MEDIA: 'The Indy has to innovate to keep up'

When Roger Alton officially takes over as editor of The Independent on 1 July, he will have little time to settle in.

The Independent: faces huge changes
The Independent: faces huge changes

Media critics are hovering, waiting to see if the former Observer editor can reverse the decline of what one PRO calls 'the Lib Dem of newspapers'. Even outgoing editor Simon Kelner criticised the newspaper in a recent interview, calling the front page 'occasionally boring'.

Last month's ABC figures put The Indy's circulation at 240,503, which is in stark contrast to The Times' 626,401.

Alton is keen to remind naysayers that The Independent is remarkably successful given its age - it was launched in 1986, making it the youngest of the dailies.

This does not, however, explain why the paper has failed to embrace the web. Its site is miles behind web trailblazers The Guardian and The Telegraph, with little interactivity compared with the buzz of The Guardian's 'Comment is free' or the Telegraph's many blogs.

'Alton has a massive task ahead of him,' says Lewis PR associate director Will Sturgeon, a former journalist. '"Dull but worthy" is not a niche that readers tend to flock to, online or offline.

The BBC news website owns the middle ground between and What is there about The Independent that would discourage readers from looking elsewhere for online news?' he asks.

While critical of the paper's apparent lack of interest in the online format, Chatsworth Communications founder Nick Murray-Leslie is impressed by The Indy's influence relative to its size. 'For a smaller staff base it provides solid news coverage, similar to ITN when compared with the sprawling BBC,' he says.

However, Murray-Leslie believes The Independent's real value in PR terms lies in its championing of contentious issues. In February, the paper stepped in to petition Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai, appealing for the overturn of a death sentence for a journalist who was accused of downloading a report on women's rights.

Other Independent campaigns focus on more pedestrian leftist concerns, such as waste from excess packaging - clearly the sort of topic to which PROs can contribute on behalf of clients.

'Campaigning is always a risky strategy but remains a real point of differentiation,' says Murray-Leslie. 'It clearly gets up some people's noses - but that is a good thing.'

Fishburn Hedges director Jason Nisse - the former City editor of sister title The Independent on Sunday - identifies change as Roger Alton's first priority: 'With a much lower headcount than its main rivals, and less money to spend on buying in articles from top writers, The Indy has to innovate to keep up.'

Frequency: Daily
Circulation: 240,503 (ABCs May 2008)

Roger Alton
020 7005 2000

Pandora editor
Henry Deedes
020 7005 2374

A MINUTE WITH ... Roger Alton, Editor, The Independent
Can you give us a hint of what is to come when you start as editor?
Roger AltonRight now there is a new management team, commercially and editorially, and that will inevitably lead to a refocusing of the paper.

Are you open to PR pitches?
I am a great fan of PR and know many PROs very well. But maybe it is silly for someone I have never met to ring me up as if we've just got out of bed together, saying, 'Hi Roger, it's Cindy here ...' On the other hand, if it's 'Hi Roger, it's Cindy here, we wonder if you'd like to go hot air ballooning in the Maldives with Angelina Jolie?', that doesn't sound too bad.

Why do you think The Indy's website isn't as popular as some of its rival papers' online versions?
The main carrier of the brand is the newspaper titles, and that will continue. However, there are exciting prospects on the web that can develop the paper's strengths in top-level reporting of the arts, environment and sport.

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