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.