i can’t believe it’s not better!

i - image from The GuardianA BIT of a harsh way, perhaps, to start a review of The Independent‘s new baby sister, i.
Tastefully billing itself as ‘the first quality paper to launch in Britain for 25 years’ (and too bashful, naturally, to mention that the previous quality launched was The Indy) i retails for 20p and seems to sit somewhere between the giveaway Metro and what we used to call, in simpler times, the broadsheets.
At 56 pages, it’s chunkier than the former but shares the upmarket look of the latter. The front – you could hardly call it a splash, as there’s no actual copy – is effectively a plug to the page five story on housing crisies, accompanied by a typically Indy-ish arty pic of an anonymous streetscape. There are blurbs for the death of Olympic rower Andy Holmes (a good choice, for me, definitely a story that caught the eye on the news last night) and an attempt to play on the nostalgia of the 20/30-something target audience with ‘Is [Sesame Street‘s] Bert Gay?’. An ill-fated attempt to explain the paper’s colour scheme (lost on me) is down the side and a couple more plugs for features round off the bottom of the page.
Problems start with the strap across the top ‘It’s a red-letter day! i is all you need’ (sounds like the over-enthusiastic efforts of a work-experience kid in marketing) and a bizzare line above the price tag ‘You won’t need a deposit’ – on what? Presumably it’s an attempt to play up the paper’s low cost and link with the main story, but it really is incredibly weak. i’s front also describes it as ‘The Paper for Today’ which sounds like something The Mirror might have used in the 60s, just above ‘From The Indpendent‘ – implying that The Indy isn’t the paper for today? Not smart.
Its first USP is the double-page News Matrix spread on two and three, with 15 single par stories and a couple of info graphics – an interesting, if confusing Daily Beast list of the USA’s most and least ‘intelligent’ cities and a deliberately obscue, utterly pointless panel on who hates who in the celebrity chef community. ‘See if you can make sense of our chef-on-chef hate-ogram’ it invites the reader. Nah, don’t think I’ll bother. Bizarrely, there was also a page-height picture of Jeremy Clarkson. Presumably this was a reference to a story on page nine about Clarkson being bollocked for a joke about people with special needs, although there were no clues. Let’s put it down to teething troubles.
Up to page 11, there are a few lightweight news stories of 10 pars or, considerably, less. The mortgage lead is accompanied by a brief analysis box and stories are dotted with one-par info panels marked with a big red {i} symbol. It all works well enough but doesn’t feel all that original. Interestingly, there are no obvious plugs for the big-brother paper or its website – surely the kind of intelligent and curious read who buys i is likely to find at least one or two stories they want to find out more about, and The Indy‘s site could provide, but readers are, instead, left to Google’s own devices.
By far the best idea in the early part of the book is a five-clue cryptic crossword on page nine. Simple enough to be completed mentally (ideal for the commuter, standing on a jammed train) it’s easy to see it catching on.
A comment spread follows, with Johann Hari, The Indy‘s best and best-known writer kicking things off. One wonders if the i reader is guaranteed Hari, or if one of the paper’s lesser lights will be claiming his slot next week? Opposite is a composite of UK and international views from The Indy and elsehwere – although the casual reader may not immediately grasp where ‘our view’ is coming from.
More comment, much of it from the blogosphere, follows on 14/15 with, at last, a plug to the website, albeit vague, without direct linkage to what’s on the page.
More news follows up to 28/29 and what is optimistically billed on the front as ‘Britain’s best TV guide’. In fact, it offers full listing for only the five terrestrial channels, plus Sky 1 and, laughably, BBC3 – even those only from 4pm ’till midnight. Clearly i has pegged its audience as early risers. The strapped, ‘highlights’ format of much of the page doesn’t feel particularly fresh, although the 15-minute recipe down the side is a neat idea that might catch the attention of the hungry commuter.
After that, the i concept seems to rather run out of steam for a few pages. There are DPS features on Mel Gibson’s rehabilitation and the joys of ‘thinking like a child’ – with handy dozen-word summaries – and a few pages of London-centric arts and ents before a telling weather panel, which finds space for details on Norwich and Bristol ahead of Liverpool and Glasgow – another indication, perhaps, of the target market.
Thing pick up a bit with some bite-sized business news, repeating the Matrix concept, and some sports news and features of various length from The Indy.
A more traditional games page on 55 rounds things off (including ‘exclusive’ idoku – not hard to imagine that finding an audience in the legal offices at Apple!) and a full page ad on the back.
Speaking of ads, there’s no shortage, right through the book. Plusnet broadband takes the bottom of page three and Specsavers a full page on four. Hyundai claims the back and there a full-page ad extoling the virtues of Denmark as a tourist destination on seven.
All in all, it’s an interesting experiment. The fact that I had to trail around a rain-sodden Barrow-in-Furness to find a copy (eventually spotting one peeking out from beneath a week-old London Review of Books in WHSmith) perhaps suggests I’m not in the target market.
But who is? Young commuters, presumably. Specifically those with a commute that is long enough to exhause the joys of Metro and too short for, say, The Guardian. And who don’t have an iPod to listen to or a Blackberry to check email on. It seems like a chronically small niche.

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