Independent could both save a small fortune and provide some room for the other broadsheets to expand into.

If not, then there is the possibility that The Independent may simply fade away, as other UK newspapers such as The Daily Sketch and The Sunday Correspondent** have done. A sometimes innovative newspaper’s final legacy may be that it is the first major UK casualty of the post-print age.

* The Sun’s present circulation is 2,972,763 – almost five times as much as The Telegraph, which is the UK’s most popular broadsheet.

** This publication closed down in 1990 with a circulation of 149,241 – dangerously close to The Independent’s present circulation.

About Alexander Hay

See my full profile on: http://independent.academia.edu/AlexanderHay


  1. good topic ! thank you so so so much