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The Independent recently announced that it will be closing its print newspaper titles and putting all efforts into digital

It spun the move as a positive, proudly declaring that it is the first newspaper to go digital-only, but anyone who has followed Mark Ritson’s posts about this publication will know the move was likely an unavoidable decision.

I applaud The Independent’s bravery in publicly admitting defeat in the print market, but if it thinks it’s going to succeed with its site in its current state it’s dreaming. Drastic changes are needed.

I’ve written about my distain for the Indy’s hideous display ads before, but in this post I’m going to touch upon a number of other issues as well.

The question is whether the brand can actually overcome those issues and succeed.

Judging by his impassioned Twitter speech this morning, its owner Evgeny Lebedev clearly believes so.

Independent Evgeny Lebedev Twitter speech

He may be right in the long run, and I genuinely hope he is, but right now The Independent needs a serious review of its site if it wants to avoid being shut down completely.  

Here's why:

Insane display ads

I’ve mentioned The Independent’s obscene use of display ads before, but the topic deserves a recap for this post, because the site is basically an unintentional and painfully ironic advertisement for ad blocking software.

The first thing to note is the overbearing side-scrolling ads that follow you all the way down the article.

Not only are they incredibly obtrusive, they are such a garish eyesore that you wonder why the Indy bothers having its own brand colours at all. 

the independent banner ads

But it isn’t just the creepy scrolling ads at fault. In the screenshot below you’ll see I’ve highlighted no fewer than five types of display ad.

From left to right: 

  • Creepy, garish scrolling ad.
  • Autoplay video ad halfway through article.
  • Very clickbaity suggested posts.
  • Reasonably normal banner ad.
  • More garishness.

Annoying display ads the independent

Here are the key points from the Acceptable Ads Manifesto, published last year by AdBlock Plus (yes I know it’s biased but I still agree with it on all fronts).

The screenshot above might tick point number three but it certainly can’t claim any of the others.

acceptable ads menifesto key points

The result? People will inevitably use an ad blocker on the site. Why wouldn’t they? Out of loyalty to The Independent? In 2016 when they can get news from a thousand other places? Dream on.

Confusing homepage 

I just don’t like The Independent homepage. Upon viewing it I immediately think, ‘Where am I supposed to look?’

(Apologies for the enormous screenshot).

independent homepage

Perhaps I’m a simpleton who prefers things to be completely devoid of all complication, but so are lots of other internet users. 

To be fair, I’m picking on The Independent here but lots of news sites suffer from this problem: an inability to sort content in a way that makes the users’ lives easier. 

It’s no easy job, granted. But perhaps at least splitting the homepage into clear categories would be a good start.

Rubbish comments system

The Independent used to use Disqus, which I’m personally a big fan of. 

Then it moved to a native comment system, which, while not quite as user-friendly as Disqus, still allowed for some basic functions such as sorting comments by ‘best’ or ‘oldest’ or shrinking comment threads. 

But The Independent recently switched to a new comments system that enables absolutely no sorting or customisation of any kind. 

This might be fine for smaller publications where you could expect a few dozen comments at most, but on an article with hundreds of comments it means the vast majority are inaccessible unless you’re prepared to spend half an hour clicking ‘show more comments’ and scrolling.

I’m willing to bet that the number of people bothering to leave their thoughts (or even read other people’s) has dramatically declined as a result. 

The other point to note about The Independent is how often it blocks comments on articles. 

I hate to give it any additional publicity, but the Mail Online, for example, allows comments on every single article unless it is required not to for legal reasons. This is important if you want an engaged community that keeps coming back. 

If The Independent wants to compete with other digital publishers, it needs to seriously rethink its commenting system and also stop blocking people from commenting on articles for seemingly arbitrary reasons. 

Clickbait articles

The final point to make is on the quality of the editorial. 

The Independent has some fantastic writers, there is absolutely no doubt about that. And to a certain extent I understand how sites like Buzzfeed have forced the hand of mainstream news sites when it comes to collecting pageviews. 

But some of the articles on The Independent site are such obvious clickbait nonsense that it’s difficult to retain my sympathy. 

Take the below an example:

independent click bait articles

Or anything under the i100 section:

independent click bait articles i100

The point I’m trying to make here is this: sites like the Independent won’t survive by trying to mimic Buzzfeed et al. 

The Independent is a traditional, non-tabloid news publication. It built a reputation for high-quality, well-informed editorial. Why does that need to change in the digital version?

It doesn’t, is the answer. 

Sites like The Independent have an opportunity to differentiate themselves and be known for producing quality editorial. You know, stuff that actually matters. Personally, I’m all for it. 

Conclusion: a massive opportunity it must not waste

I joked at the start of this post that The Independent tried to put a positive spin on the fact its finances forced it to go digital-only. But actually I think there is an opportunity here. 

Now it can put all of its time, money, resource and thinking-power into making the website as user-friendly as possible, while ensuring the quality of the content remains high. 

It could set an example to other online news sites and become known for providing an exceptional digital news experience. 

Or it could carry on the way it is and eventually fade into obscurity and then oblivion.  

Honestly, as a long-time but increasingly disillusioned reader, I hope it's the former.

Jack Simpson

Published 17 February, 2016 by Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson is a Writer at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (9)

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Grahame Palmer, Marketing Director at All Things Ecommerce Ltd

I agree with much of this commetary, but would add that The Independent does not seem to know its target audience very well. To me, this market is probably quite conservative, comprising people who like to get a perspective on current affairs that is "alternative" and unlikely to be influenced by the agendas of politics and commerce.

I find the site quite an unpleasant experience - for all the reasons posted above - so don't bother going there any more. It is structured to behave in ways that its (hoped-for) audience finds very unappealing... sort of " The stories are here somewhere, but we're going to blast you with ads and promos throughout your quest to find them.

An inordinate quantity of tracking scripts and "spy-ware" generally end up overwhelming my anti-virus systems, leaving a "hanging browser" and resulting often in me having to shut down the browser and re-boot the computer.

If The Independent doesn't address this, it won't survive long.

8 months ago

Andy Headington

Andy Headington, CEO at Adido LimitedSmall Business

Good points Jack. I 100% agree with the 'don't be like Buzzfeed' part. There is WAY too much 'You won't believe this!' type headlines and non-article content already. If they are to really be bold, they should avoid copying this awful technique.

8 months ago

Dave Endsor

Dave Endsor, Digital Executive at Tank PR

A good read, Jack.

I must admit I can't think of a single topic where my go-to 'source' is The Independent. There are plenty floating around in my head that when I think 'sport' or 'film' or 'digital' (yes, you guys!), I immediately know where I'm headed.

And particularly for news sites, I don't find I have one main loyalty. The reason I'll choose places like the Guardian or BBC or even Mashable first (over others), is because I know the content quality is likely to be high, engaging and perhaps a bit more subtlety I know each has a good level of UX.

And as you finish, it's all about what it can offer next.

8 months ago

Paul Tebbs

Paul Tebbs, Account Manager at Econsultancy, Centaur MarketingStaff

Nice post. I agree, the layout/navigation is awful- far too busy. If I pause my Adblock then I get 33 ads on the homepage! Do you know if The Independent or any other newspapers leverage native advertising on their websites? Is this not the future?

8 months ago


Tony Edey, .

Can't argue with any of that. In these days where intelligence, quality and depth are seen as elitist, the Independent should be proud to be a leader in that niche, and stake that ground as it's own. I'd actively stop reading it if it went low brow, because when I go to the Indy it's for quality and substance, not brain dead irrelevant headlines and unrelated advertising. That might well mean they can't compete on page views with the low-brow Taboola (etc) plagued sites, but that audience is not going to pay anyway. They need to focus on great editorial, lower traffic volumes, but sustained revenue from that segment that wants high-brow content.

8 months ago

Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson, Writer at Econsultancy, Centaur Marketing

@Grahame - Thank you. Glad to hear it's not just me!

Really good point about the target audience. From a branding point of view, I think the Indy has an opportunity to position itself as the news site that lives up to its name, i.e. presenting all sides of an argument without, as you say, influence from particular political or commercial leanings.

@Andy - Thanks. Yeah it's a shame to see quality news outlets having gone this way in the last few years, although I understand the desperation to stay relevant (and afloat) given the state of the industry. But they need to remember who they are and, as Grahame mentioned, who their readers are.

@Dave - Thank you. I used to choose the Indy over other news sites because of the quality of the comments section. Loads of interesting debate going on. But since it ballsed up the commenting system that part of the site died, and I left with it.

@Paul - Cheers, and yeah it's a total joke. Actually the reason I downloaded Adblock in the first place!

Off the top of my head, Forbes has been pretty successful with native ads. Check out this interview with its European MD - https://econsultancy.com/blog/67210-how-forbes-com-developed-a-native-content-revenue-model

8 months ago

Dave Endsor

Dave Endsor, Digital Executive at Tank PR

Just adding to my comment. A colleague sent a link to this – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/new-day-trinity-mirror-to-launch-new-weekday-newspaper-a6879231.html – which launched a huge Lacoste advert pushing ALL the content below my larger-than-normal fold.

Reasons to read the Independent online – falling.

8 months ago

Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson, Writer at Econsultancy, Centaur Marketing

@Tony - I couldn't agree more. And I think a lot of people are hungry for the type of content you mentioned. In the last few years the amount of dumbed-down, copied-and-pasted crap on the internet has increased exponentially, even on previously respectable sites, and I think consumers are growing tired of it. At least I hope they are, because I certainly am.

8 months ago

Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson, Writer at Econsultancy, Centaur Marketing

@Dave - Ugh. Not to mention the irrelevant autoplay video ad TWO PARAGRAPHS IN. *Sigh*

8 months ago

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