Today saw the launch of the Independent’s new spin-off, the promising but hard to refer to in casual conversation i, which I’m going to call The i Paper here, just for readability’s sake.
The i Paper is a bold move in a newspaper industry which isn’t exactly in the rudest of health, something particularly true of the Indy itself. At a first glance one would expect a paper to launch a radical new product in a position of strength, rather than weakness, but the boldness of the launch is all the more admirable for that. Whether this is a long-term project, a trial for a new direction for the main paper or a first step towards establishing a freesheet, The i Paper has targeted a nice niche; it’s a concise, cheap (20p) paper targeted at ‘the time-poor’. If The Metro (a diabolically bad freesheet) is the paper for people who don’t like newspapers, then this is the paper for people who like them, but don’t buy them. And there’s a lot of those people and, at 20p a copy, this might just work.
Let’s start with the positives I took from today’s launch issue. First, the presence of long form articles – the Johann Hari piece about Obama and James Lawton’s take on Rooney – are very welcome in a paper of this kind. It’s the kind of thing that neither the freesheets nor the middle market papers do. This is real value; intelligent, ambitious stuff, a world away from the AP stuff in The Metro.
And the design is generally nice: bright, colourful, and attractive, with a good mixture of the frivolous and the serious. There are probably a few too many call out boxes, but some of the shorter features are really nice. I particularly liked the ‘Five Clue Cryptic Crossword’ (a nice, concise spin on a feature that normally demands high time investment) and the ‘Postcard From…’ box. I felt like a couple of other gimmicks (the ‘Opinion Matrix’ and the ‘Panorama’ feature) were potentially nice but they do need expanding. Aiming for concise coverage is a lovely idea, but having article lengths so short that imparting serious information properly is impossible simply defeats the object. When this kind of brevity is employed, it’s hard not to wonder whether we really need a full page of weather forecasts? I honestly don’t think I’ve used newspapers to source weather forecasts in my life. Perhaps others do, though.
These aren’t one off problems. The Johann Hari article is demonstrably the most valuable piece, so it’s a bit of a blow when I later discover that it’s actually an edited down version of his real Independent column – meaning I have to look up the latter online to read the real thing. This is just daft; if The i Paper is going to plump for long articles, it shouldn’t water them down. It just seems like a counter-intuitive decision. And actually, I’d like to see a bold move in the other direction. The long-form article is a woefully underused tool in modern journalism. I think it would be revolutionary if every issue of The i Paper contained a really unique two or three page article – something really serious and meaty. I’d buy it every day in addition to my usual paper, for that feature alone.
Another thing I noticed is that there’s no Leader. That’s really odd, and one respect in which this paper is much more like the Metro than, say, The Evening Standard. I’m not wedded to a leader article, but the absence of one is strange. And some of the editorial focus is, to be honest, way off. A tiny two column feature on cholera in Haiti on page 24, and a big half page feature on the death of the walkman on page 27? Nothing wrong with glib pieces like the latter, but not if the balance is wrong. (Don’t get me started on ‘Is Bert Gay?’…)
‘The News Matrix’, which takes up the whole of pages 2 and 3, is, alas, a complete waste of space. Two pages right up front that add nothing at all to the package; it’s simply a set of over-edited summaries of the paper’s content – information expressed better elsewhere. They could, by editing more carefully, improve this feature over time, but frankly it would be far better to simply use this space for extra content.
So I think there’s work to be done. But, overall, I have to say that I’m really impressed. I think, crucially, that they’ve got their pitch right – a serious paper for busy people and for those who want to consume information quickly. But I feel like there’s much they can do to improve. For my part, the dealbreaker is this: I really can’t imagine buying a newspaper with so little news analysis and opinion in. Similarly, the paper is front-loaded – important news squeezed in too tight at the front, and too much superfluous crap at the back end. A slightly heavier bias towards news, and just a touch more detail, would make a massive impact.
Lastly – and this is something that isn’t a failing on their part – I’m a commuter. Unfortunately for the Independent Group, I’m not one of those 15 min tube users, but someone who travels further and really needs a paper that takes 50 minutes to read. I was finished with the paper a lot earlier than I normally am. That probably means that I’ll keep buying The Guardian most days.
But this is really promising stuff. I’ll certainly pick up another copy tomorrow.