INTERVIEW 

Full steam ahead

The Independent, 35 this year, is growing strong. Reach is up, as is revenue and they are employing more journalists and opening up new revenue streams. As Christian Broughton tells Ray Snoddy, the newsbrand’s time has come.

By Ray Snoddy

Full steam ahead
Christian Broughton: “It’s not about the last 35 years, it’s about building the next.”

The 35th anniversary of The Independent was marked in October by a compendium of its journalism but without other fanfare or any sign of the founders, and with only a few drinks in the office.

Parties are obviously difficult because of Covid. But the main reason for delaying the main celebrations is that Christian Broughton, The Independent’s former editor now managing director, wants to be able to celebrate, as well as the past, the current performance of the all-digital newsbrand in a pandemic year.

The numbers show that the new Independent has much to celebrate beyond anniversaries.

It has experienced 30 per cent revenue growth in the last quarter and is attracting nearly 100 million unique visitors a month to its website. If you add on the appearance of Independent journalism on the likes of Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, it claims there have been no less than 11 billion content views in the past year.

“There is a sense we have been a sleeping giant. Now, The Independent really is just a giant. We are Britain’s biggest online quality news producer because our online audience is bigger than The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph and the Financial Times,” says Broughton who first came to work at The Independent in the post room in the 1990s while still at university. He has only left for brief periods ever since.

The growth has come, Broughton believes, because the newsbrand has journalism at the heart of everything it does.

“We do a very different thing. We have just had Kim Sengupta in Afghanistan two weeks later than anyone else in Fleet Street. I believe his reporting from Kabul was absolutely as good as anything that has happened in the Independent’s 35-year history,” says Broughton.

I believe Kim Sengupta’s reporting from Kabul was absolutely as good as anything that has happened in the Independent’s 35-year history.

Print past, digital future

In reality, there have been two Independents. One was the newspaper, initially under the editorship of Andreas Whittam Smith who took the circulation above 420,000 and started rivalling The Times under the successful slogan: It is. Are you?

By 2016, it was clear that the ringfenced digital side of the business run by Broughton was working and growing while paper sales had fallen to around 28,000 making the distribution costs increasingly difficult to justify.

The Independent is attracting nearly 100m unique visitors a month to its website.

“We had to close the paper because we loved The Independent and it wasn’t working. We did what we had to do and went fully digital and have been in profit ever since” says Broughton although job losses were an inevitable result.

“We are the only major legacy newsbrand that has managed to go fully digital and make it work. Many have tried and failed; we are the only one I know of that has made it work, insists Broughton who was Independent features editor, sports editor and night editor before taking over digital.

It helped that there was already a separate digital operation, and after the closure of the newspaper, that everyone had to focus entirely on making it work rather than “spending hours and hours on problems that cannot be solved”.

I would have thought someone else would have given it a try. It’s working so well for us. I suppose I am quite glad they haven’t.

Period of growth

Five years later, the numbers are still heading in the right direction.

The Independent is expected to announce record revenues of £30.3 million, a 12 per cent year-on-year improvement, for its latest financial year, and the fourth consecutive year of profit at £2.7 million, up 18 per cent from the previous year.

Advertising revenue has risen by 14 per cent despite the challenge of Covid-19 and revenues from readers, one of the newsbrand’s priorities going forward, have increased by 40 per cent.

The positive numbers mean that, according to Broughton, another 30 journalists will be added this year to add to the 140 already deployed around the world – at a time when many publishers have been cutting journalist numbers.

Broughton is surprised that other publishers have not followed the Independent down the digital-only route, particularly given that many faced huge difficulties getting physical newspapers into the hands of readers during the pandemic lockdown.

“I would have thought someone else would have given it a try. It’s working so well for us. I suppose I am quite glad they haven’t. Maybe they just do not have the right model. Everyone is doing it slightly differently,” the Independent managing director notes.

The underlying Independent mantra is to focus on a strategy they call ‘A to K’ – turning anonymous users to known users through registration and providing new services to those users.

For example, more than 250,000 registered users signed up almost immediately for a free weekly travel email from the Independent’s travel specialist, Simon Calder.

There are also paid-for products such as Independent Premium, which is advertising free and gives users access to articles normally behind a paywall.

The real hope for the longer term comes from a number of initiatives, or ventures, as the newsbrand calls them, designed for high revenue growth, being nurtured by Broughton.

You have got to listen to your readers and digital journalism enables you to do that much better than print did.

Independent TV

One, Independent TV launched in December, is already achieving traction.

The first ten part series – Binge or Bin – a guide to the best of streaming services such as Netflix, reached 5 million views and Samsung has sponsored a new autumn season. The Independent’s video engagement has tripled and revenues are up 130 per cent year-on-year.

Other video presentations include the Independent’s Moscow journalist Oliver Carroll taking the Sputnik vaccine when it was a largely unknown quantity and Beirut correspondent Bel Trew with a documentary on her experiences following the Beirut chemical blast.

Sengupta provided an episode based on his Kabul coverage on a strand called ‘Behind The Headlines’.

There will also be a new series coming up called ‘Tackle’, on inequality in sport, by the newsbrand’s chief football writer Miguel Delaney and Melissa Reddy who came to The Independent from the US sports channel ESPN.

“We are building towards an OTT (over-the-top) channel launch. That will come in time. It will be news, sport, lifestyle, the whole thing,” says Broughton who is not ruling out a full continuous channel eventually.

Ecommerce

Another great hope for future growth is ecommerce, already a multi-million business for The Independent, linked to its huge reach and high levels of trust by readers.

Broughton say he is very proud of the newsbrand’s rare 100 per cent trust rating from the independent monitoring service NewsGuard.

“Ecommerce looks really interesting and one of the things that went really well during the year. One part of it has already evolved. We do consumer reviews and earn commission off the purchases. There are all sorts of things we can build upon there,” says Broughton.

The managing director believes The Independent does social media better than anyone and, as broad publishers, certainly gets greater pickup from the search engines than retail based companies selling just one thing.

“We can give you things that are relevant to you with great deals and great recommendations. We haven’t launched the shop yet but we are certainly going to be partnering with retailers in areas where we are quite strong,” Broughton explains.

One obvious possibility would be to bring together in a secure data room, the registered subscribers to Simon Calder’s email who by definition are interested in travel with similarly registered customers of British Airways.

Broughton believes it could be a game-changer to be able to deliver such targeted advertising.

The Independent, which launched many campaigns over the last 35 years, including the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get a second referendum on Brexit, is now planning to launch Your Petition.com.

In this case, registered readers will be able to launch their own petition, which may or may not be endorsed by The Independent, although there will be an element of supervision to ensure that fake news or vindictiveness is not being promoted.

“You have got to listen to your readers and digital journalism enables you to do that much better than print did,” says Broughton.

Climate change is going to require an awful lot of explanation and digging. It’s a fantastic journalistic mission for the future.

Carbon neutral goal

In a nod to the spirit of the times, and The Independent’s long history covering concern over climate change, The Independent has decided to commit to going carbon neutral by 2030.

The fact that neither trees not distributing physical newspapers are involved will help, as will a determination to base journalists permanently around the world, thereby reducing air travel.

Electronic servers consume huge amounts of energy and the carbon footprints of suppliers are difficult to avoid.

Broughton acknowledges such a target will not be easy to meet and promises to be open with readers and will highlight the likely areas of difficulty.

Broughton says he is open to any initiative or venture as long as it supports quality journalism and has a future to it.

“It’s not about the last 35 years, it’s about building the next and we have to have sustainable and growing models, and that is what we have got right now. We are in a great position,” he insists.

In fact, Broughton believes that for The Independent, “its time has come”.

One reason is its historic stance of maintaining its independence from political parties.

Broughton believes independent, objective journalism will be increasingly attractive to readers compared with newspapers that have slavishly supported the failed policies of failing parties.

Above all, the Independent managing director, who still takes a daily interest in the journalism, believes the newsbrand could hardly be better positioned to cover the biggest story of all, which is not going to go away – climate change.

“It’s going to change so much about the way we live and it’s going to require an awful lot of explanation and digging. It’s a fantastic journalistic mission for the future,” he explains.

Looking forwards towards the next five years, Christian Broughton believes The Independent will be a massive force in ecommerce and will be running at least one proper TV channel.

“If we can take The Independent into TV and ecommerce, it will fund its journalists for many decades to come,” Broughton predicts.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.