I’m a media geek with a penchant for borrowed nostalgia; an obsessive Twitter user with a love of newsprint. And despite doing my best to write for national publications I’ve, ahem, fallen out of the habit of paying for the damn things.
“i“, the new slimline version of The Independent, is an attempt to capture my generation – an age bracket that haven’t so much stopped buying newspapers as were never introduced to the habit. Amongst friends here at Oxford I’d suggest that written news intake is roughly 50% BBC News website, 20% Guardian website, 10% Daily Mail website [those pap pics are so addictive] and 10% links from Facebook with the rest split between picking up a newspaper in the common room and assorted blogs.
Paper sales to individual students are almost non-existent: newsagents are for chocolate and fags.
It’s a bold decision to launch a new newspaper now, especially one that forks a core product. The Independent costs £1, already has an established readership and enjoys strong brand recognition. The new version is a financial and brand risk. I want it to succeed, both as a reward for Lebedev’s chutzpah and in the hope that someone can find a working model for a modern newspaper. So can “i” convince me to pop into the newsagents every morning? Let’s see:
- The pitch
A hard pitch since it has to retain the link with the parent newspaper but emphasise youth, brevity and the like. I reckon it’s a grower. But there’s a few problems: one of them is the complete inability to Google the paper. Another is that asking someone whether they saw “that story in i yesterday” doesn’t roll off the tongue. And crucially I’m still not sure how to type it: bold, italicised, however I like it? Even the Indy’s own website struggles with the formatting:
- The price
“Colourful and accessible, concise and intelligent, it’s your essential daily briefing”.
So far, so Metro. But if the words have weight behind them then I’m interested. By the time I get to the newsagents to buy a copy I’ll probably have scanned the BBC News headlines on my BlackBerry and know what’s going on. If I pay, I want content that I can’t get for free on my phone. If it contains more than agency copy then I’ll be tempted to buy it for a journey: anything to escape the cute animal pics and dreary writing found in the freesheets.
I hesitate before paying a quid for a weekday newspaper and I adore the things: for most students paying anything for news is a strange concept. It’s not the price: it’s the fact it requires any money to exchange hands or effort to obtain. Added to which in student areas The Times and Indy are often available at heavily discounted prices – when I lived in Manchester I never paid more than 30p for a copy of The Guardian. The Oxford Union has all the quality nationals available at similar prices.
A lengthy report on new historical discoveries in German archives (left) becomes a NIB in i (right). I’d be worried if I was a foreign correspondent at IN&M.
If it it were not for my close-reading of MediaGuardian then I would never have heard of it. I’m not sure how I’d sell it to less media-aware friends. The man who runs Amit & Ajatores newsagent on Cowley Road was equally bemused: “What is it? It arrived this morning without any warning. At first I thought I was supposed to put copies of it inside The Independent.”
- First impressions
Ultra-colourful, a cheerful design and the most eye catching headline asks “Is Bert gay?” – it’s definitely more at home in the mid-market. But it’s 56 pages for 20p with a few articles that are worth that alone.
There’s a bit too much of the ‘wacky graphics boxes’ and entertainment news but it suits the market.
It’s also pretty clear that i isn’t in competition with its mother paper.
While the matriarch has chosen to go all black-and-white for its relaunch (just to emphasise the difference, today’s Indy has a ponderous Robert Fisk article on its cover, beneath a a chunky stone tablet), in design terms i is midway between Metro and The Evening Standard. There’s a bit too much of the former’s reliance on stock photos of celebs but they’ve squeezed some quality content into the colourful mould – almost as though they’re trying to trick the audience.
Mainly sliced ‘n’ diced versions of Indy news stories, edited down to fit. The subbing changes are telling. Emphasis is moved to the start. More adjectives in the opening line. The final 200 words of waffling context is always lopped off.
Johann Hari’s piece entitled “Why Obama disappoints us so much” gains a chunky colour photo of the man, loses a few hundred words and becomes “I wept when Obama was elected. So why do I feel let down now?”
Exclusive content includes a two page feature on Mel Gibson’s recent travails.
While the main paper has a two page science feature on a new collection of preserved prehistoric insects, i has a similar-sized health spread imploring us to try ‘thinking like a child’.
Lengthy letters from worthy dons have been replaced with Tweets, texts and brief emails.
- What’s missing
The politics. Swathes of The Indy‘s news section dealing with the funding gaps, pensions and the fine print of the Spending Review don’t make the cut, even in edited form.
Comment only manages to get one article across the divide – though it’s pleasant to read a fairly well argued piece in a true tabloid.
Most of the stuff that is in broadsheets for no better reason than it always has been – think chess columns, horse racing form, obituaries – is out.
Anything lengthy. I want a bit more meat on my stories, more than the headline and some background. There just isn’t much in the way of analysis or content to pieces beyond the headline and opening couple of paragraphs. It’s a 20-minute read.
The much-vaunted ‘news matrix’ is quite easy to skip: but it does create a feeling that ‘stuff is happening’. Not really aimed at the news junkie: you’ll probably have already seen most of it elsewhere.
- The future
Remember the mp3 chart? Launched in 2004 it was an attempt to register sales of digital downloads, separately from the physical release-only Singles Chart. It was quickly apparent that the division was completely arbitrary and within a year the two were merged, with digital downloads now making up over 95% of sales.
Given that there was discussion of The Indy following Lebedev’s Evening Standard and going free nationwide, it’s hard to see i as anything other than a stop-gap to a future merger – a way of testing the water for a heavily discounted (or free) relaunch of the main paper at some point in the near future.
The Independent, once every graphic designer’s dream paper, has become a more authorial read – but to to tell the truth, it feels quite heavy going in comparison. I envisage sort of halfway house between the two papers with a briefer news in the style of i with the lovingly produced Viewspaper supplement in the middle.
I doubt I’ll be buying it regularly – probably only if I’m on a short journey. But there’s potential to get i right, especially on commuter routes outside the saturated South-East. And don’t be surprised if the main paper smartly follows its lead at the first hint that this business model could work. Good luck to them. And, er, gizza job?