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Mark Shenton’s week: The Independent abandons print, but what does it mean for the arts?

The Independent is dropping its print edition. Photo: Lawrey/Shutterstock The Independent is dropping its print edition. Photo: Lawrey/Shutterstock

Last Friday it was announced that The Independent is to cease publication as a daily and Sunday print publication some 30 years after its highly successful launch. At one point the newspaper overtook The Times in numbers of readers. This heralds the start of yet another chapter in British journalism.

Idealistically founded to be free of proprietor influence in the era of Murdoch and Maxwell, it has of course long fallen under the shadow of oligarch ownership, since only really rich people can afford the seemingly inevitable losses that running a newspaper entails, in return for the supposed influence it buys them. Its sales figures peaked at some 423,000 copies sold back in 1990, but now it sells just 40,718 after free or discounted copies are stripped out.

As The Guardian noted in a media blog last week: “That had simply become unsustainable in an age where so much information is free online.” Announcing the news, the paper’s current owner Evgeny Lebedev told his staff in a letter last week:

We are embracing an exclusively digital future with independent.co.uk and its associated sites. We faced a choice: manage the continued decline of print, or convert the digital foundation we’ve built into a sustainable, profitable future… We will be the first of many leading newspapers to embrace a wholly digital future.

In a separate Guardian editorial, commentator Brian Cathcart agreed with the latter statement:

We should be sad, but we also need to get used to that feeling, for sooner rather than later they will all go. No one can say in what order it will happen, but it will happen to the most venerable titles, even to the top-selling Sun and Mail. Trace the downward curves of print sales over the past couple of decades and then extend those lines into the future: you will find they all hit zero at some point in the next 25 years or so – and of course they will have to cease publication long before that zero moment comes.

How does all this affect arts journalism? The Independent on Sunday had already led the way, again, a few years ago when it laid off all of its critics, including its long-serving and brilliant theatre critic Kate Bassett. Although I hope the Indy’s arts coverage will continue in some form online (and we don’t lose such excellent critics as Paul Taylor and commentators like Alice Jones), the worry of a digital-only future is that the arts, especially those with smaller readership constituencies, will be sidelined. In a world where readership of each individual review or feature can be precisely counted by the number of clicks it receives, anything that doesn’t generate whatever is considered to be a high number will simply be abandoned.

We’ve already seen this trend at papers such as The Daily Telegraph, which has a digital-first policy, and reviews only a fraction of the theatre it used to cover. Where once coverage was an end in itself, now it is only generated if it attracts online readers.

This will mean, in turn, that online specialist publications – like the one you are reading now – will become far more important to cover the waterfront. And The Stage is uniquely committed to this approach, recently appointing Natasha Tripney as a full-time in-house reviews editor and continuing her role as joint lead critic (with me). I am incredibly proud to be part of this team, and none of us take this responsibility lightly. We need to be here more than ever now that places like The Independent no longer are.

In other news of the week: it has now becoming a standard practice to invite critics to a range of previews ahead of the official opening night – but until now I’d never seen an opening night that excluded critics. For The End of Longing, critics were invited to three performances ahead of the opening, but not the opening night itself, which was off-limits.

Ditto, this week’s opening of The War of the Worlds, which is having a gala on Wednesday, and isn’t inviting press until the night after. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the months to come. As we saw with last year’s opening of Hamlet at the Barbican, some sections of the press are playing their own game, rushing in to review the very first public performance. It’s not surprising that if producers are making up their own rules about when critics can come, critics will start doing the same thing.

I’ve had a busy week: up to and including Sunday, I saw (or was part of) 10 shows. I was on reviewing duty for The Stage for half of those; two more were repeats of shows I’ve seen and loved before, several times over (Bend It Like Beckham and Close to You). And the show I was involved in myself was an onstage version of Mr and Mrs, in which my husband and I were among the competing couples. The latter was held at London’s Union Theatre as a fundraising Valentine’s Day special, ahead of the theatre’s move to new premises across the road in the summer.

On one day alone, I travelled to Chichester (to talk to a 100-strong student group about theatre criticism) in the morning, then to Richmond (to catch a matinee of Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone), then out to Dartford for the tour of Footloose the Musical. Notwithstanding train difficulties that had me taking a cab for part of the journey to Chichester (I shared with two businessmen heading in the same direction, so the £105 fare was split three ways, fortunately), it was a splendid day. The only other disappointing fact was that Urch’s play, featuring an all-black cast at the Orange Tree, was being watched by an all-white audience. Why can’t it reach a wider audience?

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