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More bad news for UK quality papers as i separates off from Lebedevs’ Independent empire

Life doesn’t get any better for the UK’s dear old quality newspaper segment (‘dear departed’ might be the expression soon). We’ve had the Guardian owning up to burning cash recently and now there is growing speculation about both the Independent and the Telegraph.

The Telegraph, which still manages to turn a profit somehow or other, is not about to shuffle off this mortal coil any time soon. But the story is that owners the Barclay brothers want to sell it. The Independent, itself a breakaway from the Telegraph in the heady (for newspapers) 1980s, is owned by the Russian Lebedev father and son duo (below), who also own the free London Evening Standard and struggling TV station London Live.

Evgeny-Lebedev-right-with-009

At the moment they also own i, a cut-down, cut-price version of the Indy and a pretty good paper. But regional newspaper publisher Johnson Press, which at least has a strategy – owning all the regional press, is closing on a deal to buy it for £24m.

You can see a reason for i’s existence; it’s much harder to do so with the Independent (daily circulation 56,000) and the Independent on Sunday (92,000). Essentially they’re never going to make money (they rarely have, even before the digital revolution) and don’t represent that much of a trophy (unlike the Telegraph), even for the most crazed oligarch or arms dealer. The Lebedevs will surely spend their £24m on something else.

It’s not that quality newspapers are doing so badly in terms of numbers, if you put print and their pretty popular websites together. It’s simply that they can’t attract the ads they need any more as big advertisers place their mushrooming digital spend in the hands of agency groups and others whose programmatic ad exchanges punt the money to the cheapest outlets, even if that happens to be a defunct porn site in Outer Mongolia.

Drop a large dose of ad blocking into the mix and it’s a recipe for disaster, despite the heroic marketing efforts of Newsworks, the industry trade body headed by former Management Today editor Rufus Olins.

It’s a pretty terrifying thought (for those of us of a certain newspaper-reading vintage anyway) that soon there could be just two quality papers in the UK, Rupert Murdoch’s Times and Sunday Times. But it happened to ITV (which used to be a federation of a dozen or so independent, highly profitable companies). It’s amazing that quality newspapers have hung on so long.

Update

It’s just been confirmed that the print issues of the Independent and Independent on Sunday will cease publication on March 26 and March 20 respectively.

Owner Evgeny Lebedev, who says his family have invested £100m in the papers, is putting a brave face on things, promising a brighter digital-only future.

According to Lebedev: “The Independent’s journalism has never been more loved or respected but the costs cannot be sustained. The Independent will prove critics wrong again on the road ahead.

“The newspaper industry is changing and that change is being driven by readers. They’re showing us that the future is digital. This decision preserves the Independent brand and allows us to continue to invest in the high quality editorial content that is attracting more and more readers to our online platforms.”

Lebedev says the websites have 58m readers and are profitable in their own right. Let’s hope he’s right.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.

2 comments

  1. Stephen

    Thank you for your kind words, much appreciated, but I have to say that reports of the death of print are greatly exaggerated (yet again). Yes, it is sad in many ways to see the end of the Independent as a printed newspaper. But the appetite for the UK’s 10 daily national newspapers remains considerable. We still buy more than seven million copies each day and pick up 9m, including the free titles. There aren’t many products that sell in those numbers. It’s not far short of the 12 million loaves of bread we purchase on a daily basis.

    And if you combine print with newspapers’ digital offerings, they compare very favourably with pretty much all media. There are 46 million people who read a newspaper brand each month – even more than the number of people who use Google in the UK. All of us are looking for information we can trust. Perhaps that helps explain why the independent.co.uk is rapidly growing its revenues and its audience, reaching 17 million unique users at the last count. That is far more people, I suspect, than its admirable founders ever dreamed of when they launched the title 29 years ago. Their dream lives on in another form.
    Rufus Olins, Newsworks

  2. Take your point Rufus, but are the big media agencies paying attention?

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