It is unusual for a newspaper to subject itself to a redesign only 18 months after it last went through the experience. And The Independent's launch of the compact revolution in the quality sector of the national newspaper market was the most extreme new look you can offer - a dramatic reduction in size.
The reverberations continue, amplified again over the past week by the redesign and with the guarantee of much more excitement to come when The Guardian joins the revolutionary forces. That paper had a major and, at the time, controversial redesign 20 years ago, when it introduced the much imitated italic/Roman masthead and new ideas about white space. It is a tribute to its robust durability that even as it enters the final months of its life the David Hillman design looks neither tired nor old-fashioned.
That is one of the challenges of newspaper design. It must be both functional and stylish. It must reflect the character of the paper and not offend the readers. It must look lively two or three years down the line. Except that in the case of the compact Independent that would not have mattered because, as it has turned out, redesign was never far away. The editor, Simon Kelner, was nipping off to Barcelona to talk to design consultant Antoni Cases. The product of his firm's work was revealed last Tuesday when the new version appeared. The paper, said Kelner, was being given a fresh, modern look.
He also used the word "evolution" for what was happening to his newspaper. That was important. Independent readers may be a growing band of rather radical people, but I doubt they wish to be subscribers to continuous revolution.
According to Ivan Fallon, chief executive of Independent News and Media UK, owners of the Independents, daily and Sunday, the quick design turnaround was the product of the success of the compact launch in September of 2003. Remember, at the time The Independent was being sold in both broadsheet and new compact form. The broadsheet design was retained because the broadsheet was still being published; each night the production journalists were essentially shrinking the broadsheet. This was the challenge of seducing existing readers into the compact, where some familiarity of design helps to reassure.
All that worked, as we know, and The Independent soon grew its sale by around 20 per cent, stopped producing the broadsheet, and sent shock waves through the quality sector of the market. The Times followed on the compact trail. The Guardian is taking a different route, with a slightly-bigger-than-tabloid format, probably early next year.
Fallon says that since the original compact had never been designed it was time to do that. The paper was evolving a design of its own, but it needed to be underpinned. My experience is that readers in general are not into the niceties and details of newspaper design, and while it was thoughtful of Kelner to tell his readers in the launch issue of the redesign that he was using Sun, Whitney and Benton Two typefaces, I doubt that sent ripples through the readership: "Who would have thought ... Benton in The Indy!"
What readers do care about, as every editor knows from his or her postbag, is the organisation, structure and predictability of the paper. Here Kelner is daring to be bold ... or foolhardy. After more than two decades of the sectionalised broadsheet, moving progressively towards most of those sections being tabloid, Kelner, abetted by Cases and supported by Fallon, decided to damn the stream and reverse its flow. Apart from the single daily themed sections, such as Media and Motoring, the revised Independent is a one-section paper. This, I feel sure, will prove more controversial than the use of Whitney.
Although editors always claim that such decisions are supported by market research, they are just as often driven by conventional wisdom, or the desire to define this wisdom. The early letters to the paper reacting to the redesign were from readers regretting they could no longer split up the paper and share out the sections. Kelner bravely published them. Did they represent danger signals, or the inevitable resistance to change by some?
Two things about the (almost) single-section quality paper. It is not mouldbreaking for a tabloid paper to be mono-sectional. They all are. Fallon mentioned the Daily Mail, single- section Monday to Friday, and spoke approvingly of its excellence and the "flow" of its editorial pages. He should be careful. The enemies of the quality compacts argue that downsizing leads to mid-marketing. Clearly single section is the current mid-market structure. But position in the upmarket/downmarket spectrum is dictated not by structure but by the words you put in it.
Secondly, a fat single-section newspaper, with as many as 100 or so pages carrying news from home and abroad, opinion, business and sport, not to mention all the features and listings that used to be found in the second section, needs to provide plenty of clear signposting to guide the reader around the paper. Nothing frustrates more than to spend what seems like five minutes turning over the pages searching for TV times. More could be done in this area, but new designs always take a bit of time to settle down. I expect more work will be done on the back page where the panel of news digest and other key pointers seems rather slight and unconvincing.
This month's circulation figures show that the compact Times and Independent are still performing better than their rivals. March was not a good month for anybody, the two weeks of Easter never being helpful for sales. But if we look at average sales over the past six months as compared with the same period a year earlier (this figure smooths out the special factors you find in a single month) then The Independent is up 5.7 per cent and The Times up 4.2 per cent. The broadsheet Telegraph and Guardian are down 0.5 per cent and 2.5 per cent respectively.
We will see next month whether Whitney, Benton and the single section affect sales of the Independent at a time when the surges of a year ago have given way to more gradual growth. I think the main gain (and perhaps intention) will be to keep the noise levels up as we move towards the next burst of fire in compact wars, the arrival of the Guardian's take on the theme.
Other highlights from this month's circulation figures: sales of the red-tops continue to fall. The News of the World, recently voted Newspaper of the Year, is down 4.7 per cent on the six month figures. The People did worse, down 7.5 per cent, the Daily Mirror worse still, down 9.3 per cent. The Sunday Telegraph managed a rise of 3.1 per cent year on year, its first increase since November 2001. DVD promotions do help.
Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield
Clash of the titles
It might be all over bar the honeymoon, but the curse of the royal wedding has struck again. Only days after Granada announced that it was to film a drama about Charles and Camilla's romance, Whatever Love Means, it emerges that a film of the same name is already in development. Comic David Baddiel used the title for his 1999 novel about an intense relationship set against the background of the death of Diana, and the book is set to make it on to the screen in the next couple of years. Granada says it doesn't "see this as an issue". But don't bet against a change in the title before transmission.
No love lost
Meanwhile, what now for the press and the House of Windsor? Royal hacks will be hoping that the next wedding - probably that of Prince William - will be less confrontational than last weekend's nuptials between Charles and Camilla. After the Nicholas Witchell affair, the spin-doctors of St James's Palace were in less than accommodating mood. They left hacks standing outside locked doors in a downpour for 15 minutes at the briefing, then on the day itself condemned a portion of the press pack to nearly four hours standing on a guard room roof in bitter cold with not much of a view and no toilets. Neither was there any power in the press room, where royal followers frantically filed their copy or photos before their laptop batteries ran out. In the circumstances, the coverage was - unlike the journalists - surprisingly warm.
Not so Neet
Sunday Times writer Jasper Gerrard clearly doesn't read his own newspaper. Appearing on the Today programme last week, he started to wax lyrical about "Neets" a new term for the underclass popularised by the ST. Asked, however, to explain to listeners what the term meant, Gerrard floundered before finally admitting that he did not know. A furious editor, John Witherow, demanded a transcript, and insiders say that Gerrard is lucky he is not taking a closer look at the world of the Neet - Not in Employment, Education or Training.
Uptight and personal
Sacked twice from the Daily Telegraph in the past year, gossip writer Michael Kallenbach did not take long to reappear. He has been made number two on The Sun's new diary, "The Whip". Kallenbach is widely regarded as an easygoing fellow, but he was apparently anything but relaxed last week when he saw a leaked copy of the personal assessment of his work submitted to Daily Telegraph personnel managers by his former department head, Celia Walden. Lawyers are now being consulted.
Webb of intrigue
Andrew Lloyd Webber was once reported to have said that he would quit Britain if Labour gained power in 1997; so it is probably no surprise that he would allow one of his songs to be used in a cinema advert for the Tories. Preying on the feeling that Blair's smile is a turn-off, the Conservatives are making use of the Lloyd Webber composition "Take That Look off Your Face" from the musical Tell Me On a Sunday.
Quite what the artist who performs the song thinks is another matter. "I have no politics, I'm a singer," says Marti Webb mysteriously.
Where are you, John?
A flyer from the New Statesman advertises its star writers - including John Pilger, Lindsey Hilsum, Amanda Platell and Darcus Howe. Conspicuous by his absence, however, is the magazine's prominent political editor, John Kampfner. What could he possibly have done wrong?Reuse content