Alexander Lebedev’s i-opener

Say what you like about Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev’s approach to newspaper economics, you have to admit that he leaves no publishing model unturned. And knows how to spring a surprise.

With dizzying speed, he has acquired control of The Evening Standard, doubled its guaranteed circulation and turned it into a freesheet – just when everyone else was getting out of afternoon freesheet London newspapers. Then gone on to buy the ailing Independent for £1 while pocketing a £9.5m sweetener. And now he’s hatched i – billed (admittedly by himself) as the first innovation in quality newspapers for 25 years.

i? It’s a minuscule version of the Independent – a bit like The Week: but cheaper, at only 20p, and also daily, from Monday to Friday. There’s no new content apart from “some small unique stuff around the edges”, according to PaidContent. Which will obviously be one factor in keeping costs down; another being that it will be overseen by Simon Kelner, already editor-in-chief of the Independent and Independent on Sunday. On the other hand, keeping costs down is not really what it’s about. A circulation of 400,000 has been suggested; and given that it is a paid-for title, distribution overheads are unlikely to be negligible. We’re also told that a substantial outdoor campaign, devised by Beattie McGuinness Bungay, will back the launch.

So this is no trifling brand extension of the Independent. But what exactly is it? Andy Mullins, managing director of the Independent, tells us “it’s for time-poor newspaper readers, and especially commuters” who “just don’t have the time to read a quality newspaper on a regular basis.” The key words here are “commuter” and “quality”. In other words, Lebedev appears to be bidding for the young, upmarket audience abandoned by London Lite and The London Paper with an offering that does not insult their intelligence.

But do we really need another title targeted at upmarket Londoners? After all, most of the Independent’s readership is concentrated within the M25 area, of which London comprises by far the biggest portion. And, as if this were not enough, surely the free Standard is serving some of those commuter needs?

All right, points can be made in favour of further market segmentation. i will be available in the morning, whereas the Standard is an afternoon read; moreover it purports to be aimed at a slightly higher demographic. But even after making these allowances, cannibalisation of Lebedev’s existing readers seems likely to be the inexorable by-product of his latest launch. Why risk it in the first place?

One theory is that it will provide camouflage for a routed Independent, whose fully-paid circulation has already plunged below 100,000 in the UK and Ireland. Another is that we should take Lebedev at his word: he really does have a passion for newspaper publishing that far outweighs concerns about its immediate commercial viability.

It’s easily forgotten just how unlike any other UK newspaper publisher Lebedev is. It’s not so much his wealth – though that’s substantial enough at an estimated $2bn – as where it comes from that sets him apart. Essentially he’s a financier and industrialist (indirect interests include Gazprom and the aircraft-leasing company Ilyushin Finans) who aspires to be a politician in a way that only a Russian could be. In 2008, for example, he set up the Independent Democratic Party of Russia with former Soviet Union supremo Mikhail Gorbachev (who co-owns Lebedev’s liberal Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta). The following year he attempted to run for mayor at Sochi, which will host the 2014 Winter Olympics, but was disbarred. Underlying it all is a tough blend of Yeltsin-era oligarch (one of the few who hasn’t been incarcerated, dispossessed or sent into permanent exile, that is) and Putin-era silovik (ex-KGB officers, who are effectively Russia’s governing class). In other words, Lebedev is a pragmatic survivor who takes the long view.

All of which puts his newspaper interests in little old England into perspective. It would be wrong to define them as a hobby; perhaps they should be seen more as a bolt hole if things go horribly and definitively wrong back home. In the process of building it, let’s hope he’ll discover how to make money out of the contemporary newspaper.

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