Death of print: the Independent's demise teaches us what not to do

Arvind Hickman
By Arvind Hickman | 22 February 2016
Arvind Hickman - journalist, AdNews.

Next month, one of the UK's iconic mastheads, the Independent, will shut down its print operation to focus solely online.

As a loss-making paper in a crowded print market, the closure of the Independent and Independent on Sunday newspapers come as little surprise, but offers a stark lesson for Australian newspapers – mess with quality at your peril.

The transition away from print is a reality of life – soon they will all be gone. ZenithOptimedia figures show that newspaper advertising in Australia peaked at $4.1 billion in 2008 and will drop to $905 million in 2018. At current rates of decline, newspaper advertising will hit zero in less than 25 years, which means newspapers will fold much sooner.

The latest audited figures released this month paint a grim picture for leading print titles. In the past year, the Sydney Morning Herald's weekly circulation dropped 9%, the AFR shed 10.5% and News Corp titles the Daily Telegraph (down 6.5%) and Herald Sun (down 6.7%) also lost circ.

Fairfax Media's chief executive Greg Hywood this week admitted newspapers will go through a transition period from print to online and would eventually be phased out when they were no longer making a financial contribution to the business.

Successfully transitioning readers from print to online will be vital for Australia's two major print media companies News Corp and Fairfax. And it is in this transition phase where the Independent's journey offers lessons.

When it became clear the Independent needed to ramp up its online product in the late 2000s due to struggling print, its editorial chiefs decided to go down the clickbait path for the Independent's website - favouring short-term traffic instead of quality. 

Articles about celebrity gossip above the fold became the norm with salacious (and SEO-friendly) headlines. The tone, editorial direction and design of the website were completely at odds with what the newspaper stood for and alienated the Indy's core readership, damaging the brand.

Although the Indy is now embarking on an online-only strategy, it has the gargantuan job to re-position its website to match the quality of its soon-to-be defunct print titles after years of separating the two.

Another strategy that damaged the Independent was replacing (or not) seasoned reporters with juniors and interns, some of whom I knew personally while working in the UK media for more than eight years.

The Independent could argue its hand was forced due to a precarious financial position, and there is an element of truth in this. In the lean recessionary years post-2007, cheap and inexperienced labour was often the only option for struggling media companies working on very fine margins.

The problem with this approach is that it is difficult and time-consuming to replace experience and year's of sector/beat knowledge with young talent learning the trade.

From a quality perspective, reports in Australia about journalists being rated by the number of clicks their articles receive, if true, are concerning, as are job cuts across the two major players.

In his interview with the AFR, Hywood said that “quality journalism” is here to stay but will come in different forms.

I hope he is right, as the transition from print to online promises to be a bumpy journey.

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