The best advice I got came from Andreas Whittam Smith: "It's important to follow your instincts, however idiosyncratic. If you find something interesting, the chances are your readers will."
I'd met The Independent's founder 12 years previously, when he offered me a job on the daily paper he was launching with Matthew Symonds and Stephen Glover. It must have been premature middle age, but I'd joined Max Hastings, at The Daily Telegraph, instead. Now Whittam Smith was a columnist and member of the editorial board, and The Independent and its Sunday sibling, perilously close to disaster on the financial rocks of the 1990s, had limped into the safe harbour of Tony O'Reilly's Independent group.
I'd been deputy editor at The Sunday Telegraph. Simon Kelner, recently installed as group editor-in-chief at the Indy, had happened on me after Roger Alton, then at The Guardian, turned down his invitation to edit the Sindy. The post was mine when, on meeting Kelner for the first time, I said how much I enjoyed Alan Watkins' column.
If the courtship had been longer, we might have discovered that shared admiration for Watkins was a necessary but not sufficient basis for marriage. But the deal was done in minutes. Fresh from the sibling rivalries of the Telegraph titles, I was eager that the Sindy should be seen as the more gifted child in the Independent family. This was not a wise approach in a company that regarded such mischief as destructive rather than creative.
So what, to take up Whittam Smith's advice, were our instincts? "Our" because, as was explained to me, The Independent on Sunday believed in a collegiate approach, with vigorous exchange of ideas at conference. Our strength lay not in news but in provocatively intelligent comment, features, arts and books. Business, outsourced to the Bloomberg news agency as a cost-cutting measure, came back in-house, but I failed to redevelop the pages as I should. Sport, under the tireless Neil Morton, was excellent.
Naturally, we redesigned the paper, a move that traditionally excites journalists more than readers, though many of the latter kindly approved. Keith Howitt, lynchpin of production since the first edition in 1990, is probably the only man who has kept score of editors and their redesigns.
We couldn't throw money at contributors – Jeremy Paxman declined to write on the basis that the sum offered represented a tip rather than a fee – but ideas were free. On that basis, we rotated guest writers with local talent, benefiting from a good will towards the paper that continues to this day.
I hope the paper was unpredictable and entertaining, taking on its better-funded rivals with more interesting pieces, better written. The Observer was going in the opposite direction, and week by week we persuaded readers to come across. But then Roger Alton took that chair and, with money to spend, introduced the intelligent, non-hectoring approach that we had made our USP. Our core readers kept faith, but the flow of converts dried up.
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