From the start, I knew I’d be the Independent’s last print editor

Also in Amol Rajan’s diary: the future of news is free; the indy100 lives on; the Indy’s indomitable spirit; let’s call it Bombay

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

I knew, the minute my job was first mooted, on the steps of San Francesco church in the sun-drenched, mafia-infested Sicilian town of Noto, that I would be the last editor of the (printed) Independent. This fact was reinforced at 17.21 on my first day, when the daily email from our circulation department put the figure for our paid-for circulation at 42,000. The closure of the Independent’s print edition was a long time coming but that doesn’t stop it being a painful shock. Introspection is inevitable. Was it my fault? How did I do?

There are three parts to the job these days — editorial, commercial, digital — and one golden rule: in poor newspapers, the commercial guys call the shots; in rich ones, the editorial guys do. Editorially, I had wanted to revive the spirit of our founding fathers in 1986. I buried myself in the archives to understand what that paper was all about. Our founders’ motto — ‘classic with a twist’ — found expression in a new masthead and I think we sometimes achieved the sense of Whiggish mischief and optimism that they embodied. Commercially, we were losing nearly £13 million when I started. I got that down to under £5 million in my first year, halved that in my second year, and this year was heading for further improvement. So why close? Simple. A deal happened.

Project Eagle, as we codenamed the transaction, is testament to the vision of our proprietors the Lebedevs and our former managing director, Andy Mullins, in inventing the brilliant i, which will stay in print while the Independent continues online. Under Christian Broughton, the editor of Independent Digital, our transformation has been astonishing. We were the fastest-growing quality news site in the UK over the past three years. Revenues were up 50 per cent last year and traffic went up 33 per cent. We also have a superb micro-site in i100 — soon to be renamed the indy100. It’s a kind of smart Buzzfeed that does concise, shareable, video-heavy news.

The business model for printed general news from Monday to Friday is kaput. Where the Lebedevs go, others will follow. They have proved the critics wrong with both the London Evening Standard and the i. Justin Byam Shaw, chairman of the Standard and part owner of the digital Independent, is by some margin the smartest, kindest and most effective businessman I have ever met. Long ago, he understood that one future for journalism is specialism. Thriving periodicals such as the Spectator and Private Eye can pursue that. But for providers of general news in a landscape dominated by the BBC, free is the future.

It’s the sub-editors I feel for most. They are the tireless lifesavers who never go home, who make good journalism great. Twelve minutes to deadline on Friday, I shouted, ‘Who’s got page 24?’. A sub who shall remain nameless shouted back: ‘I have, boss.’ I said: ‘That caption busts and the byline should be in bold.’ He said, ‘Yes, sure thing, boss’ and gave me the thumbs up. That stoicism in the face of adversity, motivated by sheer love of journalism, is the spirit of the Independent in a nutshell. That same night, this spirit migrated to the Elephant and Castle pub on Holland Street. I was very nervous about going. But my friends and colleagues were so warm, and there was such generosity in the ale-tinged air, that later I found myself involuntarily bleating ‘I love you guys’ as I walked out, almost sober, to my Uber.

The week had started a little bizarrely. Four days before closure, I had wandered over from the back bench to our style guru, Kevin Fredericks, and said we should call Bombay just that, not Mumbai. In the 1990s, the Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena forced the name change upon the city against its will. But Bombay is a cosmopolitan port, the gateway to and of India. Post-partition India is an acrimonious marriage between two traditions. The secular and plural — embodied by those other founding fathers, Ambedkar, Patel and Nehru — and a nasty nationalism typified by Narendra Modi’s BJP. By calling the city Mumbai, we collude in the latter’s scheme to purify India of non-Hindu elements. John Rentoul, who was born in India, tweeted his support of my stance. Radio 4’s Today programme asked me on. My comments went viral, prompting a backlash from angry Indians, among them many of my relations. Ram Naik, governor of Uttar Pradesh, said: ‘The editor, whose roots are in Bengal, is dishonouring the sentiments of the people.’ Thousands more called me a ‘coconut’. (I prefer ‘Bounty’.)

When I got this job, the same people had delighted in ‘the Indian at the Indy’. Three years later, when they heard about the paper’s closure, they said it was karma. Ironically, their fury showed the power of digital news.

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Amol Rajan is the last editor of the printed Independent.

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  • TRAV1S

    The journalists and pundits that destroyed the Evening Standard went on to destroy the Independent.

  • Ben Ones

    The independent should be named the Socialist Worker for that is what it became.

  • average joanna

    We all knew that too.

    • Todd Unctious

      The Independent was always a dull, worthy joke. Bound to fail and so it did.

  • I know from the moment you allowed a proprietor afraid of the Mansion Tax to get you to say “vote for the Coalition”. All your loyal readers caught the next bus out of town …

  • Enoch Powell

    So you knew you’d be the last editor when you took the job on, and instead of doing everything you could to keep the paper alive, you chose to drive a stake through its heart, dig a hole six foot deep and throw it into the ground.

    • James Lawrence

      Er no, he tried to do the best he could but was realistic. Besides he was pretty right wing and kept the paper vaguely sane.

      • Ralph

        There was and is a space for a centralist liberal paper in the market not a Guardian dull(er).

        • James Lawrence

          Fair one

  • polidorisghost

    “…and said we should call Bombay just that, not Mumbai.”

    You can say what you like about The Independent, but it knew how to do edgy.

  • malcolm scott

    normal people in general dont want to read the relentless pursuit of the innocent in the name of ‘free press’. they want to read what they want.hence the popularity of news and specific interest web sites.

  • Paul

    surely the reason the readership of The Independent fell so dramatically was because the i contains virtually the same content but is a fraction of the price