Photograph copyright Mercia McMahon; Editorial Use Only
On the morning of Saturday 26 March I was browsing on The Guardian website and clicked on an article about the final print edition of The Independent. I thought that that meant I had missed the opportunity to buy the last printed Independent, just as I had bought the first one back in 1986. I had forgotten that The Independent was published Monday to Saturday, so I was able to pick up my desired copy on Saturday and reflect on the history of what had for many years been my main newspaper.
The Independent launched on 6th October and as it was the day after my birthday I probably had a little bit of extra money to splash out on the new paper. I was just entering the second year of my undergraduate degree at Nottingham University and sharing digs with three other left-wing humanities students and one apolitical engineering student. It was a time when The Guardian was smarting from the re-election of Margaret Thatcher two years earlier, in part due to the split in the Labour Party as a result of the breakaway Social Democratic Party. The tone of The Guardian had become as sermonising in its Labour support as other quality newspapers were for the Conservative Party. The Independent was set up by Andreas Whittam Smith (the first editor), Stephen Glover, and Matthew Symonds to be a newspaper free from editorial control by the proprietor at a time when many newspapers were moving to Wapping. This helped The Independent to attract top talent because they were based in Central London and journalists unhappy with a move to East London could jump ship from The Times, the by then Wapping-based paper that provided many of The Independent's early staff. Whittam Smith was probably by instinct a Conservative Party supporter as a former City Editor for The Daily Telegraph, but he edited a paper whose drew a large portion of their readers from left of centre viewpoints. I adopted The Independent as my main paper in a pre-web age when buying a daily newspaper was virtually compulsory for a politically aware student. I would continue with The Independent as my main paper until I reached the point where I was obtaining most of my news from the BBC and Guardian websites and stopped buying a daily paper. I did buy papers on Saturday, partly to obtain a TV guide, but switched for those to The Guardian, which had taken the idea of a Saturday supplement from The Independent, and produced a much TV Guide.
It was political comment that was free from party lines that brought me to The Independent and although I often thought of switching back to The Guardian it was its political comment that kept me buying The Independent. Chief among the attractions to stick with it was the balanced commentary on my Northern Irish homeland by the Belfast-born David McKitterick. That was a political concern that I had grown up with, but The Independent were also responsible for giving me a cause to pursue: independence of the rest of Yugoslavia from the increasingly nationalistic Serbs who controlled the state. When I began speaking with friends about the growing problems in Yugoslavia I was met with blank looks as they were primarily Guardian readers and The Independent was initially ploughing a lone furrow in its reporting of the dangers of a new Serbian nationalism. You will not find this coverage on The Independent website as its archive begins in June 1992 one month after the Siege of Dubrovnik was lifted. A decade later The Independent would excel once more in its incisive stance on the Iraq War, especially through the writing of Robert Fisk, who had ten years earlier been writing about both the Gulf War and the Bosnian War.
The print edition of The Independent did not quite make it to its 30th anniversary as that will not arrive until October 2016. Its owners probably chose the 26th March as a very deliberate closing date as it allowed it to have a resurrection the following day as an online only outlet, due to The Independent on Sunday shuttering on 20th March. A sort of Independent Easter rising, while the Irish were celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising for Irish independence. That is an appropriate symmetry as for many years The Independent was kept alive by Tony O'Reilly, the owner of its Irish namesake. He did not, however keep it in profit as The Independent has not made a profit since the era of the Bosnian War in 1993. In the previous year The Independent reached its zenith when it overtook The Times in daily sales, but Rupert Murdoch responded with a price war from which The Independent never recovered.
The Independent was innovative and influenced the format of other newspapers. It introduced a fully-fledged Sunday magazine to British newspaper readers when in launched the Independent on Sunday with its Sunday Review supplement. It pioneered having a Saturday magazine and most of its rivals quickly followed suit. It introduced a tabloid alternative format in 2003 and dropped its broadsheet format a year later, with The Independent on Sunday broadsheet version surviving until October 2005 (the 19th anniversary of its sister paper appearing as a broadsheet). In 2008 The Independent went full colour the same year that it belatedly tried to fix the one innovation it had missed: the internet. The Guardian had been experimenting with online editions since 1995 and that led to a large uptake of American users since the Iraq War, at a time when The Independent was producing just as incisive journalism on the war offline. The final innovation came in 2010 when i was launched a newspaper of short news pieces sold at a price similar to the mass market tabloids. The i ended up outselling The Independent and so ironically may have hastened the more expensive newspaper's downfall.
The future of The Independent is now entirely digital and therein lies the problem for its survival. The Independent still has a poor website that overloads the page with adverts on its desktop site. This gives a poor user experience to those not using ad-blocking software and until the website is overhauled it is likely that Independent readers will use The Guardian website instead. I hope that The Independent survives, especially as Robert Fisk is still writing great articles for it, but without a major change to its website it is unlikely to prosper.
© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved