Independent UK's Russian owner, Alexander Lebedev, is trying something different with the launch of “i” on Tuesday. Truth is, he can muck about creating “Indy Lite” as much as he wants, but it won't matter. Someone needs to tell him what begins with i. The answer is, of course, the Internet. By THERESA MALLINSON.
During the past decade one of the most heated skirmishes in the UK print media’s battle to save its papers (and, ahem, profits) has been about dominating the commuter market, with the focus, naturally, on London. Free tabloids have pretty much won, although not without a few casualties along the way. Associated Newspaper’s title Metro launched in 1999 and, by 2006, commuters could choose between three free competing papers – Metro, London Lite and The London Paper. In 2010, however, only Metro remains, joined by the Evening Standard, which switched to a free model late last year.
Of course, since Metro’s launch, there have been huge changes in the way people consume news, with publishers scrambling to find innovative – and not-so-innovative – ways to make their products profitable. Rupert Murdoch’s The Times chose the online pay-wall option, and promptly saw a massive drop in traffic to its website, as much as 90%, according to some reports. Alexander Lebedev, who already gives away the Evening Standard free (mostly), has taken The Independent down a different path, with Tuesday’s launch of “i” (we’ve put the inverted commas in to distinguish it initially, that’s all – Ed).
i is meant to be The Indy’s younger, thinner, less serious sibling and Lebedev will be hoping it’s sexier too. However, testimonial-style comments from a wide (and to be honest, puzzling) variety of celebrity types cast i more as a dodgy product being sold on the Shopping Channel. Howard Jacobson reportedly said: “You can never have too much of a good thing, and there is no better thing than The Independent. Now, with i, you can choose how you read it.” One wouldn’t usually expect such advertorial drivel to emerge from the pen of a Booker-winning novelist. Then again, he was probably too busy writing his weekly column for The Independent to put much effort into it. Noel Gallagher offered his thoughts: “It’s a top idea to have a paper for clever people who can’t be arsed[sic] to spend hours reading every day.” We wonder if he includes himself in the category of clever people? We thought that clever people who can’t be “arsed” to spend hours reading every day read their news on The Daily Maverick.
Enough about ourselves, to return to i: While it may cannibalise much of the Independent’s content, i is packaged very differently. For starters, the layout is fresher, and the subs are clearly working hard at cutting Indy articles down to size. As a specific example of i‘s divergent tone: Johann Hari’s opinion piece is headlined “Why Obama disappoints us so much” in the Indy, and “I wept when Obama was elected. So why do I feel let down now?” in i. The first is complacent, confident that it already has the reader’s attention; the second is working that much harder to get it.
i‘s intention seems to be to win over people who usually get their news online – a back-to-front proposition to begin with. And there’s another serious flaw in its model: It’ll be competing directly with Metro as a commuter read, but at a cost of 20p. Chances are that commuters who want, and have the time, to buy a paper for their journey (be it the Guardian, The Sun or anything in between) probably already do so. Some of them even buy the Independent. So forget about the attraction of shelling out 20p, as opposed to a quid. Just how many time-poor commuters who currently read Metro or news via their smartphones, or their books, or listen to their iPods, or whatever else, will be willing to take the extra few minutes to actually spend on making a purchase? Somehow, we don’t think it’ll be a significant number.
Some pundits have suggested that Lebedev is testing the market, and will make i free if the 20p model doesn’t take off. At this point it’s worth noting that Lebedev has been playing around with free/paid-for combination models for some time, using the Evening Standard as his lab rat. While the Evening Standard became free on 12 October 2009 and is still distributed without charge in central London, in February 2010 a complementary paid-for option was launched, with the paper being available in suburban newsagents for between 20p and 50p. Lebedev, who originally worked for the KGB, and subsequently made a sizeable fortune by investing in the Russian financial system, will no doubt have been tracking these numbers carefully.
The difference is that people who were unable to get hold of a copy of the Evening Standard under its new distribution model were willing to pay to read their usual paper, even while others were receiving it free. After all, they always had in the past. Independent readers will also be willing to pay for their paper – or trade down for a cheaper incarnation. But it’s hard to see i gaining much traction with an entirely new readership. They’ve got no incentive to buy a copy of i for 20p when they can read The Independent online at no cost, or Metro if they’re stuck on the tube with intermittent online connectivity.
Rather than ultimately punting i as a free paper, some commentators feel Lebedev has an entirely different scheme. Sure, he’s testing the waters – to see if the “Indy Lite” catches on. If it does, then it’s bye-bye to the Independent proper. In other words: “i is all you need”. This may very well be where the Indy is headed, but it doesn’t seem like a particularly cunning plan. There’s already enough itty-bitty news out there. Just because i offers a slightly more high-brow version, it doesn’t follow that readers will warm to it. Given a choice between i and the Guardian, the core of Independent readers may very well be more willing to cross over to the latter.
Even if i is a rip-roaring success, the fact is that there isn’t much point in trying to breathe life into a dying medium. Lebedev would do far better to concentrate his efforts on working on The Independent’s online strategy. But since he’s putting his weight behind i for now, the first thing he needs to do is come up with a plan to make references to the newspaper more easily searchable online. That people have already started complaining about i‘s lack of “googleability” is a clear indicator of where the future (not to mention the present) of media lies. DM
Photo credit: This Is Pop blog – Wonderful things across the British Isles.
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