Independent editor: 'Going online-only saved us'

11 Apr 2017  |  Ellen Hammett 
Independent editor: 'Going online-only saved us'

One year after ditching its print edition, Independent editor Christian Broughton tells Ellen Hammett that if your plan for the future doesn't look radical - then it's not the right one

The eagle in its logo might still be clutching a newspaper, loyal to its heritage, but in March 2016 the Independent became the UK's first national newsbrand to close its print operation and move entirely online.

Approaching its 30th anniversary, it was making a loss of £4.6 million - although a big improvement on the £22.6 million loss recorded in 2011 - and its circulation had declined by almost 80% over the last decade. In the days leading up to its final print run, the Independent was selling less than 55,000 copies a day.

For some, deciding to scrap the newspaper was a risky business move; for others, it was a sad day for journalism. For editor Christian Broughton, it saved the Independent.

Fast forward one year and the now digital-only Indy is in profit for the first time in 20 years. It has almost doubled its online audience, digital ad revenues have soared by 45% and, after launching a successful US digital operation - it is now the sixth-biggest newspaper site in the US - it has opened a new office in New York, with further overseas expansion expected in the coming months.

"We had to close the print edition of the Independent because we loved the Independent; it was its 30th birthday and we wanted it to be there for another 30 years and beyond - it wasn’t going to do that if it maintained its print presence," Broughton told Newsline.

"Against this backdrop of everyone being incredibly sceptical and very negative about the future of journalism in digital, I can tell you that digital saved the Independent."

Perhaps surprisingly, Broughton said Facebook, which causes many news publishers untold headaches, is an integral part of the Independent's strategy to build a high quality audience.

"Our relationship with Facebook is really good and I think that Facebook is a massive opportunity for publishers," he said.

"As an industry we can sometimes fixate on certain problems; it’s very good to recognise problems and think of ways of combating them but there are people on Facebook who want news."

Broughton's stance is at odds with many others in the news business, however, who largely see Facebook as a threat.

Last year, James Wildman, then chief revenue officer of Trinity Mirror before he moved to Hearst, was busy renewing calls for the creation of a "unified [sales] platform" to help the publishing sector square up to the duopoly of Facebook and Google.

"The truth is, the market isn't rewarding context, or professionally created, quality content," Wildman said. "That's not to say it never will, but we're having to compete on price with these platforms that are curators without the cost associated with creating."

Similarly, this month Press Gazette has launched a 'duopoly campaign' calling on Mark Zuckerberg to "stop Google and Facebook destroying journalism".

Editor Dominic Ponsford said the campaign will seek to create a "fairer deal" between news publishers and digital giants that "rewards the creators of the content on which these platforms rely".

It is estimated that Facebook and Google take around 90 pence in every pound of incremental money spent in digital.

Smart, valuable readerships exist on Facebook and if you publish quality news you will reach a quality audience"

However, editing an online-only platform, Broughton views things differently and wants to work with the Facebook rather than against it.

"Passionate journalism can connect with people incredibly powerfully on Facebook," Broughton said, citing an article the Independent posted about Alan Kurdi in 2015.

Broughton said a follow-up petition got around 400,000 signatures in three and a half days and directly pressured government into a policy change.

"That's a real force for good and I don't think that scale could have been possible for us without something like Facebook," he said.

However, although Facebook helps the Independent achieve scale, Broughton recognises the growing impact of fake news, which, although not a new concept, has become particularly problematic for journalism over the last year - and the reason the Independent is launching a new channel dedicated to debunking fake news, InFact, later this month.

Indeed, a recent study revealed that trust in media is at an all-time low, with the number of people in the UK saying they trusted the media falling from 36% in 2016 to 24% - now lower than the British Government (26%).

But Broughton thinks publishers can use Facebook to help restore trust in traditional media.

"People in the established media look at something like fake news and become attached on that, and then with a damning tone you’ll hear lots of established journalists talking about how terrible it is that we’ve got people that only consume their news on Facebook," Broughton said.

"Well that’s what they’re doing, so a very sound reaction to that is to put as much true, valuable, important journalism on to Facebook in a way that works with Facebook. Smart, valuable readerships exist on Facebook and if you publish quality news you will reach a quality audience."

The Independent currently has more than 6.6 million likes on Facebook, compared to the Guardian's 7.3 million, the Telegraph's 4.1 million and the Daily Mail's 10.5 million. Meanwhile, the Sun has 2.7 million, The Times and Sunday Times 632,000 and the i 260,400.

One year on, it is clear the Independent's move online has been successful - resulting in a profit boost and international growth. Could this convince other publishers - many facing declining print circulations - to follow suit?

"At some time I’m sure [other newsbrands] will [go digital-only]," Broughton said. "The model for paid-for, nationally distributed print media is broken - and not taking action when the industry is changing radically is not a good thing to do.

"You have to take bold action and we have capitalised on that advantage over the past year. If your plan for the future doesn’t look radical, it’s not the right one."

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