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June 5, 2008updated 06 Jun 2008 6:54pm

The Independent: Leader of the reactionary party, and loved by the City

By Peter Kirwan MM blog

At the World Association of Newspapers congress in Gothenberg, Independent News & Media reconfirms its web-wary credentials.

Here’s Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent, deploying a line that’s at least a decade old:

“I have the impression that the internet is like going into a bar where everybody is shouting, whereas when I read a newspaper it is much easier.”

Not to be outdone, Gavin O’Reilly also reached into the store cupboard of web scepticism to describe printed newspapers as the “ultimate browser” (oh dear). O’Reilly went on to add:

I find it rather remarkable how unsophisticated the commentary is on our industry today. They [media commentators] seem to support the conventional wisdom that newspapers are soon to become a relic of the past and that opportunities only exist in a digital sense.

For good measure, he compared bloggers who criticize ACAP to the perpetrators of drive-by shootings.

If you work at either of the Independents, frustration would be a legitimate response. And no matter where they work, Digital Bolsheviks who work tirelessly to bring about the dictatorship of the digerati will shake their heads sadly.

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But hold on a second. Take a look at activist investor Denis O’Brien’s criticisms of IN&M. Is he worried about a lack of investment in digital publishing? Apparently not. Instead, O’Brien complains that the IN&M board isn’t sufficiently independent.

Is the City concerned about IN&M’s lack of enthusiasm for digital?

Nope. Nine analysts follow IN&M. Seven of them are currently advising investors to hold or buy, or expect the stock to “outperform” the market.

Only half of the 16 analysts that follow Trinity Mirror analysts think similarly. Fourteen follow Johnston Press, but only nine attach a hold, buy or outperform rating to the stock.

Although some of IN&M’s popularity is attributable to the presence of Denis O’Brien on the shareholder register, it’s also true that the City likes IN&M.

It likes the fact that IN&M isn’t very interested in the future of news organizations.

And it likes the company’s exposure to the developing world. Overseas adventures are a tried-and-tested method of generating new revenues. You can’t say that about digital investment.

In a recession, the public markets are no place for revolutionaries. Trinity Mirror has been hamstrung by its quoted status for years. Johnston Press is no longer using its quoted status to consolidate the industry. And IN&M has emerged as the leader of the reactionary party.

Among UK-based quoted news organisations, only DM&GT seems to enjoy some freedom to manoeuvre. News Corp enjoys something similar — largely because, like DM&GT, it has diversified intelligently and is still run by a shareholding figurehead who is more than a creature of the markets.

But for the next couple of years, and possibly beyond that, the best way of fomenting a digital revolution will be to do it privately.

In this respect, the Telegraph and the Guardian are both object lessons. Both are shielded in their own ways from short-term investor demands. Not surprisingly, both sit the top of the online traffic rankings for national newspaper sites.

Conicidence? I don’t think so.

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