"i": A national newspaper launches - without anyone to read itPosted on: 26 October 2010 by Alexander Hay
As "i", a new paid-for newspaper, hits the shops, we take a look at whether it's worth the 20p asking price
Times are hard for the print press. Circulations are falling, and as the number of older readers shrinks, so younger readers grow ever more scarce. This is down to several factors. People are changing the way they consume media: they get their news off the Web or interactive TV. Print media to some extent has become redundant. So why is The Independent launching a new paid-for tabloid?
If you're very rich Russian Alexander Lebedev, who is the proprietor of The London Evening Standard and The Independent, you bring out a new newspaper. "i", which appears to be flung together by The Independent's editorial team, is apparently aimed at "lapsed readers of quality newspapers". Certainly, it makes a rod for its back with claims on its front page that 'i is all you need' and that the 20p cost means 'you won't need a deposit'. Remember, when a product is selling itself on its cheapness, that's usually code for 'a bit rubbish'.
But it's early days. Let us read the first issue and see what we find...
The Front Page
There is no news here, just graphics and a sort of marquee page trying to lure people in. And what are the stories that "i" thinks its readers want to know? Well, first up, 'Is Bert Gay?' - good to know they think their readership is highbrow. Secondly, Mel Gibson is apparently front page news too. Finally, and while his early death is a tragedy, is a former Olympic rower dying of Weil's Disease really front page news, or anyone's business but his family's?
Two pages wasted on a contents page, and then a Specsavers ad. There haven't been any proper news articles yet.
The main story about mortgages, first-time buyers getting done in and fears of a double dip is drearily London/Home Counties-centric. Sister paper The London Evening Standard does this middlebrow thing so much better. Meanwhile, The Metro-style 'Did You Know?' nib explains what Weil's Disease is in a sort of 'we know you're a bit too dozy to know' middle-brow way. Metro does this better too.
A picture of Michael Jackson in a gold robe and a story about contraceptive gel that Metro's already reported on this morning, for free. Then, another 'Did You Know?' column. This approach is like The Sun's, but with bigger words.
'Family Fun In Denmark!' says the Ryanair ad. Shame the beer's so expensive.
Finally, we get some near-decent news here, but the articles are too short and they're fighting a half page ad for space.
More of the same, sadly. And the five-clue cryptic crossword suggests the paper is aimed at 11 year olds who find The Express too cerebral.
Hundreds have died of cholera in Haiti. Leaked reports hint at atrocities in Iraq. Brutal spending cuts have left the UK in a fix. But hey! Here's a large-ish article about whether Burt from Sesame Street is gay, along with a shockingly banal mini article about ambiguously gay cartoon characters. (Note to sub editors - 'Spongebob Squarepants' is a member of the Porifera phylum and so not gay, but rather, a hemaphrodite.)
As an afterthought, there is also a short article about gay men having a guide written about them being fathers, just in case being compared to Bugs Bunny has left them feeling impotent.
A story about Nazis is somewhat undermined by sharing a page with a review of a perfumery and a story about an American girl with hiccups who murdered somebody.
Now onto the 'views' section, which is to say, where they stick all the opinion pieces so you can properly ignore them. Are 'Russia's role in the world' and 'pension reform' important issues? Yes, but again the editorial is undermined by proximity to a beyond-parody 'news map' with issues like the US porn industry and ex-Australian PM John Howard getting slagged off years after he stopped being a world figure.
Then, The Independent's star columnist, Johann Hari, feels jolly let down by that Obama chap and won't support him any more. Meanwhile, the Tea Party fills Congress and the Senate with screaming fundamentalists.
Despite this being the first issue, somehow i has got letters. Are these from the future? Does i have a future? They presumably already know. There follows a rather stripped down and meagre diary page with Peter Mandelson and Kasabian rubbing shoulders together in a sort of 'chocolate and cabbage'-type juxtaposition.
This page plumbs the depths with a hilariously short obituary written for people with a 47 second attention span. Meanwhile, in the next column, Deborah Ross rambles on about nothing. You can almost read the 'WILL THIS DO?' written on the bottom of the page in red ink.
Here are two serious articles about education that are much, much smaller than the two ads they share the page with.
Is Chris Morris behind this, and indeed the whole enterprise? Or does i actually think a column repeating half-amusing tweets from Twitter is a worthy use of newsprint? Remember, we're paying 20p for this and the last time I checked, you could read Twitter for free.
Ads, lightweight filler articles, more ads, more filler, something about Afghanistan, yet more ads...
DJs are flocking to the Greek island of Myknonos! FLIPPING 'ECK!!!
Some serious news stories here, dwarfed by two huge ads in the centre of each page.
An article on Drew Barrymore's dog is larger than the previous page's article on child abuse.
Sony has apparently stopped making cassette Walkmans. The Guardian had this on its site over 24 hours earlier.
Here begins a truly awful TV section with a review of last night's telly that the Evening Standard (published by the same group for free) did so much better the night before. Such are the low expectations of i that it doesn't print the TV schedules so much as splits them up into genres so you don't have to bother reading them that much.
The Mel Gibson article. Heat magazine need not lose any sleep.
A two page feature tells us to 'Think Like A Child (and be really successful)'! At drooling, presumably. Somebody also reviews a podcast by an avid knitter. Elsewhere the soul of journalism quietly dies.
Ads, advertorial and yet more about Twitter.
Here commences some terrifyingly vapid 'arts' coverage featuring brief articles that say very little and use lots of big pictures.
Despite the frenzied Central London bias that abounds in this paper, somehow it manages to keep a straight face while telling us what the weather in Newcastle is like.
Some of the flimsiest, shallowest business news reporting ever, as written for people who don't know that Australia has dollars. Again, the Standard and even Metro makes a better go of it than this.
Ah! A BT ad with a nice of picture of a hedgehog! I like hedgehogs, me.
Somehow there seems to be more content in the sports section than the rest of the paper. Still nothing substantial though.
A puzzle page aimed at people who think 'jumping parasite' (4 down) is a challenging crossword clue.
A car ad.
And that's it. Despite claiming to be a national newspaper, i reads a lot like those abysmal free evening papers you used to get handed on your way home. It has next to no in-depth coverage, and fills its pages mainly with adverts or the most general fluff imaginable.
Far from being aimed at "lapsed readers of quality newspapers", the paper is desperately seeking a sort of particularly young, dumbed-down reader who wouldn't read a newspaper in the first place.
There's no way i can reach out to its target audience simply because it's just not there. They are chasing the wrong people, and in a way they know it. The end product lacks any soul and has very little in the way of quality.
So how about this for a solution? Accept that content is king, and that the people who appreciate good content will come back for it if it's there. Yes, go after the older readers - those most maligned of beasts. Stop chasing a 'yoof' audience that doesn't care. Start trying to win back the audiences that do. And that means focussing resources on quality reporting and writing, and treating the readers with some respect.
For it's this loss of connection between newspaper and reader, rather than technological innovations, that have caused newspapers to begin a slow, painful extinction, and publishing products that are even more vacant will change nothing. Indeed, they will speed up the death of the Newspaper.
To conclude, if Lebedev is going to offer a print title for 20p, it may as well be The Independent itself. At its worst, it's still a better read than this load of future hamster bedding.
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