A 25-year adventure: The Independent celebrates a quarter of a century

Today, The Independent celebrates a remarkable anniversary. It is a quarter of a century since our first edition was launched into a sceptical world. Some 7,796 issues later, we remain – despite numerous trials and transformations – in vibrant good health. Founding editor Andreas Whittam Smith reflects on a journalistic dream that became a reality

Andreas Whittam Smith
Friday 07 October 2011 00:00 BST

On its 25th birthday, The Independent faces the future with just the same mixture of optimism and understandable worries as when the first issue appeared. It's been like that all the way along. But when the newspaper was launched, our apprehension was of a special kind. For starting a new business is an act of faith as well as calculation. The outcome of what I call the entrepreneurial leap is simply unknowable. It doesn't matter how much research you have done, how excellent the team is that has been assembled, how many trial runs you have conducted: you still have no idea where you will land.

We sold more than 700,000 copies on the first day. We had had the benefit of a brilliant advertising campaign devised by Saatchi's. And many people were curious to see what a new quality newspaper would be like. That much was predictable. But what would be the circulation on the second day? Where would we be in a month? At what level would we settle down? When would that be? Nobody could say. In the event, we found a base from which we could build shortly before Christmas 1986. After that, everything was a bit more predictable.

Today, in every newspaper in the world, worry about the future has become the norm. The entire industry is asking itself whether its way of doing business is sustainable. For there are two adverse trends running in parallel. One is competition from a variety of new media that eats into the demand for newspapers and provides alternative ways of selling advertising. The other is a recession that is savagely hitting revenues. This is a global phenomenon. Go and see the documentary film about The New York Times that has just reached British cinemas, Page One: Inside The New York Times. The analysis and the worried discussions about the future would have been the same had the subject been The Independent, The Guardian or The Daily Telegraph.

While the outlook is, therefore, widely characterised as grim, I don't spend much of my time thinking in such doom-laden terms. Neither do The Independent's editorial and management teams. Rather, I see the prospects for newspapers as undoubtedly testing – presenting, as they do, a series of tough problems that have to be solved – but not as hopeless. The usual objections to risk-taking are muted in these circumstances. Everybody can see that innovation, if it can be summoned up, will get newspapers through the current crisis.

So it is particularly cheering that The Independent has just pulled off an extraordinary feat of fresh thinking with the successful launch of i, which has built up a healthy circulation of 190,000 copies a day. What is it, then, this i, this daily briefing that is drawn exclusively from The Independent's reports, features and opinion pieces? It is what you would least expect in this burgeoning digital age: it is a 56-page, tabloid-sized newspaper sold at 20p. It is not a website, it is not a blog, it is not a web-based aggregation of news reports filched from traditional newspapers, it is not a new species of social media. And it is not free. Essentially, it is a clever repackaging of what newspapers do. And what they do, the gathering and sifting of news, the description of how the world works and the presentation of challenging ideas, has not gone out of fashion. It is the means of delivery that have changed.

If I now recall an earlier successful advance by The Independent, the switch from broadsheet to tabloid format in 2003, and ignore some initiatives that have not worked out so well, it is because that is the nature of innovation. It is like exploring for oil. A lot of the new wells that are drilled will, alas, prove to be dry but it is hoped that the single gusher will pay for all the failures and more. Or to put it another way, I don't believe you can come up with the occasional very good idea without also suffering the embarrassment of putting forward plans that don't work very well and must be discontinued. I excuse these as sighting shots.

Publishers of British quality newspapers, until then always broadsheet, had held back from using the convenient tabloid format because they believed it signalled lowbrow, sensational journalism. The Independent pioneered the change in an interesting manner. For some months it simultaneously published tabloid and broadsheet versions of the newspaper – and they were placed side by side on newsstands. The readers could choose. By a large majority, they preferred the tabloid and the change was made. Two months later, The Times followed suit and then The Guardian adopted a version of the same idea.

Innovation in newspapers was never easier than in 1986, when The Independent was first published. It was only afterwards that we understood what an extraordinary moment it had been. In those days, the old Fleet Street, which now seems prehistoric, simply didn't allow newspapers to innovate. The printing trades unions rigorously controlled the whole, ancient, hot-metal production process. Never mind that elsewhere in the world electronic composition systems had swept away these laborious techniques. Fleet Street had become an industrial museum where, instead of actors and models, there were real people, myself included, still going about their antique tasks.

There was no creative thinking. All that management cared about was getting the paper out. Nothing new could be attempted. There had been no innovation since the end of newsprint rationing after the war. That is why, to overcome this block on progress, The Independent began by using printers with modern plants outside London and, a few months later, Rupert Murdoch carried out his dramatic move from Fleet Street into a new factory in the east of London, at Wapping.

We were free. We could try out new things. We could devote special pages to education, to health, even to architecture. We could introduce listings (as pioneered by Time Out exactly 18 years earlier). We could increase the space given to foreign news just in time to cover the collapse of Communism. We could introduce a magazine on Saturdays that was the first move by any national daily newspaper to build up its Saturday circulation.

These new things weren't limited to the tangible. There were also attitudes – or what might be called, more pompously, the philosophy of the paper. Independence lies at the heart. "It is. Are you?" as the famous Saatchi advertisements stated. I had been appalled by the way The Daily Telegraph covered general elections when I was on the paper in late 1960s and then again during the first half of the 1980s. The paper, generally meticulous in its reporting, gave up any pretence of evenhandedness once the starting-gun had been fired and worked hard for a Conservative victory. The experience that was seared on my mind took place during the 1983 election. The paper's sketch writer, the late Frank Johnson, widely admired as the most incisive and amusing commentator of his generation, was stopped halfway through the campaign from writing further about Margaret Thatcher on the grounds that his hilarious copy could on its own reduce her chances of winning.

Having "Independent" on the masthead reminds all who work on the newspaper to keep clear of entanglements and commitments. But it also indicates what sort of people are sought as readers. Think of somebody whom you and your friends would describe as "independent minded". He or she should be our reader. Usually newspapers describe the desired customer in terms of age and income. They use the famous advertising grading by social class – A, B, C1, C2, D and E, where A is upper-middle class and D is the bottom of the pile. Quality newspapers generally specifically seek "ABC1s" aged from 25 years to 40 years – the younger middle class. And given the importance of advertising income, that is perfectly understandable. But I never think in that way. Independent minded people can be of any age, of any social class, of any level of education or of any income (or, for that matter, of any race, creed or political allegiance). What they have in common is an attitude.

Two operating rules follow from this: "respect the reader; trust the writer". They sound anodyne in the extreme. Who doesn't respect readers or trust writers? "Respect the reader" is fundamentally an injunction against dumbing down. Patronising attitudes are widespread in Britain. In media offices, viewers, listeners and readers are often referred to as "punters". "Respect the reader" means turning your back on all that. Just explain what's going on carefully with sensitivity to readers' differing backgrounds.

"Trust the writer" again sounds innocuous. Why would you employ somebody you didn't trust? But this is aimed at the way editors often want their prejudices confirmed and dispatch reporters to do just that. Gypsies? Must be thieving. Nigerian women? Must be coming to Britain to have babies on the National Health. Single mothers? Must be feckless. "Trust the writer" means sending out reporters to cover something in the news and waiting to see what they bring back. It will often be more interesting than you thought. What I have been describing are the newspaper's unique selling points, both tangible and intangible. In fact, the acid test for any new business venture is whether or not it has found at least one unique selling point and, preferably, many more.

This is an old-fashioned business concept, but I like it still. American advertising executives first developed the notion in the 1940s. For an advertisement to be successful, they argued, it must state a clear benefit (as opposed to puffery); the proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not, offer; and it must be strong enough to pull over new customers to your product. But this way of thinking extends far wider than just the writing of good advertising copy. It remains, I believe, one of the keys to success.

The early Independent was full of unique selling points. And then the more tangible of them vanished, one by one, as rival newspapers adopted them. Everybody started paying particular attention to education and health and introducing special sections. On Saturdays, even weightier magazines and supplements soon overtook us. And, as noted above, the idea of a quality tabloid retained its uniqueness only for two months. Thankfully, i remains without rivals – but who knows how long that will last?

Attitudes more easily keep their status as unique selling points. It is not easy to assume somebody else's character. Take independence. This is how Wikipedia describes the newspaper today: "The Independent is regarded as leaning to the left politically, however tends to take a classical liberal, pro-market stance on economic issues, making it difficult to place it on the oft-used left/right spectrum." Of how many other national newspapers could that be said? Even so, I would rather that Wikipedia had found itself able to limit itself to the single word description – "independent".

Now newspapers have to innovate as a group as well as individually. The industry seeks a junction with the internet that gives space for the print edition while bringing the benefits of digital media. When Rupert Murdoch experienced the iPad for the first time, he remarked that he had now seen the future for newspapers. Perhaps so, but there are other ways of going forward.

I noticed the other day, for instance, that Le Monde started two interesting stories on page two of the printed edition but put the bulk of the copy in its online edition. Readers would have to switch between the two. The New York Times print edition regularly gives references to relevant videos on its website. I don't know whether these techniques point to the way ahead. But I do know that it will only be as a result of constant experimentation of this kind that the answers will be found. And so far, as daring innovation is concerned, The Independent has a very good record.

That is why I am today just as optimistic as I was 25 years ago. Of course, I have concerns as well. But optimism has the upper hand.

Timeline: Changing faces of a title that never stops evolving

October 1986: The Independent is launched, from offices in City Road, east London. The company has no proprietor or majority shareholder. Andreas Whittam Smith is editor, with co-founders Stephen Glover and Matthew Symonds as his deputies.

January 1990: The Independent on Sunday launches with Stephen Glover as editor.

August 1994: Ian Hargreaves replaces Andreas Whittam Smith as editor of The Independent.

December 1994: Both papers move to Canary Wharf in London's Docklands.

May 1995: Independent News & Media and Mirror Group Newspapers become controlling shareholders of the two papers.

January 1996: Charles Wilson becomes acting editor of The Independent.

May 1996: Andrew Marr is appointed editor.

January 1998: Rosie Boycott is appointed editor.

May 1998: After a brief joint editorship under Boycott and Marr, Simon Kelner is appointed editor of The Independent.

August 1999: Website independent.co.uk is launched.

August 2000: The newspapers move to Marsh Wall, also in Docklands.

September 2003: The Independent launches its compact edition alongside the broadsheet.

May 2004: The Independent switches all editions to the compact format.

July 2008: Roger Alton becomes editor of The Independent, with Simon Kelner as editor-in-chief.

March 2010: Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev confirm that they are to buy The Independent and The Independent on Sunday and create a company, Independent Print Ltd, to publish the papers.

April 2010: Simon Kelner resumes the day-to-day editorship of The Independent.

October 2010: The Independent launches i, a concise quality compact daily, priced at 20p, that uses a cut-down version of the parent paper's content. The combined paid-for sales of The Independent and i have now overtaken those of The Guardian.

July 2011: Chris Blackhurst is appointed editor of The Independent.

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