What a swell Independent leaving party that was. Sort of.

Last week I went to the leaving party for a number of old – well, long-time – friends who were leaving The Independent on its first, and perhaps last, voluntary redundancy scheme. In all eight of them were going, representing more than 60 years’ cumulative experience working on the paper; quite a few had been there longer than 10 years. The people who were going included Barrie Clement (whose name the subs could never get right: he appeared as Barry or Barrie, Clement or Clements, in random variations) whose carefully fostered contacts gave him the exclusive of Jo Moore’s “good day to bury bad news” email of September 11 (scoop of the year, 2001), and Terry Kirby, who wrote about corruption in the West Midlands crime squad. Reporters like that don’t grow on trees.

The payoffs were massive – as in six-figure massive. The leaving pages – versions of the front page of the paper, with daft stories spoofing the person leaving – went on and on. (One departee, Louise Jury, has neatly swerved into a job at the Evening Standard, which has to be some sort of salute-worthy achievement.)

Long faces among those remaining. Understandably. Losing those people means writing a cheque and waving goodbye to people who know exactly how to find out things that matter, who have the experience of working on a national paper for years. It means that when something big breaks such as, oh, the end of a year-long terrorist trial, your ability to write in-depth, sensible, point-out-the-failings coverage is severely limited. “I saw the newslist today and it only had three names on. They were writing everything,” one person said to me.

Another said to me “What’s the difference between working at the Indie and the Guardian, then?”

“Two things,” I replied. “More people and more money.”

Things weren’t helped when the editor, Simon Kelner, made his opening remarks. “I was walking around the newsroom this week thinking, blimey, people are still here after 6 o’clock, and writing away! They must have loads of exclusives! Then I looked, and discovered they’re all writing leaving pages!”

Ouch. Ever heard people wince audibly? I did. Then he added to it, describing something as being “as confusing as one of Steve Connor’s [multi-award winning science editor] splashes [front-page leads].” Good thing Steve wasn’t there to hear that, I think.

The problems with the paper were neatly summed up by Jason Bennetto, who had been there from, I think, the start. He unravelled a list of “things I won’t miss about working at The Independent” and “things I will miss”.

“Things I won’t miss,” he said. “1. Using Lotus Notes.” (God yes. See, it’s not just me.) “2. Having my exclusive story knocked off the front page by a picture of a butterfly.” There were plenty more, but those were the key ones. And things he’d miss? The people he worked with, and “Working on a breaking news story.”

Not long after I joined in 1995, the Indie had a summer redundancy sweep which was short and vicious. People complained then that the staffing was being cut to the bone. Well, in those days there were two health correspondents, a social services correspondent, a science writer, technology writer, another science writer, religious affairs writer, transport writer, labour writer, environment writer.. and they were all different people. Now there’s a health writer, science writer, environment writer. Nobody’s doing religion, technology, transport, labour. It’s not just cut to the bone; it’s down to the heart and lungs, kept going in some sort of vat with the brain possibly attached.

There were lots of brave words about how the paper will go on and how it has something special. But the reality is that even though many of the people still working there turned up, they were pretty much outnumbered by those who used to work and had come along to wave off old – dammit – long-time friends. There were the long-departed news editors, transport writers, science/technology writers (ahem), and if you included The Departed themselves then surely more than half of those present were not employed by the paper they’d come to wave at.

One has to wonder quite what the Indie’s purpose in life now is. It’s got the smallest circulation and smallest staff. It can hire new people – hell, its cost base has been cut back by hundreds of thousands of pounds – but is new blood actually what is needed? Or a new brain? One wonders if the time for new blood didn’t pass a while ago, some time after the Iraq invasion was declared “won”, meaning that the tide of anti-war sentiment that The Indie had risen on receded like a wave on the beach and left the paper gasping like a fish left among the flotsam.

Now, to mangle the metaphor, it’s a beachcomber ambling across the sands, darting from one shiny thing to the next, never sure where it wants to go, if anywhere. There is an environmental agenda, sure, driven by Mike McCarthy [a good friend, whom I sat beside for many years], but where else is the Indie sticking up for things? It’s trying to co-opt bank charges, sure, and then there was packaging; but this proves the point. It’s beachcombing, looking for any little thing to hold to the light and say “See? Isn’t it fascinating?” True, that is the way of all news media, but you can generally detect some sort of philosophy behind it if you watch for long enough. The Indie can’t keep covering all the things in depth that you need to for a national agenda; relying on the Press Association feed is hardly a replacement for specialists. Except what the specialists write doesn’t matter; it’s all about the latest gew-gaw on Sky News, BBC 24, and so on.

When did the Indie last break a story that got followed by the rest of the media? The Times had the 1997 budget and the pension advice; the Guardian had the cash-for-honours detail the BBC was banned from broadcasting; the FT had the accusations about “Stalinist” Gordon Brown. The Telegraph had Michael Grade’s move. All found by specialists beavering away inside their specialisms.

And it’s about to get worse too. This month the Indie’s news editor, Danny Groom, who came from the Observer in 2003, is heading off to the Daily Mail to edit (or news edit? It wasn’t clear) its website. That’s quite a statement by the Mail. I think Danny will thrive (and be amazed at the reousrce available) once he’s got over the amazement of passing stuff and seeing it appear at once.

Meanwhile the Indie will hire in some more people (one hopes) and they’ll try to figure it all out. Accidental link: if you want to read what it feels like for a junior reporter trying to work out where the institutional memory all went, see Meranda’s blog; she’s just started working at a paper in Lafayette, Indiana (no, it’s nothing to do with the Indie). Read her post, and how it feels coming in:

The reporter who covered my beat was gone before I even interviewed. Every contact I’ve made has been my own. I spend a great deal of time scanning our archives looking for these bits before heading to meetings or off to interviews. I don’t think anyone realizes how badly I want to have that knowledge. I just don’t — yet.

I really want to know. And I need someone to teach me, or more specificly, to be patient when I ask what comes across as a dumb question but that I legitimately need to know.

It’s hard to realize, or I guess the better word is remember, that I am not just new to this community. I’m new to this beat, and I’m new to doing this on a daily basis. I’ve been here three and a half months, which seems both like a long time and also like just a blip in the scheme of things.

The point is in one of her closing paragraphs:

The problem is, the industry is also letting those keepers of institutional knowledge, who’ve been at it as long as I’ve been alive, go in record numbers. The LA Times and the Chicago Tribune are laying off or letting go (or whatever their PR-speak is) hundreds of people, to add to the thousands who’ve already left nearly every other paper. Those are the people who know how events tie together, how year flows into year. They know to perk their ears up when they hear a certain name. They can brief a new comer like me on why something matters without having to search the (hard to navigate) archive for every trivial matter.

The Indie lost its memory the other week. When it happens to a person, you call it amnesia; if it becomes part of how they are, you might make worse diagnoses, and wonder if they’re long for this world. I wonder too.

12 thoughts on “What a swell Independent leaving party that was. Sort of.”

  1. I remember working as a paper boy when The Independent launched and it seemed like a breath of fresh air. I was a regular reader until they price was raised to match The Guardian, which always seemed to have more of a sense of humour and was always just a bit more expensive. When Jonathan Glancey left for The Guardian the one column I always waited for had gone and so I eventually switched.

    One of the things I remember most about the Independent was when it rebranded its Saturday magazine so that the front cover was always a single striking image on a white background. The quality of the photography in the main paper was also invariably excellent. However these days it seems to me to be heading towards the shock tactics of the Daily Mail, with a single shouty headline on the front page expressing outrage at this or that, albeit with a more left leaning agenda. Given that initially the move to a tabloid format was so succesful, it’s a shame it’s come to what it is these days.

  2. They still write pretty good obituaries… but it is clear that their news coverage isn’t as good as it once was. If they ever lost Robert Fisk and Steve Connor then there wouldn’t be any point in reading it. In the mid West to the West Coast of the US by the way, all the papers (except the Chicago Times) no longer have a science correspondent, and you can see how the loss of experience in their other coverage (such as the crime beat) has minimized their effectivness in reporting news. TV news is even worse.

  3. @Paul: Sadly Jamie Fergusson, the Indie’s long-time obits editor (he’d been there since the start) has just taken redundancy too. So that’s another lobe of institutional memory gone.

  4. Charles, are you going to Matt Hoffman’s party next week? That’s where I am hoping to meet everyone left. But I have to say, I decided to leave when they let Tom Wilkie go in the purge you mention. His line was that the paper should be “what the permanent undersecretaries read before they come into the office” and that is also the paper that I wanted to work for. To tell smart and well informed people things they didn’t know and hadn’t thought of is a job entirely different from frightening ignorant fools about wifi.

  5. I didn’t get six figures when I was made redundant. I didn’t even get six figures including the pence.

    I’ve worked for a lot of companies that make weird decisions but the Indy is up the top of the list. Way out in front. Way, way, way….

    Do you hate Notes? I didn’t know.

  6. Charles,

    Just curious. Indie’s move to tabloid format anything to do with their current problems? Or is this something that was going to happen anyway?

    Cheers,

    – Mike

  7. @Mike: I think that while the Indie was dual-format, producing a broadsheet as well, it had to stay ‘honest': the broaddsheet led the thinking. Moving to tabloid inevitably reduces the space to connect with the reader, so you have to shout. And it’s hard to pass on subtleties while shouting.

    Equally, though, the tabloid did revive the paper’s fortunes at a time when the broadsheet was just going nowhere positive in terms of sales. One could argue that an investment in the web side might have brought benefits, but Tony O’Reilly has never been that sort of strategist; the London paper is in effect a press agency for all the other O’Reilly properties around the world, so cutting the overheads while generating about the same amount of copy brings benefits abroad that aren’t seen at home.

    Moving to a smaller paper though always reduces the variety and range of stories you can have, because there’s simply less print space. Ironically, although I have about the same area to fill in Guardian Technology as there used to be when it was tabloid (I’m told), the dynamics of being larger weirdly means there are fewer stories, unless I chop them up a lot. (Which I’ve tried to do.)

    Long answer, I know, but simply: the Times has gone tabloid and while it’s wayward, it still has some journalistic punch because it works at it. The investment has only been there in the Indie patchily (principally, when O’Reilly bought it in.. 1997?). Now it needs to reinvent itself.

    They could do worse I guess than hire the website crew who do this high school paper. Not too shabby, eh?

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