The winding story of Europe’s most innovative newspaper

by Martim Avillez Figueiredo        

Portugal’s “i” information brand used highly targeted content to quickly reach its audience, 22% of whom were not previously reading a newspaper, half between the ages of 19 and 23. Despite its successes, the story has a dark side.

Click the image to view a larger versionThe story of “i,” the Portuguese daily newspaper elected European newspaper of the year only six months after its launch, is a remarkable one of innovation and team work. 
I had the enormous pleasure of starting the process, as well as the even bigger satisfaction of putting together a dream team of young journalists, all sharing this deep commitment toward innovation and changing processes. Together, we created what The Guardian in the United Kingdom considered one of the most innovative newspapers in the world last year.
Let me start by saying that “i” is not a traditional daily newspaper. I had just left the position of editor-in-chief at Diário Económico in Portugal, so we decided to come up with a trendy financial and political daily newspaper. We knew our target audience: urban executives, high-profile company staff, university finalists, the financial and political universe of highly demanding readers, some of them tired of reading the Portuguese media. 
In less than one year, we achieved newsstand sales of up to 12,000 copies a day. Compare this number with our competitors, Público (20 years in the market) and Diário de Notícias (100 years old), selling close to 25,000 copies day. 
The secret? We thought of “i” as the right engine to fuel the creation of a new information brand, not as a new daily newspaper. In fact, we created a daily product because of our strong will to drive that brand up in the fastest and shortest possible period of time. Every other detail follows from this one. 
Because we wanted to create that new and trendy information brand, we knew we had to be aggressive on content. Slashing sections was an obvious decision; demanding audiences do not need a newspaper to tell them if they are reading the business section or the political section. They just want good, well-edited, in-depth information. So we came up with this double solution. On one hand, a simple four-section daily newspaper (Opinion, Radar, Zoom, and Mais); on the other hand, an innovative design that gave the daily the look of a magazine. 
In one sentence, here’s what we were searching for: to recreate the lost glamour of magazines, mix it up with the forgotten aggressiveness of a hard news daily newspaper, and wrap everything up with the in-depth approach of some good old monthly publications. 
With only four sections? Yes. Let’s take a closer look:
  • Pages 2 and 3 offer Opinion as a starter.
  • Next is the Radar section, 10 pages packed with caviar journalism — fresh news released in a fast forward format picked from the usual journalistic basket of interviews, briefs, bios, info graphics, and photo journalism. Within Radar, a story can’t run longer than 150 words, which opens space for the next section.
  • Zoom, the filet mignon of the newspaper, is 20 to 25 pages each day with six to 10 stories, some as long as 1,300 words, and unique photos (picturing all the regular political and economic characters).
  • Last but not the least, the Mais section (“mais” means “more”), which is more of everything that is not hard news. Mais includes a wide range of subjects, from metropolitan features to national sports, from culture recommendations to weekend and get away tips. 
Here are our results: 22% of those who were buying “i” every day were not daily newspaper readers at all; of those, 50% are between the ages of 19 and 23; “i” managed to grab 72% of the Portuguese elite as readers. 
But then comes the dark side of the story. Portugal, being such a small market (10 million population, about 6% buying newspapers), created a media market with a lot of newcomers — companies with investments in different sectors of activity that jumped into the media world in search of credibility and social, economical, and political influence. Sometimes it’s not easy to spot them before things go wrong. 
In June 2010, that’s happened with the “i” shareholders, and so I tried to lead my team towards an MBO. We had no success, even after we found the shareholder a buyer. So we decided to leave this incredible story because the political pressure the shareholder was suddenly imposing upon the newsroom (during election times) was unacceptable. 
The newspaper immediately lost up to 30% of its team, and sales decreased 41.3% of its sales (year-over-year for October). Advertising, which was growing on a sustainable rhythm (sales revenues were up to 135% on a monthly basis when we left), disappeared from the newspaper’s pages.
The newspaper is still heating the newsstands, but on the last day of October, an announcement was made by the “i” shareholders that the newspaper is for sale. What we all learned with this story is that good ideas do not depend only on what’s good about them; they also depend on who has the money to bring them up to light. The “i” newspaper was a good idea with the wrong money. 

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