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Roger Alton

Roger Alton was appointed editor of The Independent in July 2008. Prior to that, he edited The Observer, between 1998 and Christmas 2007. Prior to this Roger held a number of positions at The Guardian. Roger was awarded Editor of the Year at the What the Papers Say Awards 2000 and Editor of the Year at the GQ Awards 2005. Roger is also a member of the Press Complaints Commission.

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Newspapers, Swedish detectives and the small print

Posted by Roger Alton
  • Monday, 1 December 2008 at 01:50 pm

The Independent has been in the news a bit recently, and thats's why I would like to ask anybody out there for views. What we want to do is produce the sort of newspaper you really want.

So please let me know the type of news or features or pictures or investigations you would like.  Do you want  Strictly or the Large Hadron Collider or Britain on the Booze, or Damian Green or all of the above? I sometimes think we are not  women-friendly enough in our coverage. But I am a bloke and  probably useless at that, so I am asking you: what could we do to become more woman-friendly?

And  I think our print product and our multi-platform web operations -- online, video, downloads etc etc -- should be closely related. I  can't get enough of our brilliant political analyst Steve Richards  --  and I mean that in a good way --  so I would like to see him all over the internet as well as the paper. But of course he is only human!

Anyway, please let  me know below.


On a totally other matter: what about Sunday night's telly?  Personally, I can't stand the BBC -- I think it is bloated, bureaucratic, ripe for partial privatisation,  and astonishingly inept at handling its own problems. But crikey, it does show fantastic TV. And on Sunday night with Wallander (90 minutes) and Spooks (60 minutes) you had 2 1/2 hours of absolute diamond-crusted, five-star,  double Olympic gold medal  television drama.

Unless you had an IQ the size of Greater Manchester  it was all pretty baffling, (and I have actually read the magnificent Wallander novels by Henning Mankell),  but  both shows are wonderfully acted, photographed and written. And by the end I knew that Sweden is vicious and corrupt, and obviously everyone in MI5 appears to have gone rogue. Only one tiny complaint (well, not that tiny): at the end of Wallander, which was stuffed with superlative performances,  I wanted to see who some of those mighty actors were, and I don't just mean brilliant David Warner as Ken Branagh's dotty dad. 

But what happened was that the tiny-type end credits shot up  the screen like a rocket. They were quite impossible to read. So please BBC, slow down and let the public see who these marvellous actors are.


improving the independent
ed_gallois wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 08:19 am (UTC)
Hi Roger.

First off let me congratulate you on two things you've already done at the Independent: bringing in full colour and scrapping the tedious front pages of recent years.

A good start then, but clearly a lot more has to be done to save the paper if the latest ABC circulation figures are to be believed.

Here are 10 suggestions to improve the Independent:

1. Be an independent newspaper, as you once were in the 1980s, and provide news and features for the open-minded reader. Less ideology, more facts, and don't presume to tell the reader what they should think.

For example, your paper's coverage of climate change is often one-sided without justifying its stance. Your journalists should constantly be asking themselves: is this the full picture?

A daily version of the Economist wouldn't be a bad aim to begin with.

Yes, the Economist have core libertarian and free-trade beliefs that they constantly promote, but the difference between them and the Independent is they explore the other side of the argument.

2. Much, much more investigative journalism.

I realise investigative journalism costs more than your average hack re-writing a press release, but it's essential to the Independent's future. The popularity of freesheets and news blogs is only going to increase, so you need to differentiate yourself from the reams of guff out there.

For example, take the British press coverage of Barack Obama and his meteoric rise to the American presidency. Can you name me one article that appeared in a British newspaper about his long background in Chicago politics?

There was one. Over a period of two years build-up to the election. It appeared in the Sunday Telegraph but that was simply a re-print from the New Yorker.

Isn't that incredible? Next month Obama will become the most powerful person on the planet and yet no British newspaper bothered to investigate Obama's first decade in politics. The ten years in local politics, as the New Yorker point out, that made Obama the politician he is today.

Here is the excellent article in question.


If the Independent can publish one article like that a week, it'll be a start.

3. Keep the fluff in the features section. Let the other papers run stories on John Sergeant quitting Strictly Come Dancing and stick to the important stuff. You might lose short term hits on your website, but your reputation for being THE thinking man's newspaper will build and spread. There's a reason the Economist's circulation figures remain steady while all national papers lose popularity.

4. More quality, less quantity. Instead of 30 pages of vaguely researched news stories with little background explanation, how about 20 pages with in-depth coverage of the main news items? If I want bize-size news stories, I'll pick up Metro or go to the BBC's website and save a quid.

5. Improve your columnists. You're right to praise Steve Richards, but he's a diamond in the rough. The reason Steve's so good is he explores topics from both sides of the political divide and has genuine insight on difficult topics. He also never does tedious look-at-me lifestyle journalism, which I'm afraid a lot of your columnists do.

So, get more columnists like Steve Richards. People who can explain to your readers how the world works and not what they ate for dinner last night. People like Peter Wilby at the Guardian who writes insightful articles about the media every Monday. Out-of-the-box thinkers like Sathnam Sanghera and Danny Finkelstein at the Times.

Pay Jon Ronson whatever he wants to write features. He's that good.

And why not try and poach a really huge name like Christopher Hitchens to show you mean business?

Richard Dawkins reads the Independent. Why not ask him if he wants to do a weekly science column?

(more follows)
improving the independent (continued)
ed_gallois wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 08:21 am (UTC)
6. More sport. Often the football coverage in the Independent is just match reports. You badly need a David Conn.

7. Cleaner ink on better quality printing paper. Sounds pedantic but it matters.

8. Interesting but not misleading headlines. "5-year-olds to be taught about sex" - a recent untrue headline in the Telegraph. Puns are funny, lies aren't.

9. More analysis of newsworthy events. Explain to your readers why a particular news item is important.

To give you one example, Chris Patten made some controversial comments about tuition fees a month ago. He wants universities to be able to choose how much they charge their students.

His comments were widely reported in the quality press but there was no analysis of the implications of what would happen to British higher education if his wish came true (which isn't out of the question given his influence in the corridors of power as Chancellor of Oxford).

Here are some possibilities of what might happen, according to several university lecturers I spoke to:

a) Oxford, Cambridge and a handful of other elite universities begin to charge astronomical Harvard-level fees. This puts off smart working class students from attending top universities because they don't want to graduate with £50,000 debt.

b) Less prestigious universities begin to lower their tuition fees to attract more numbers. New universities drop tuition fees entirely for yearly sponsorship deals with household-name goods.

c) Businesses pay elite students' tuition fees in return for work placements after university.

d) Swathes of young people are put off university after wrongly assuming they will have to pay astronomic fees. This is already happening now among some poor families, but it will get much worse.

I'm not saying all or necessarily any of these scenarios would play out, but I hope you can see it's an area that would interest a lot of your readers.

The mindset of newsrooms, however, seems to be: sorry reader, a brief summary of that topic appeared in xyz newspaper yesterday, so it automatically won't make our newslist today. Yes, reader, even if you are crying out for a detailed and informed analysis on the subject.

10. Hire me. I'm cheap, hardworking, talented (ask Steve Richards or John Rentoul), NCTJ qualified and want to make the Independent better.

Good luck.

Ed Gallois
doctor_fegg wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 10:56 am (UTC)
I've long thought (call me a tedious old boot) that the modern-day equivalent of the Independent's old "no royals" stance would be "no celebs".

That's why I eventually gave up on the IoS in exasperation and switched to the Observer. I'm a tribal reader of the daily, but even then, the price rise means I pick it up a bit less often than I did - mostly because I'm not convinced there's enough meat for £1.

Your new neighbours have the budget to do celebrity stuff better than you ever can. And the Independent is the most "metropolitan" of all anyway - chances are most of your readers will pick up a Metro on the train for their gossip fix. Don't waste space trying to imitate them.

Incidentally, the production and layout are superb at the moment - keep it up.
Be Independent
dctmnk wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 11:38 am (UTC)
The paper should be the paper that questions everything, not just authority or the establishment but the groupthink that clouds many other newspapers views.

The Indy should stop its tabloid-eqsue moralising over 'green issues'. The front-covers on green issues are different only in issue from Daily Mail covers on Ross/Brand or whatever else they harp on about.

I agree with the other commenter who suggested there should be little, or no, celebrity coverage. The majority of any celebrity coverage is tripe, rarely is a celebrity actually news.

The most important investigations would be the abuse of power, which should be quite easy to find with this Government.
My two penn'orth (part one)
xiv_gemina wrote:
Thursday, 4 December 2008 at 07:48 pm (UTC)
let me start by saying that I've been buying the Independent for about fifteen years now, and am grateful for the chance to 'speak to' the Editor.

For me, the Indy's USP has always been its more cerebral approach to news coverage; that it eschews the very-cheap-to-cover-but-essentially-irrelevant fluff-pieces about Royals and 'slebs' that appear in other sections of Her Majesty's Press.

I would like the paper to continue to concentrate on *real news*, rather than allowing the editorial direction to follow the paper format of the printed paper - if I *wanted* to read meaningless guff about soap 'stars', I'd buy a traditional 'tabloid' rather than a 'quality' daily.

I want to see the paper concentrate on covering the following stories:
1) hard political news - what is the Government doing?; what do the Opposition Parties think about it?; investigative exposures of undemocratic developments, corruption, conflicts-of-interest, hypocritical posturing; systemic failures in the Public sector; corruption in the Private sector - *especially* within the 'Financial Services' sector that rules (and which has just wrecked) our modern economy.
2) *real* news that affects us all, examples of which include economic collapse; Foreign News (the enhanced coverage of which was the USP of the paper in its early days); changes in EU legislation/powers/accountability covered in an adult, factual manner - rather than in the shrieking style beloved of the red-tops; advances in science/technology/medicine, and discussion of the new moral questions that these raise; above-inflation price rises imposed by the privatised utility/transport monopolies; the Privatisation-by-stealth of the NHS (and BBC).

On the analysis/comment side of the paper, I want to see *intelligent critiques* of the pronouncements of the powerful/wealthy/influential - e.g. if politicians are basing their latest policies on premises that are flawed, that contradict their core values or previously-espoused policies, or if companies are using lies based on bad science to deceive the public, in the pursuit of ever higher Profits (such as the posturings of Climate Change deniers in the energy sector, and of their right-wing apologists in politics & certain parts of the media), I want the columnist to show WHY they are wrong - I do not want to be told baldly 'what to think', whichever side of an argument the commenter is taking. I wish *not* to see those that hold the opposing view merely demonised, which is another thing that I would expect to find in traditional tabloids, rather than in a quality paper. In the past, this has always been one of the Indy's strengths, and long may it continue.
I also do not wish to see fake moral outrage - if something offends a columnist, I wish to know why - bald appeals to 'traditional family values' and/or religious tracts are merely lazy, and they cut no ice with me. I do not object to such views being aired in the paper, but I object strongly to unjustified claims that 'religion x' or 'family/societal model y' is inherently superior to all others, and that everyone should therefore be forced to abide by the columnist's chosen system.
I particularly wish *not* to see hypocritical attacks on any one sector of society - hereditarily-wealthy Bankers attacking Public Sector salaries/pensions spring immediately to mind here (and no, I am NOT a Public Sector employee). By all means print attacks on the Public Sector - but only if they make sense and can be justified by those making them (e.g. exposing excessive perks or lack of accountability), and NOT if the attacks are being made by wealthy people solely on the grounds that they personally do not wish to pay any tax, and everybody else can go hang.
[Obviously, my desire to see justifications is much less profound in humour pieces.]

More to follow...
My two penn'orth (part two)
xiv_gemina wrote:
Thursday, 4 December 2008 at 08:35 pm (UTC)

On the Political side of things, I have always admired the Independent's willingness to praise (and to criticise) ideas/policies *without any regard for the identity of the person/Party espousing them*.

This editorial independence is, for me, the paper's greatest strength.
The editorials have never been afraid to take positions espoused by Left, Right or Centre politicians, and this lack of a 'Party line' is very appealing.
I have no interest in buying a paper that acts merely as the propaganda arm of any one political Party, or of a corporate proprietor. That I do not always agree with the paper's line, and so am forced to confront my own ideas/prejudices is a *good* thing.
I think that this sentiment is one that *all* Independent readers would agree with.

On the subject of the paper's perceived political stance, I think that in these straightened times it *must* continue to appeal to its current 'core readership'. Whether or not it is correct, there is a general perception that the paper is, broadly speaking, of the centre-Left.
With circulation (and advertising revenues) falling, there may be a temptation to shift the paper's political stance to the Right in order to 'chase ratings'.

I think that this would be a profound mistake.

On the one hand, a shift to the Right would alienate the centre-Left readers who make up (I believe) the paper's core readership, and so they would probably take their business elsewhere.
On the other hand, the market for Right-wing quality papers is thoroughly sewn-up by the 'Telepgraph' and the 'Times', and to try to poach readers from either of these giants would be extremely hard.
Each has many times the resources of the Independent, and could easily drive a Right-shifted Indy to the wall by temporarily discounting their cover price (which circulation-boosting tactic the Times has used in the past).
In short, in my opinion the paper would be committing suicide by shifting to the Right and trying to remain in the 'quality' market.

There is also, in my opinion, no room for a 'dumbed-down' Indy in the 'middle-brow' market. The Mail & the Express are *very* well established there, and also have many times the resources available to the Independent. Either of these titles could also easily squash the Independent if it sought to poach their readers.

Regardless of any political stance that the paper may (or may not) have, the core appeal of the Independent is its editorial independence - to allow *that* to be lost would (in my opinion) sound the title's death-knell.

In this age of instant internet access to developments, newspapers must provide intelligent, informed analysis of events, and intelligent and informed debate, and this is probably more true for the Indy than it is for any other title.
The paper *must* remain 'cerebral', and to treat its readers as intelligent adults - to cover/debate the complex issues that face our species today in a manner that informs its readers, and also makes us confront our own ideas.

To be concluded...
My two penn'orth (final part at last)
xiv_gemina wrote:
Thursday, 4 December 2008 at 08:39 pm (UTC)
To abandon either the paper's independence or its intelligence would be to turn the paper into just another cloned 'media product' - in a market that is already saturated with Party/Corporate mouthpieces, and with organs that speak down to their customers ('Viewspapers', if you will).

I'd like to make one final point about the paper's future: I think that moving the offices from Docklands to renting space from Associated Newspapers is potentially-damaging to the circulation.
Although the move allows the paper to cut its production costs in the short term, I fear that it also risks alienating some of the readership.
Although I have been buying the paper for many years, and I like it more than any of its competitors, I feel **very** uncomfortable at the prospect of subsidising the production of the Daily Mail - a paper that I personally find abhorrent.
For the paper's sake, I hope that my qualms about the move are not shared by large numbers of the Independent's customers.

A Technical Point
I was only able to find this blog after reading what the Guardian's website had to say about the move to Kensington.
Am I just being spectacularly obtuse, or should the front page of 'Independent Minds' contain links to ALL the paper's staff blogs, and not *just* to the 'most-read' ones?

Yours, with apologies for the prodigious length of my ramblings,
caiiiigcapek wrote:
Tuesday, 24 February 2009 at 04:01 pm (UTC)
I want to notice- just stay the same and do you're already doing. Post more adjective articles as we are seeing on Independent Minds,

Thanks, uge
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Friday, 8 April 2011 at 06:49 pm (UTC)
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Monday, 31 October 2011 at 05:44 pm (UTC)
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