Everyone loves a launch, and if the Independent’s new i paper lures even one of my students away from reading the Metro then it’s a job well done.
But at first glance it doesn’t do much for me, and here’s why (with a bit of history stuck on the end):
- The front page wastes space with a blurb saying that the paper contains news, views, features, business and sport. Is it aimed at people so unfamiliar with newspapers that they don’t know what they contain?
- The copy-tasting is too middle market; the lead is an Express-like property scare story, and then there’s a teaser about Mel Middle-of-the-Road Gibson, plus a blurb for a lacklustre Deborah Ross column
- Pages 2 and 3 look like a website except you can’t click on them. Worse still, the centre space is occupied by a full length picture of Jeremy Clarkson, returning us to a middle England which is already catered for in abundance elsewhere.
- Page five is back to a bog standard quality compact news page offering nothing new except too great a contrast with the ‘down with the (middle aged) kids’ stuff that came before it.
- True, if one turns the pages there’s a piece by Johann Hari, which is always a treat, but even there I didn’t like the headline – he wept when Obama was elected. It’s a horrible image.
- The page 12 opinion matrix has a map of the world in the middle of it, for those who have never seen one before or those who cannot locate the USA, Australia, India and Russia by themselves.
And then my train got to Cardiff and I stopped reading.
My choice of commuter reading is smart phone or paper. I can get all the bits and pieces from the phone, so when it comes to a paper I want a combination of bite-sized chunks AND the stuff that paper does better: longer reads, fine writing, great pictures. There’s not enough of that in the i.
When you read the real Indie, you feel a bit smarter afterwards, but its shrunken cousin doesn’t have the same effect. It’s not grown up, funny or clever.
But what was interesting, for me anyway, was the editor’s message on page 2.
It’s a “new kind of paper designed for people with busy, modern lives….presented for rapid consumption, it’s the perfect way for an intelligent person to start the day….We have tried to make everything as logical as possible, taking seriously our role as your guide through a world overloaded with information…you can learn everything you really needed to know at a glance….i is a newspaper with quality, convenience and desirability.”
This sounds familiar; the age-old struggle to produce something that people will read without dumbing it down so far that it’s not actually worth reading.
My own favourite newspaper launch is that of the special ‘Daily Timesaver’ edition of Pulitzer’s New York World in 1901, guest edited by Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe).
Harmsworth wrote in his experimental paper that “the outline of the day’s events can be gathered in sixty seconds” and that “by my system of condensed or tabloid journalism hundreds of working hours can be saved each year. By glancing down the subjoined list of contents and following the arrangement of the pages the outline of the day’s news can be gathered in sixty seconds.’
The price he paid for producing such a ‘portable, pocketable, logical’ paper was that he filleted out some of the editorialising that the owner – Pulitzer – saw as the ultimate point of print.
Getting that mix right is the holy grail of journalism. A serious newspaper with popular appeal can more fully exercise its role in democratic debate, whereas the segregation of the serious and the popular into different newspapers confines that debate to elites.
Pulitzer knew that, and made the point in his own editorial in the experimental newspaper, describing his ideal of “a newspaper forever unsatisfied with merely printing news – forever fighting every form of Wrong – forever independent – forever advancing in Enlightenment and Progress-forever wedded to truly Democratic ideas – forever aspiring to be a Moral Force – forever rising to a higher plane of perfection as a Public Institution……….[it would] be both a daily schoolhouse and a daily forum – both a daily teacher and a daily tribune – an instrument of justice, a terror to crime, and aid to education, and exponent of true Americanism…[and that] this edifice [the paper] owes its existence to the public; that its architect is popular favour; that its moral corner-stone is love of Liberty and Justice; that its every stone comes from the people and represents public approval for public services rendered.”
Harmsworth’s editorial, as guest editor, was somewhat different. He saw his change to format of the paper as about “saving of the reader’s time. Advantage to advertisers. Convenient shape for car and chair reading. Neatness for carrying in the pocket.”
Harmsworth’s experiment was a flop, and the next day Pulitzer beefed his paper back up to its normal size, making room for the editorials to which he hoped people would come after being lured in by racier material.
I hope that the i, in its own battle between style and substance, strikes the right balance.