All eyes on America, The Independent plans to double U.S. staff

For the first month, more traffic is coming to The Independent from the U.S. than the U.K., according to the publisher’s analytics figures. Previously, readers were split into roughly a third from the U.K., a third from the U.S., and a third from the rest of the world. Of course, the election has been a big driver in this.

Social analytics firm Newswhip found that The Independent was the only U.K.-based publisher in the top-10 most-engaged publishers on Facebook on Nov. 8. The Independent was No. 10, with 542,000 likes, shares and comments on its articles over the 24-hour period. NBC and Huffington Post were first and second, both with over a million engagements on their Facebook posts (not including content natively uploaded to Facebook, like Live or Instant Articles).

Thanks in part to a high number of short posts and opinion pieces, the news publisher has done this with a small newsroom: At launch in January 2015, it had just a couple of U.S. reporters;, currently, there are just 10 across America, and in the next year, it aims to double staff.

“The Independent has found its voice in America,” Christian Broughton, editor at The Independent, told Digiday. He added that launching in the U.S. with such a slim team compared to other U.K. news organizations was not without scrutiny. “Everyone wanted to write us off.” The U.S. is its fastest-growing region in terms of revenue, but the publisher doesn’t disclose exact figures.

“The Independent has one clear advantage over its U.K. newspaper rivals: by becoming a digital-only business, its editorial, commercial and management focus is not diluted by print media considerations,” said Douglas McCabe, CEO at Enders Analysis.

But to become a force in the U.S., The Independent has an uphill climb. The U.S. news landscape is not in need of another entrant, with many news publishers struggling to adapt to a tough ad climate that favors either massive scale or laser focus. That’s hit general news hard, with pullbacks at many publishers.

The Independent, while not very large compared to other U.S. news giants, recorded 12 million uniques to its site on Nov. 9, according to internal analytics. (The Guardian reported a higher 23 million uniques to its property in a single day over the election.) The question will be whether it can differentiate enough to stand out in the market.

The Independent was founded on delivering politically neutral editorial coverage. Unlike other newspapers, it’s not aligned to a particular political party. Well-known foreign correspondents, like Robert Fisk, who are synonymous with the brand, have kept up its reputation as coverage for a global audience.

“Any news organization defined by a U.K. political party is always going to feel like the Brit abroad,” said Broughton. “Instead, the issues and the ideals come first; they transcend international borders: gender equality, pay equality, racial equality. Ideals not parties, with passion and quality, we’ve had strong stances on climate change and Iraq, offering views and news.”

Rather than compete with every other news source, which have more resources, The Independent has focused on impassioned analysis pieces, the two most-read articles were comment article by U.S. editor Andrew Buncombe, headlined “Donald Trump would have lost if Bernie Sanders had been the candidate” and “Congratulations, America. You just elected a man accused of sexual assault to avoid a woman accused of mishandling her emails” by Holly Baxter, deputy editor of Independent Voices, the publisher’s opinion section.

Facebook has been a great engine of growth for The Independent’s international expansion. While Facebook has been criticized for only reflecting one side of the story, Broughton said it’s worth remembering what the platform is. “Facebook is not designed to be a news platform; it’s representative of the social space. When things are new, they get attacked more. It presents opportunities that journalism would be crazy to lock itself out of.”

“Some parts [of the U.S. news landscape] are incredibly biased. Some are incredibly noisy in an unhelpful way. The best parts of it it can be reserved and analytical. The combination of passion and great quality doesn’t happen a huge amount,” said Broughton, who still believes there’s space for The Independent’s voice in the U.S. media landscape.

“In its U.S. expansion, the Independent’s challenge will be achieving scale and relevance for agencies and advertisers,” added McCabe. “If it is going to succeed, it will have to deploy a very flexible platform distribution strategy from a very tight cost base.”

Image: Courtesy of The Independent.

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