As the coronavirus crisis ravaged the media sector in 2020, publishers still in growth mode are the exception to the rule. The latest rare example: U.K. news title The Independent is embarking on a major global expansion push after ringing in “double-digit” revenue growth for its most recent financial year, which ended this September.
The news title, which dropped its print newspaper and became an online-only operation in 2016, has begun hiring journalists to staff a Los Angeles bureau, which will take its U.S. staff up to around 40 in total. The company is also growing its editorial team in Delhi, has plans to hire in Mumbai and is in the preliminary stages of assessing a move into China. Bloomberg earlier reported The Independent’s India and China plans. Overall, The Independent employs more than 200 people around the world — most of which are journalists — and the company anticipates headcount will grow a further 20-25% across its editorial, commercial and regional teams by the end of this year.
Christian Broughton, who earlier this month was promoted from his position as The Independent’s editor to become its managing director, said the choice to expand operations in India was in part because the publisher is looking to establish a global, 24 hour editorial operation, where one team can seamlessly pass off to another in a different timezone. With a population of more than 1 billion, there’s also clear potential to significantly grow The Independent’s readership further — though it is up against other established global news organizations and local titles such as The Times of India, Dainik Jagran and Hindustan.
The expansion in India, where the company initially plans to take on around a dozen journalists, is “not just about trying to build blind global scale,” according to Broughton.
“The commercial success [of the India investment] is dependent on global scale with context. A lot of publishers have probably got numbers in India, but have they got a news organization that means that much to people? You need connection,” Broughton said. “I think if people try to build blind scale, that’s not right, that’s not enough, you have to be there, you have to mean something to your audience.”
Much of the appeal in India has to do with stories around issues such as climate, technology, the space program, feminism and women’s rights that resonate globally, Broughton added.
Still, winning over readers in India won’t be without its challenges, according to media analyst Thomas Baekdal.
“On the one hand it’s a gigantic market and there really is a tremendous opportunity for growth,” said Baekdal. “But at the same time I think people in India want news from India … when India matures a bit more in terms of digital news I think Indian news brands will be in a much better situation than western newspapers coming in.”
The Independent’s global audience already far outstrips its U.K. traffic. Independent.co.uk had 25.6 million unique visitors in the U.K. in August 2020, up 21% on the prior year, according to research company Comscore. Worldwide, however, The Independent hit 79.5 million uniques in August, up 23% year-on-year. The U.S. has been The Independent’s largest market by traffic ever since the U.S. election, Broughton said.
The Independent is now available in six languages, following the launch of a Spanish-language version of the site in September and through a partnership forged with Saudi Research and Marketing Group to translate its content across the Middle East.
While its official financials are yet to be audited, The Independent marked “double-digit revenue growth” and made a profit in the year to September, which would mark its fourth year as a profitable digital only publisher. That profit will be reinvested into the newsroom’s growth, Broughton said. In the year to 2019, the company recorded a 9% lift in revenue to £27 million ($35 million) and operating profit of £2.3 million ($3 million), down around £700,000 ($911,991) on the prior year.
Like many other publishers, The Independent marked spikes in readership as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the globe. But while other news outlets were pummeled by a mixture of advertiser pauses and keyword blocking, The Independent’s business was remarkably resilient.
While its direct agency sales felt the brunt of such cancelations, “our diverse range of advertising lines offset those gaps through continued robust data-driven sales and sponsorships,” Broughton said in an email.
Around 60% of The Independent’s revenue is derived from advertising, 25% from content sales — which includes digital subscriptions, licensing and syndication — and 15% across new product development and digital services, which includes ad sales, data and technology support for other publishers.
The Independent faces stiff competition in establishing itself as a recognized global news brand to compete with the likes of The New York Times or The Guardian, said media analyst Ian Whittaker.
“Quite frankly I think this is ambitious,” Whittaker said of the Independent’s expansion into India and China. Where the Independent could be more of a success in breaking into these new markets, he added, is by carving out a niche market for English language content, similar to BBC Studios and ITV joint venture Britbox’s strategy in North America, where the streaming platform has 1.5 million subscribers.
But even then, Whittaker said, “It wouldn’t exactly be the obvious strategy.”