Friday’s announcement that the Evening Standard is to become a free newspaper later this month had me cursing myself – because about 18 months ago I was telling anyone who’d listen that the Standard would close or go free within 18 months. Actually, it’s surprising new-ish owner Alexander Lebedev has thrown in the towel on the paid-for paper so quickly; possibly an indication of the dire state the paper remains in, eight months after he bought it and just a couple of weeks after The London Paper closed.
A free Standard means almost certain doom for the miserable London Lite, to be relegated to a footnote in London media history. Less happily, it also means the end of the road for the hundreds of men and women who’ve sold the Standard over the years, and stuck with it through thick and thin. In reality, their proud cries of “WEST END FINALLL!” had been hushed by the weedy murmur of “Free London Lite” over recent years. After next Friday, they’ll only live on in our memories.
It wasn’t so long ago that the Evening Standard carried five editions each day – the first at about 9.30am (City Prices), one at lunchtime, one after lunch (Late Prices Extra), then the all-seeing West End Final from about 4.30pm – anyone remember waiting for that edition to appear before buying one? – and the last one (five stars on the pack page) from around 6pm. This decade, that formula had been whittled down, then the free lunchtime Standard Lite (later delayed by three hours and renamed London Lite) punched a hole in the sequence. City Prices became News Extra, and everyone was getting their Late Prices on the internet. Maybe that was the moment the Standard began to die.
Now there’s a later Standard sometimes given out for free, sometimes sold for just 10p. Passing through London Bridge at around 9pm last week, I paused to see if there were any takers for a 10p Standard. There were none. The changing shape of the news industry has definitely harmed the Evening Standard. The ability to read news for free on the internet has definitely damaged the Standard – daytime run-of-the-mill breaking news, share prices, sports updates, all covered better online. The freesheets also damaged the Standard.
But let’s not forget the other reason why the Standard fell from grace. Because it became a terrible, terrible newspaper.
I’ve done it here before, there’s no need to go into it again – under previous editor Veronica Wadley, it became a shrill, biased rag which hated the city it claimed to cover. Its coverage of the 2008 London mayoral election lost it the trust of many Londoners. Wadley axed one of the Standard’s most popular elements – the Hot Tickets listings magazine – and turned its weekly ES magazine into a debutantes’ photo album. Wailing headlines about TUBE HELL became cliches. Its world was simply alien to most Londoners.
But what has new editor Geordie Greig done to turn things around? Sure, there’s a new look and colour scheme. In recent weeks it has started to scrutinise some of Boris Johnson’s election promises and given space to vanquished ex-mayor Ken Livingstone. There’s certainly an attempt to give more “London” news prominence, as seen in today’s front page story about council tax freezes.
An agony aunt column by Peaches Geldof? “Is Anish Kapoor’s exhibition suitable for a first date?” Yet another “hottest venue in London?” (“Sophie Dahl remarked that she has walked past it 10,000 times and never knew it existed” – well, blow me!) Some nonsense about “the must-have taxidermy soft furnishing of the minute“? Some self-justifying drivel about “eating out” and some cobblers about what a columnist who upsets other columnists thinks of the columnists he upsets. Georgie, where’s the London we know and live our lives in among all of this crap?
The Standard’s future won’t depend on whether it’s free or not. The Standard’s future will depend on whether it’s any good or not. It’s not the only paper strangling itself with poor, inconsequential features aimed at a tiny minority – I’ve just given up buying the Guardian (which loses £100,000 a day) because I don’t want to subsidise the lifestyles of the likes of Tanya Gold. But as a London newspaper, it should have a clearer unique selling point than its rivals. Geordie Grieg – who, let’s remember, used to edit Tatler – doesn’t seem to have fully realised this yet.
Maybe he will. But on Channel 4 News this lunchtime, he said more about the paper being “an iconic brand” – “the Standard is a brand, it is an iconic newspaper … this is an historic moment for London” – than he did about whether the paper was any good. “It’s unique, it has a broad reach,” he added, as if he was giving a pitch to potential advertisers.
But while the Standard’s “reach” is broad, its journalism is anything but. And that is what is more likely to end up killing a 181-year-old newspaper.
If the Standard does not change its ways, few will mourn if its gamble fails.
(See also: Tory Troll.)