When The More Profit You Make Means The Less Influence You Have

What matters more, profit or influence? For small media enterprises like mine, it’s difficult to choose as both are reliant on each other. For established, iconic multi-nationals, however, the question has just become even more relevant – if difficult to answer.

New figures show that Britain’s first digital-only newspaper, The Independent, has returned to profit for the first time in 20 years. It says that revenues from digital advertising have grown by 45 per cent year on year and it believes revenues for 2016 will hit £20m.

The turnaround is because earlier this year the newspaper, after 30 years of being one of the British media’s most iconoclastic outfits, ceased publication. Its Russian owners, the Lebedev family, sacked many of its most experienced journalists six months ago, hired some far younger (and cheaper) ones, saved a fortune on printing and distribution and went online only.

The drastic moves stemmed losses. Last year, Independent Print Ltd – which ran the newspaper – made a pre-tax loss of almost £7m and had net liabilities of £69m. To keep the company afloat, the Lebedevs loaned it almost £8m.

So the new figures point to quite a turnaround – but at what cost? Douglas McCabe, a senior consultant at Enders Analysis which measures the influence of the British media, believes that the audience the newspaper once attracted and abandoned – thinning though it was – is still hugely attracted to print and thus desired by advertisers. He said: ‘While the Independent is still an important force in UK political life, there are consequences to its reduced visibility for consumers.’

Those consequences have, conversely, been seized upon by owner Evgeny Lebedev who this week announced that the digital-only strategy has ensured the title has a sustainable future. He has pointed to a significant growth in the online audience – it hit a peak of almost 22m unique users in June after recording more than 15m in February. The most recent figure is closer to 16m which compares to MailOnline’s 26m and The Guardian’s 24m, figures obtained by the research firm ComScore.

A pleased-with-himself Mr Lebedev said: ‘By going online we freed ourselves from the unwieldly infrastructure of print, and allowed ourselves to be more flexible…by being nimble and digitally-focused we can better serve our new much bigger audience online.’

Which may be factually correct yet just as true is the fact that the Independent simply doesn’t matter as much as it used to. The hard-hitting campaigns that made it such an essential piece of the media framework – campaigns such as those for electoral reform, opposing the Iraq War and environmental protection – have been replaced by clickbait. Among the most recent popular stories include one about a cat, wearing socks, that was pulled from rubble after surviving the Haiti hurricane.

Yes, the digital paper still employs star names such as foreign correspondent Robert Fisk and political commentator John Rentoul, and what they say still matters to the audiences that have stayed loyal to them. But the thirst for younger readers has led The Independent into an even more perilous arena. Once it was competing with newspapers with bigger budgets and even more loyal readers, now it is competing with Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Vice, Medium, Twitter…the list is, ominously, endless.

And they all have much more clearly defined identities and audiences. At the moment, the Independent is known for something which it is not – a newspaper. A newspaper that wielded enormous influence. But not any more. It might be making money but it’s not making waves.

Perhaps that’s the lesson that its print rivals need to heed before contemplating similar moves. A quick profit isn’t everything.

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