Tuesday’s story on further falls in UK paper circulations was unsurprising — especially the continued precipitous decline of the Independent and Independent on Sunday, the latter having lost a quarter of its circulation. I can’t say I’m surprised — I picked up a copy last week and felt cheated, even though it was free (they are lying round in piles, in every hotel foyer and coffee shop). I wanted back the 12 minutes I spent paging through the sheets of filler and nothingness, slapped together by a staff that is the end-result of repeated decimations, the title now put out by two tradies and a spaniel.

The weekday Indy is less worse, but not by much. Under new editor Roger Alton the readers are leaving in droves, for the simple reason that he appears to have removed the title’s one claim to distinctiveness — its eye catching full front page graphics, linking to campaigns, that attracted charges that it was a “viewspaper”. Maybe, but at least it was something, and it was enough to have me pick up and pay for a copy two or three times a week in 2006-7 — as a supplement to the Guardian. I suspect that this routine accounts for a significant, but diminishing, tranche of its readership.

Now? It’s just another paper, with some interesting reporters and columnists — Patrick Cockburn from the left, Bruce Anderson from the right — but not enough to compel the hand to reach out and take a copy. If it’s not going to supplement The Guardian, it’s got to pinch readers and giving up The Guardian is harder than coming off smack. There’s got to be a hell of an incentive.

In its 22 year history to Alton’s appointment in 2008, the Indy had been three different papers. Founded in 1986 as a genuinely independent title, it attempted to emphasise a strictly centrist news-focused approach, famously relegating royal and celeb news to single paragraph grabs in the “briefs” section. The independence thing couldn’t be leaned on when it was sold to Tony O’Reilly and the “no celeb news” couldn’t be sustained as celebrity life assumed the role of proxy public sphere in cool Britannia.

Instead it leapfrogged to the left of The Guardian — a smart move as that title moved to the centre, dropping (or not replacing) serious left columnists like Paul Foot and comedian Mark Steel (whom the Indy snapped up). There were enough defectors from The Guardian‘s centrist fneer fneer stands on Iraq, New Labour, patronising left-liberalism etc etc, to replace the readers it had initially taken from the Times and Telegraph and lost back to them. Version three was the “viewspaper” — trying to keep the left and snap up casual readers on specific issues.

Now, The Independent doesn’t appear to have a strategy. Alton is a centre-right figure, a New Labour and Iraq war supporter who uses the cod spin response “I’m happy to have a world where Saddam Hussein is no longer around” (the phrase “and another half million people” having fallen off somewhere) to any criticisms of that venture. If his idea is to steer the paper back to the middle-ground — or to pluralist multiple viewpoints — he’ll fall into the abyss. I stopped reading The Observer when he did it with that, but the oldest continuously published newspaper in the world had the cultural capital to withstand Alton’s disdain for his title’s readership base.

Ditto with The Guardian, which loses half a million quid a week on its 350,000 daily circulation. The Telegraph has 800,000 or so, but I would be surprised if even 10% of these were under 50 years old — its decline will shadow the deathrates. Indeed, one cold snap could finish it overnight. The Times is the Times, even under Murdoch. They all live off existing readers, and spend most of their energy simply slowing the process of circulation decline. The capacity for a “compact” (what they call ex-broadsheets apparently) to carve out territory on news values alone is nil.

Above all, The Independent is ugly. It is the ugliest paper I have ever seen — grey paper stock which dulls the photos, cloddish layout which destroys the sense of busyness you want in a paper, and an incomprehensible section arrangement, which buries the op-ed, editorial, etc. That wouldn’t matter if newspapers were a prime source of information — but buying a paper rather than netsurfing is an aesthetic act these days (hence The Guardian‘s white paper, full colour photos, chic redesign) so it’s another strike against.

It may be the last one. With Tony O’Reilly retiring from INM, in favour of his son Gavin — who does not share his Dad’s olde-worlde idea of the mastheads being “calling-cards” — and a major shareholder calling for the loss-making titles to be sold off (for which there are no buyers).

I don’t think there’s a chance they will be — and I can’t see any reason to keep them going. If the Indy‘s last to the end of the year I will be astounded. If they die before the summer, I won’t be surprised.

Nor, despite the amount of great stuff they’ve run by the Cockburn brothers, Robert Fisk and others, can I say they would be much missed. There was a space — small but real — for a focused leftish “viewspaper”. There’s none at all for just another hotel foyer giveaway.

Peter Fray

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