The Independent’s digital-only journey was forced and is successful

By Robert Okpu

Stockholm, Sweden


The Independent, headquartered in London, claims to be the world’s only profitable and successful transformation of a quality newspaper brand to “all digital.” And anyone who does some desktop research will come to the conclusion that this is actually true.

“In 2016, we made that brave decision to cease print and go digital only,” Jo Holdaway, chief data and marketing officer at The Independent told attendees at INMA’s Media Subscriptions Summit in Stockholm earlier this month. “The reason that we had to do that was financial. We were a loss-making business. We were forced to go digital only. We did not have a choice. And I think, because of that, we knew that we had to make it work.”

The Independent is a privately owned, quality news organisation, with around 250 employees, active in several countries with the UK and the United States being its really big markets. Their online-only content is quite rare for a heavyweight news brand. 

Revenue has become much more diverse at the media company since 2016.
Revenue has become much more diverse at the media company since 2016.

Transformation at the Independent since 2016 has been rapid

“Where are we now? In the U.S., we are focusing on scale,” Holdaway said. “In the UK, we are shifting our priority towards reader engagement.”

Some things The Independent does are perhaps not particularly common practice: 

“We score every single article that we publish, based on the engagement that it receives, and also the traffic it receives.

“What I am interested in is the high engagement but low traffic quadrant, the niche quadrant. Because what we find in our analysis is that this is the quadrant where there are people that are most likely to convert to a subscription.”

In the UK, The Independent now has 35.1 million unique visitors. In the United States, that figure is 27.5 million. Globally, the figure for unique visitors is 85.3 million.

When The Independent went all digital in 2016, a “daily edition” was launched for the subscribers, Holdaway said: “They were very loyal, but they are aging. A couple of years, later we launched ‘independent premium.’ This was a test market to see whether or not an online proposition and an app proposition that was payable would work for our audience.”

The reader revenue journey continues

The team at The Independent is currently in the in the beta stage, it’s reader revenue strategy not yet fully developed. Yet the main aim of the news media company to switch to an all digital brand has already been achieved — revenue-wise — because the team had the right priorities from the beginning, Holdaway said.

“We spent the first couple of years building up our product team, building up our marketing team, making sure we had the right platforms and processes in place to support a reader revenue strand,” she said. 

The Independent's A2K strategy is data-based.
The Independent's A2K strategy is data-based.

During this journey, Holdaway has also had to convince decision-makers in her own organisation which road to go down.

“We have been growing aggressively on registrations,” she said. “We call it an A2K strategy. We all know that we should have a registration strategy, but for me it was a way to try and persuade the board that reader revenue was the way forward in ways of protecting our overall strategy and the viability of the company moving forward.”

Holdaway explained the math:

“When I explained the figures to the board, they were really surprised. If you look at anonymous readers, they will read three articles in six months. Just three articles. If we bring them down the funnel to being registered, that increases 11 times, so they read 33 articles. If we convert them to subscription, that goes up 62 times to 185 article views.

“So to me, it’s obvious why we have to push people down that funnel.”

The challenges for a reader revenue model, though, are plentiful.
The challenges for a reader revenue model, though, are plentiful.

There are still tough challenges to get past for the future, Holdaway said. For example, the younger generation is using social media (not Facebook, though) as its primary news source. Also, barely one-third of readers currently trust news site enough to part with their data.

But with The Independent’s model having attained profitability and viability as quickly as it has, they are in position to face focus areas for the future head on.

About Robert Okpu

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