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Media 1986: Publishers face a new title fight

29 Sep 2016  |  Torin Douglas 
Media 1986: Publishers face a new title fight

Thirty years ago this month the UK media industry was getting excited about the launch of the Independent - and plans for a host of other new newspapers, writes Torin Douglas

During the summer of 1986, media eyes had been focused mainly on broadcasting, with the publication of the Peacock Report on how to fund the BBC. By the autumn, the impact of the newspaper revolution was starting to be seen in earnest.

Rupert Murdoch's dash to Wapping in January and the launch of Eddy Shah's Today in March had jolted the industry into frenzied activity.

The Independent was due to launch on 7 October, inspired by Eddy Shah's initiative. In his book Paper Dreams, Stephen Glover, one of the paper's three founders, told how the founding editor Andreas Whittam-Smith got the idea, in March 1985:

"An American magazine journalist had telephoned him to ask whether he thought Eddy Shah's planned newspaper Today would succeed. Almost without thinking, Andreas said that it wouldn't, but when he put down the receiver he thought again. Why shouldn't Shah prosper if he could take full advantage of the significantly lower costs of new technology and reduced manning levels?

"And if Shah could successfully launch a paper into the middle market why couldn't someone do the same in the quality market?"

Throughout September, the Independent was producing dummy editions every day and, Glover wrote, "Painfully, slowly, dummy by dummy, the Independent began to emerge."

Indy launch front page

Meanwhile its rivals were hard at work, reinforcing their appeal to advertisers and readers ahead of the newcomer's launch, with ad campaigns, promotions and prizes.

The Daily Telegraph produced an eight-page promotional supplement hailing "Europe's largest modern printing works" at West Ferry Road and the end of hot-metal printing in Fleet Street: "Soon the great presses at 135 Fleet Street will fall silent."


Under the headline "Telegraph is clearly the one" (and pointing out that the ink didn't come off on readers' hands, then seen as a real boon) it proclaimed: "The Daily Telegraph this autumn marries its traditional high standards of journalism to the latest in high technology, and makes one of the world's great newspapers even greater." In a new 'Passport' competition, it offered a daily prize of a £1,000 holiday for two plus £1,000 spending money.

The Guardian used a different tactic, inviting its biggest advertisers to a weekend in the Loire Valley. The paper's ad director Caroline Marland kindly asked me and my wife along too and it was one of the classiest freebies I've ever enjoyed! We flew from Gatwick to Tours in a chartered plane, visiting private wine cellars and the chateaux of Cheverny, Villandry and Chenonceaux. I don't think the Guardian had done anything like it before and I'm not sure they have since.


The Independent
had recruited some very good journalists, including Jonathan Fenby, Sebastian Faulks, Andrew Marr, Sarah Hogg, Tom Sutcliffe, James Fenton, Rupert Cornwell, Mark Urban, Francis Wheen, William Rees-Mogg and the cartoonist Nicholas Garland.

Yet what established it first with readers was its design. Tom Sutcliffe, the arts editor, called it 'classic with a twist'. Glover wrote: "It was the classicism which struck readers most when the Independent appeared on 7 October, the sense that the Independent had always been there, part of our history but missing from our lives."

The paper wasn't an instant hit. Glover recalled the verdict of several 'leading journalists' on that morning's Today programme: "The general view was that it was a good try but that there was nothing special about the newspaper. The political columnist Simon Jenkins thought that it looked worthy." But compared with the disastrous Today newspaper launch in March, this was a triumph.

It took a few nervous months, with sales declining from 332,957 in October to 272,180 in December and 256,923 in January 1987, before the Independent really found its feet and sales started to grow. In March, 'What the Papers Say' named it Newspaper of The Year and by then other papers had started to feel the pressure.

In Full Disclosure, Andrew Neil, then editor of the Sunday Times, wrote that the "critical acclaim which greeted the launch of the Independent" unsettled the journalists who had made the move to Wapping.

Andrew Marr, later to become the Independent's editor, after it had sadly lost its bloom, described the heady early days. In his book My Trade he wrote: "For me the Independent was a noble cause and a perpetual delight, not simply a newspaper. In the months before it launched and for about a year afterwards, it really seemed that we had broken away from the old world of proprietors. Some of the greatest writers in the trade were working there. There was an electric can-do atmosphere in the paper that none of us will ever forget, despite the decline that quickly followed."

Sadly, as we know, the Independent didn't reach its 30th anniversary as a printed newspaper. It is now ploughing a brave new furrow as a digital publication. But it lasted longer than some other newspapers being created in the autumn of 1986.

News on Sunday was to have been the left-wing answer to the right-wing bias in the national press. In September 1986 it appointed John Pilger as editor-in-chief and Keith Sutton as editor and Bartle Bogle Hegarty as its ad agency. Pilger and BBH had resigned by the time it launched in April 1987 and it survived just three editions.


The London Daily News was Robert Maxwell's challenger to the Evening Standard. In October 1986 he announced plans to launch it in February 1987 as a 24-hour newspaper, with a glittering line-up of 40 writers and executives poached from the Observer, the Sunday Times, the Daily Mail, The Times, Time Out, Elle, Vogue and elsewhere. But it fell victim to a price war after just five months, when Associated Newspapers revived the Evening News and sold it for 5p, half the price of the LDN.

By contrast, one newspaper has just celebrated its 30th anniversary and that's Sunday Sport.

Next month: The magazine that broke the mould and started a boom.

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08 Jul 2020 

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