The Independent newspaper dies as it was born – in the white heat of technology

The end is nigh. John Stillwell/PA

Sunday, bloody Sunday: things began to go wrong for The Independent when the decision was made in 1990 to publish a Sunday edition. From the outset, it haemorrhaged money. And Murdoch, bloody Murdoch dealt a second debilitating blow when he cut the price of competitor The Times. Revenue evaporated, and the Indy titles never truly recovered.

Perhaps the British media’s most regular topic of idle speculation in recent years, the question of how long the Independent newspapers could soldier on for has been answered emphatically by the news that the papers are to cease printing in March and become an online-only operation, with the loss of many jobs.

I was one of the journalists that launched the Independent in 1986 and worked there until 1995. As the dust settles, the autopsy will identify a sequence of events that turned the greatest Fleet Street success story of modern times into a protracted tragedy.

The Independent was perverse, smart, irreverent, sceptical – and very well written. It began without much idea of where it was going. Early news content had rather too many stories about what was “set to” happen, too much about what people said and too little about what they did. But the editors, sub editors and reporters hit their stride. They were encouraged to find stories and project vividly what was unearthed; if the Press Association news agency was covering it, then let’s take their coverage and have Indy reporters out finding unique content.

The Independent’s first issue, Tuesday October 7, 1986. Peter J Jordan/PA

And they did. Tony Bevins in politics, for example. Heather Mills in home affairs. Paddy Barclay in football. John Carlin in South Africa. John Price’s news editing. Photographers were encouraged to eschew conventional picture composition. And their striking images were used imaginatively.

But the paper’s greatest virtue was perhaps its copy tasting, the process of decision-making about what should be published, what prominence it should be given, and what should be discarded.

One typically compelling splash revealed the high number of babies born in New York to mothers who were HIV-positive. It was a story that had been buried in copy filed by a news agency. But the Independent’s curiosity was aroused, the story developed and competitors were left baffled by what they had missed – just one example of the paper’s independent streak.

Some of the distinctive journalism that characterised the papers was lost as ownership shifted. By the mid-1990s the Mirror Group had a stake. In the early 2000s it moved to a compact (tabloid) format and more recently it launched a successful cut-price spin-off, the i, which is being sold on to to Johnston Press.

The i was born under the Lebedevs who bought the titles from Independent News & Media in 2010. In recent decades there have still been traces of the paper’s original voice, but only a shadow of that early élan.

Saved by Thatcher

Readers responded, but slowly. One month, not long after launch, the company only narrowly found the cash to pay wages. Its saviour was probably Mrs Thatcher. Her governments polarised opinion, in Fleet Street as well as among the electorate. So the Independent’s boast of neutrality – “It is, are you?” – was suited perfectly to attract readers to its coverage of the 1987 general election.

Other ingredients merit mention. It was Murdoch, paradoxically, who made the Independent possible: excellent reporters and editors on The Times and The Sunday Times opted not to cross picket lines at the paper’s union-busting printers at Wapping, and were promptly recruited by the Indy’s founders, especially editor Andreas Whittam Smith.

Whittam Smith, the son of an Anglican clergyman and known by his staff as “the saintly one”, was a thoughtful, slightly detached figure. For humble reporters, it was hard to discern the essence of his ability. But he created in the City Road offices an atmosphere in which staff felt they had a proprietorial and emotional stake in their paper, a compelling incentive to do what they loved to do: good, serious and (also importantly) occasionally frivolous journalism. As circulation climbed, narrowing the gap with the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and The Times, there were more reasons to be cheerful. This was the place to work on Fleet Street.

It was also Whittam Smith’s decision to launch the Independent on Sunday, something that puzzled those members of staff who recalled him not that long before denying any intention to enter the Sunday market. Perhaps it was an attempt to stymie the Sunday Correspondent, which had just launched.

From 1990, after Murdoch fired the first shots in the price war, energy levels dipped. The papers were never without flair, without imagination. But there were increasingly without money. But for those four or five years, it hardly seemed to matter. We were masters of the newspaper universe.