The Independent i: I don't get it

02 Nov 2010  |  Jim Marshall 
Jim Marshall

Jim Marshall questions i's positioning and cover price; and wonders whether newspapers are facing a daunting challenge if futurist Ross Dawson's prediction that the UK newspaper industry will be extinct by 2020 is to be believed: "The good news is that newspapers will survive until 2040 in Argentina and Mongolia - so devotees of the Times crossword will either have to move to Buenos Aires and/or learn Mongolian"...

Actually I did get it and a couple of times. But it was because of professional curiosity and not as a potential consumer.

Having bought it I was reasonably impressed and don't disagree with the general view that it is well produced and a genuine 'light' quality newspaper.

But what I don't get is its market positioning or, more importantly, its cover price charge. In my view the newspaper market now comprises two distinct sectors: The paid for sector, which can still demand a reasonably lumpy cover price for a high quality product; and the sector catering for "I'm not going to put my hand in my pocket, except to scratch myself" consumers.

The problem with the i is that it doesn't sit in either sector and the 20p charge might just as well be £20 because the difference between nothing and something is a chasm.

I therefore feel it is not going to appeal to old farts like me, who are still wedded to their traditional newspapers (and it wouldn't want to), but equally I don't think it is going to attract the younger, more upmarket and urban readers that all newspapers crave but are becoming increasingly scarce.

However, according to Australian futurist Ross Dawson, newspapers face a much more daunting challenge. He has announced that the newspaper industry will become extinct by 2020 in both the UK and US! (The good news is that it will survive until 2040 in Argentina and Mongolia - so devotees of the Times crossword will either have to move to Buenos Aires and/or learn Mongolian.)

Though I'm far from convinced that the i is the right direction to go, I am 100% convinced that our Australian doom merchant friend is talking complete rubbish. I would describe it as, at best, as sensationalism, and at worst as lazy thinking. Sensationalism, because maybe it's designed purely to grab headlines, lazy thinking because it ignores all of the evidence indicating that newspaper extinction won't happen, either in 10 years or even 100.

Firstly, in the history of the world, no medium has ever died (or even faded away), rather evolved and changed. Newspapers have done this successfully over many years. For example, the Daily Mirror re-invented newspapers after the First World War, creating an accessible newspaper for the working classes.

More recently, Rupert Murdoch and The Sun changed the medium from one that mainly delivered news and comment to one providing entertainment alongside news (sometimes arguably instead of news).

Secondly, the idea that the emergence of a new medium kills off the old has been proved consistently wrong. Yes, life can be difficult and uncomfortable for old media for a period of time as new media develops, but old media always emerges, though usually different, stronger and invariably complimentary to new media.

Take the example of cinema, which was supposed to die off because of TV - it is now one of the most vibrant mediums and its health and success is intrinsically linked to TV.

Finally, there is the argument that digital will change everything - I agree it will and indeed is at the moment, but the clue is in the word 'change'.  Newspapers are currently finding it tough going as they try to adjust to the new world of iPads, mobiles, internet streaming, paywalls etc. But they are changing and fighting back. Look at the success of the Daily Mail online, led by the (admittedly self proclaimed) 'born again digital native' Guy Zitter.

Which brings me back to i... I still feel its cover price is going to be a problem, but I'm also feeling slightly guilty for being negative about its prospects - only slightly though.

The fact is that no amount of research, planning and strategy is going to provide the answer to how the future is going to unravel. It's a question of getting out there and going through the process of trial and error with new formats and new approaches to see and understand what is going to work.

This is exactly what i is doing. And who am I to say that it won't work, particularly as the Standard has already confounded its detractors (myself included) by completely reversing the fortunes of a paper that to all intents and purposes looked doomed less than two years ago?

So, i should be applauded whether it succeeds or otherwise. To my mind, what it is doing is far more valuable and future facing than someone who calls themselves a futurist and then proclaims there is no future.

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