`New Kind of Newspaper' Teeters in Britain

Begun as a voice of objectivity in the London press, The Independent now worries about investors' politics

A VALIANT bid to create a British daily newspaper free from special-interest pressures, and with a lively mind of its own, appears to be headed for failure.

The Independent, launched at the height of the economic boom of the 1980s and in its early years an apparent journalistic success, is losing readers and looking for a financial savior.

Media analysts worry that if a rescuer is found, the free-wheeling character proclaimed in the paper's banner could disappear. The paper has stressed in-depth reporting, detailed political analysis, and high-quality reviewing.

Among leading bidders is the Mirror Group of newspapers, which supports socialist causes, but whose executives have promised not to interfere with the paper's editorial stance.

Another possible outcome is that Conrad Black, the Canadian newspaper tycoon who owns the London Daily Telegraph, will buy a controlling interest. The Telegraph supports the ruling Conservative Party. United Newspapers, publishers of the right-wing Daily Express, also has met with Independent executives.

When it was launched in 1986, ``the Indy'' (as its journalists call it), set out to prove that a quality newspaper did not need to be part of a giant corporation to succeed. Its three founders, led by Andreas Whittam Smith, who remains the editor, were all journalists lacking experience in newspaper production or marketing.

They set up a company called Newspaper Publishing and turned to the City of London (the British capital's financial district) for the money needed to produce a newspaper that would challenge established broadsheets. The cash was forthcoming from banks and other corporate investors, and what Mr. Whittam Smith at the time called an attempt to establish ``a new kind of newspaper'' quickly caught on with the public.

It attracted readers, as well as several senior writers, from competing papers, including the Times, the Telegraph, and the Guardian.

Another of the founders, Stephen Glover, who has since left the paper, says the Independent got off to a solid start because it appealed to middle-class readers, many of them ``tired of the old formula being served up by existing broadsheets.''

Instead, Whittam Smith gave the paper a quirky flavor by British standards. For the first four years, for example, he refused to print detailed reports of the British royal family's activities. His political team declined to attend background prime ministerial press briefings, arguing that they did not want to be part of a ``government publicity machine.''

Raymond Snoddy, a media analyst, points out that the Independent took full advantage of the electronic revolution, which made it possible to run the paper with a slimmed-down production staff.

But just as the paper was able to ride the entrepreneurial wave of the Thatcher era, it began to hit trouble when boom turned to recession. Despite clear signs of an economic downturn, Whittam Smith decided in 1989 to produce a stablemate, the Independent on Sunday.

Snoddy says the decision was ``taken at an unfortunate moment.'' An economic recession meant that advertising revenue began to fall for both papers, and this was ``a critical factor in putting the entire enterprise under strain.''

Whittam Smith was forced to offer the publishers of La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper, and Spain's El Pais a combined stake of 38 percent. But circulation of the two Independent titles began to slide.

Last July, Whittam Smith decided to step down as chief executive and concentrate solely on editing.

The daily Independent is currently selling just over 300,000 copies - down 14 percent from last year. The Sunday Independent, which sold close to 500,000 in its first year, is down to 350,000. The Telegraph sells more than 1 million copies each weekday, and the Times and the Guardian around 400,000 each.

Last spring, Newspaper Publishing launched a bid for the Sunday Observer, hoping to merge it with the Independent on Sunday. But the gambit failed when the Guardian won the bid for the Observer.

Last month, Newspaper Publishing reported an annual loss of nearly 500,000 ($745,000). The management ordered a price in-crease. Company sources say reader backlash at the price hike is likely to drag circulation below 300,000.

A journalist who has been with the Independent since its early days spoke of ``a black mood of gloom and crisis'' at the prospect of being taken over by a publishing conglomerate, and worried that the paper's character would be destroyed.

Glover forecasts that in the event of a takeover, Whittam Smith will not remain editor. ``If the Independent is to survive, there has to be a massive management and editorial overhaul,'' he says.

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