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Dyson at Large: Great inside, shame about the front

Strong. Attention grabbing. Outstanding. Great use of picture. Quality design.

These words and phrases came to mind upon seeing this dummy front page of the new Cambridge Independent in HTFP’s report on its impending launch.

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Even former Hartlepool Mail editor Harry Blackwood, not shy of making the odd caustic appraisal, appeared to approve when he commented on the above story: “If the rest of the paper is as good as that stunning front page it deserves to do well.”

And so I felt somewhat underwhelmed when I picked up a copy of the first edition of the Independent that hit the streets last week.

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A stock graphic of dull shadows as the main page one image does little to the eyes other than make them glaze over, rather like when we hear clichéd idioms on Match of the Day.

The splash itself (and three pages inside) was an interesting enough topic for your typical Cantabrian, debating whether a new, £1.3bn underground system or a much-cheaper extension of the existing bus network could solve the city’s congestion.

But the pastel-coloured commuters and the rather insipid headline ‘City faces its biggest challenge’ on page one did little to spark passion from the passing reader.

This was a shame, and hopefully just a one-week dip in form, because the rest of the 112-page debut edition was, as Harry B hoped, a pretty decent read.

Something like ‘Underground rail for Cambridge, says expert’ might have made a better headline, and perhaps a picture of the main protagonist against a stock underground shot used as the main image.

What was a nice touch on page one was the top left note that reads ‘Est. 1819’, referring to The Cambridge Independent Press, established nearly 200 years ago and published until 1981 – a story told in detail in the ‘Nostalgia’ section on page 46 of the launch edition.

Once inside the saddle-stitched Independent, there was no shortage of strong news leads up to page 27, the best including:

  • ‘Two punt touts issued with £75 fines after order breach’ on page four, a report on the growing problems with unofficial punters on the local river.
  • ‘Come hell or high water, we’ll protect the front line’ on page ten, highlighting a police chief’s vow in the face of a £6m budget cut.
  • ‘£36.5m up in smoke as fire control centre stays empty’ on page 13, covering the growing costs of a still-to-be-used control centre built in 2009.

The ‘News’ pages included a regular ‘Science’ spread, this week’s on how scientists are ‘keeping quiet’ about climate change dangers because of funding fears, and a regular ‘Education’ spread, this week’s on how independent schools can help state schools.

There was then a 14-page ‘Culture’ section, with some sizeable interviews and features as well as shorter previews and listings, then a five-page ‘Business’ section, and formative ‘Jobs’ and ‘Motors’ sections, which I guess will fill out when advertising grows.

These were followed by already-impressive ‘Homes’ and ‘Lettings’ sections, their 45-pages nearly half full of adverts and some much better than average local property editorial, and finally an eight-page sports section.

In all sections, there was a total of more than 200 reads on 70-odd editorial pages, more than 20 display adverts and 26 pages of property adverts, and two pages of classifieds – not a bad commercial start for a launch edition.

Iliffe Media, the publishers of the new Cambridge Independent, appeared to have been pushed out of regional newspapers following Trinity Mirror’s decision not to sell the Cambridge News and associated weeklies back to them as part of the recent Local World takeover.

No-one really knows the truth of this episode, as Iliffe may well have been glad of the opportunity to be free from some of the legacy costs of its traditional titles.

But regardless of those facts, Iliffe has now shown serious intent with its new print and digital product in Cambridge, evidenced by the substantial 17-man editorial and commercial team it revealed on page three of the launch edition.

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Another sign of how determined Iliffe is to succeed was in the ‘Welcome’ to the Independent, penned on the same page three by David Fordham, the former chief executive of the old Iliffe, now serving as a non-executive director to help guide the new title.

In this, he described how Iliffe had recruited “leading writers in science journalism” and  “some great columnists” as well as the full-time staffing, and said the company aimed to offer “a high quality, trustworthy, useful and entertaining service” with both the Independent and “a number of other titles”.

If the first edition is anything to go by, this paper could soon be a major competitor to what are now the Trinity Mirror-owned daily, weekly and online products in the area.

Editor Paul Brackley and his team just need to make sure those all-important front page images are as striking as the one they displayed in the dummy.

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