When Britain's newest newspaper, the Independent, rolled off the presses in October to elbow its way into the world's most congested newspaper market, the skeptics were full of foreboding. There were too many newspapers, they said, in a market saturated by nine morning national daily newspapers and in which overall readership was either stagnating or shrinking.
What's more, the Cassandras said, the new paper lacked the financial resources of such press tycoons as Rupert Murdoch, who publishes the Times and the Sunday Times, or Robert Maxwell of the giant Mirror group, to sustain it.
More than 100 issues later, the Independent has carved out a special niche for itself in British journalism by taking on the political establishment and pushing to root out commercial corruption. Its coverage in exposing insider financial deals in London is widely regarded as superior to that of any of its rivals.
Noted political commentator Adam Raphael of BBC television, who frankly admits he was doubtful about the launching of the Independent, says the paper is ``a first-class product.''
The Independent, Mr. Raphael says, is showing up the weaknesses of Britain's other major papers. He cites the failure of the Financial Times to ``get its hands dirty'' on the recent spate of financial scandals in the business community; the ``too partisan and wishy-washy'' political coverage of the Guardian; the ``post-Wapping deterioration'' of the Times (an allusion to the effects of bitter industrial strife following the Times's move to its Wapping plant); and a Daily Telegraph ``still finding its way'' under new ownership and a new editor. (End to Wapping strike signals turning point in Britain's industrial relations. Page 16.)
Andreas Whittam Smith, the Independent's editor, is withering in his attack on the way Fleet Street is run. He says papers have been ``appallingly managed by dunderheads,'' with scant regard for financial control and with newspaper proprietors hardly giving any attention to shaping the product to market research because of their obsession with labor unions.
The Independent's impact on the British newspaper scene is beginning to show. Although its 300,000-plus circulation falls well below that of its principal rivals - the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, and the Times - and behind its own break-even projection of 330,000 copies, the paper is eating into the readership of the quality papers. It is also luring readers away from such popular mass circulation papers as the Daily Mail. And it is optimistic that there is a substantial audience of non-newspaper readers yet to be tapped. Although its classified advertising is pitifully thin compared to that of its rivals, this is more than compensated by the strength of its display advertising, representing 12 percent of the total newspaper market, deputy editor Matthew Symonds insists.
Contrary to doomsayers' belief that ``newspapers are bound to fail and that markets are shrinking,'' Mr. Whittam Smith holds the decidedly upbeat view that technology and competition open up new opportunities for newspapers and that markets can expand when the product is right.
Whether the Independent can stay aloft is thought to be a test of the financial community's confidence in a newspaper put together entirely by journalists (rather than financiers), who turned to a raft of financial institutions to bankroll the venture. The paper was launched on the proceeds of an 18 million ($27.4 million) share flotation and a 3 million ($4.56 million) bank overdraft.
Such a financial undertaking represents a departure from typical British newspaper economics. Traditionally, British papers are controlled by very wealthy families or by a handful of multinational firms that zealously guard their commercial and political interests. The result: a degree of political bias in the news columns of papers here that would not be tolerated in the American press.
What the Independent sets out to do is to break with most newspaper managements' preoccupation with labor relations and show independence from what it views to be the editorial whims of press barons which color the British press. Instead, even-handed reporting is a virtue to be cherished at the Independent, Whittam Smith says, although that policy will not prevent the paper from tearing apart the manifestoes of the various political parties before the next election.
Even before publication, the Independent established a precedent by saying it would not participate in the accepted journalistic practice of unattributable briefings by government officials. To the Independent, such briefings done on the government's terms made for manipulative and lazy reporting.
``We thought we would suffer [for that policy]. But ... we haven't detected a single minus,'' Whittam Smith says.
Despite phenomenal initial interest, the newspaper opened to mixed reviews. Though professionally well put together, the paper struck some new readers at the outset as too sedate - not an exciting newspaper they would instinctively pick up at the newsstand.
A Glasgow reader who tried the Independent for three weeks switched back to the Times because, he says, ``it didn't grab me enough.'' Sunday Telegraph editor, Peregrine Worsthorne, writing in the Spectator magazine, said it contained nothing that he really wanted to read.
But Mr. Worsthorne's initial negative judgment has not been shared by the journalistic fraternity, which has become increasingly appreciative as the paper gets closer to the cutting edge of the news.
The paper has also moved quickly to correct its weaknesses. The early solemnity has been eased by the introduction of a front-page cartoon and the wooing from the Times of humorist Miles Kington.