02 April 2006

Requiem for The Sunday Independent

The Sunday Independent is no more.

Actually, that paper died when it was bought out by local entrepreneur Brian Dobbin.

Now its successor newspaper, The Independent, is out of business as of yesterday when the last number went to the printers.

The official reason - repeated ad nauseum by Dobbin and managing editor Ryan Cleary - is that the paper ran out of money and time.

The official reason is a crock.

Dobbin and Cleary had two full years to do whatever was needed to make the paper viable. That's plenty of time. There was also plenty of cash, evident from the page three picture in the last number showing the staff members. By a rough count, the final staff was at least double the complement of the old Sunday Independent and may well be closer to triple the band that got the paper off the ground in the fall of 2003.

The magnitude of the bleeding will never be known publicly, but it was obviously enough to push Dobbin into abandoning the paper. The Current estimated last fall that Dobbin was losing about $10, 000 per issue; the real figure might well have been much higher once one considers how much of the Spindy's ad revenue came from Dobbin's other companies.

The real season the Spindependent died had nothing to do with time and money. No one can blame Trans-Con Media for this loss, either.


The Spindy died because it simply never matched the grandiose claims its publisher and managing editor continued to make for it right up to the interment. In the whole twenty-odd months of its life, there was rarely anything in the Spindy you couldn't live without reading on Sunday when the paper came out; nothing that couldn't wait until Wednesday when you could get the paper online for free.

As we put it here at the Bond Papers a year ago:
the more Ryan slags everyone else and claims that his paper is somehow superior, the more I know it is just spin; pure unrefined shite. Every week, I look through the Indy and I have yet to see any story that isn't covered just as well if not better in any other news outlet in the province. Well, almost any. I don't read The Monitor any more.

And when I see recycled flatulent crap, as I did this week yet again, on the Indy front page, no less, I can explain to you why your circ sucks. It has nothing to do with CBC refusing your TV spots.

The basic problem is that you claim to be the newspaper for thinking people. You claim to be informative and a whole bunch of other things. Anybody who has looked at the paper knows that it isn't any of those things. Your ad campaign sets you up for a gigantic credibility gap when they hear the ad and then look at a paper that is more like the Spindependent or, this week, the Windypendent than the newspaper for thoughtful people.

If you want to boost your circulation, Ryan, stop telling me how great you are. Try writing a story that proves it. Stop with the grandiose and go back to the basics. Give me solid research, a novel approach, some background and good writing. No one is really interested with the stuff they can get anywhere else, including Open Line. And they obviously aren't really interested in pseudo-nationalist rantings in place of well-researched stuff that draws its conclusions from the evidence, not picks evidence to fit the preconceived conclusions.

In the long run, you'll find that approach is actually less expensive than the in-house ad campaign and it will be more effective in boosting your audience. Boost the audience and you can sell enough advertising to pay the bills.
To be fair, in the past year - especially in the past six months - the Indy generated better stories. The Melina and Keith series is an example, but sadly it was a rare example of the potential the Indy had but never came close to attaining consistently enough to make the paper financially viable.

Cleary's only big project - the much ballyhooed rack of Confederation six-parter - was an utter flop. He did not pull in "every brain" as he claimed in the last number of the paper. Instead he grabbed two refugees from radio talk shows, neither of them known for sticking with facts. By the looks of it, he did grab the janitor to cobble together something that didn't challenge the local orthodoxy. The Spindy series merely repeated it.

They had a conclusion and by God the facts would be chosen to conform to it. When problems occurred, the Indy management was quick to claim information actually in the public domain couldn't be found or was being withheld. In Newfoundland public life, the most common of barnyard animals is the scapegoat.

Not only did the Spindy fail to live up to its self-promotion, it also missed in another crucial area as well. In his final column, Dobbin writes of wanting to put in print what he had heard over a beer or while sitting at the dinner table.

There are two problems with that. First, what is heard over a beer is seldom better than the stuff Cliff Claven spouted. People don't quote barstool know-it-alls except to laugh at them. Second, and more importantly, what is evidently heard around the Dobbin or Cleary dinner table is not some radical new thought. It is very much the view of the local elite on everything from Danny-boy to Confederation.

For a supposedly brazen newspaper, being an Establishment mouthpiece is deadly. Upstarts need to be anti-Christs. They need to challenge orthodoxy, reject the conventional. They need to get in your face and stay there so that as much as people might publicly denounce you, your broadsheet is their secret, guilty pleasure.

The stuff they pull up the covers and read with a flashlight so the husband...or wife...wouldn't catch them at it.

The stuff they will need to go to confession about.

"Forgive me, Fahder for I have sinned. I read it in The Independent."

The Indy under Brian and Ryan was entirely conventional and totally orthodox. The audience they were shooting for already knew just about everything the paper printed and if they needed reinforcement, then surely they could get it by tuning in five days a week to Bill Rowe...for free. Without eyeballs, a paper can't attract readers. And without readers, there are few if any advertisers - the source of cash for all publications.

With all that said, mourn the loss of The Independent. This province needs another media voice, not because the rest is bland or suppressed, but because there are stories here to tell that aren't being told by anyone else.

Mourn the loss - hopefully a temporary one - of talent like photo editor Paul Daly and senior editor Stephanie Porter. They remained my only real reason for buying the paper each week. Sadly, they could not keep the venture afloat on their talents, as considerable as they are.

Above all else, mourn the loss of potential. If just for a moment the Indy had ever come close to what it ought to have been, we'd be sitting here on a Sunday with jaws on floor. We'd be gobsmacked at the latest revelation.

Instead, I am typing an obit I never wanted to see, let alone write.

I sincerely wish it were otherwise.