Could the "Evening Standard" close? And is the internet finally hitting newspapers?by Simon Jenkins / March 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
When Sherlock Holmes needed to put an advertisement in a London evening paper, he could not decide which. He told his assistant (in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”) to try “the Globe, Star, Pall Mall, St James’s, Evening News, Standard, Echo and any others that occur to you.” At that time (1892) the list ran to 14.
London now has one evening newspaper left—or has it? For the past two months, the monopoly supplier of London evening news, Associated Newspapers, has seemed to lose its corporate head. Its Evening Standard (price 40p) has for nearly five years been battered by a rival, Metro, also owned by Associated and distributed free on the tube. Then in December a second free paper arrived, also from Associated. Called Standard Lite, it is produced by the Standard’s own staff and given away free from central London newsstands at lunchtime, alongside the early paid-for edition of the Standard itself. Readers are offered news and gossip for nothing or that plus features, columns and arts for 40p.
The Lite’s 50,000 copies disappear instantly. The impact on the sale of the Standard proper is as yet a secret, but since its circulation has already fallen almost 10 per cent in a year, it can hardly be benign. What is happening? Will the old Evening Standard, as pessimists declare, be gone by the year’s end? Is someone trying to murder a great London institution, someone from within? A case for Sherlock Holmes indeed.
Most British papers are enduring their most troubled times since the late 1980s and the demise of the print unions. The Telegraph titles are threatened with a strike of journalists. They face a cut of 90 of their staff from their new owners, the Barclay brothers. The Independent journalists are also balloting on strike action. Staff cuts were recently made at the Mirror and Times. The Financial Times’s British edition has lost 8.7 per cent of its sales over a year, and is frantically struggling to reposition itself, possibly abandoning its British character altogether in favour of “the world.” Even the BBC is demanding 15 per cent cuts in staffing. Conventional journalism is sorely threatened. Is the Evening Standard to be the first sacrifice on the great altar so clearly marked: internet?
My attitude to the Standard is a mix of addiction and nostalgia. I joined the paper when little more than a boy. I watched it move from hot metal to paste-up to computerisation. I wrote for it, edited it and fought to save it from closure in 1978. I have written more words for it than I could count, and still have a column nestling comfortably by the ever more promiscuous bosom of Londoner’s Diary. The looking-glass which the Standard holds up to London may often seem distorted, chipped and smudged, but it still reflects the capital’s moods with affectionate familiarity. The mix of national and metropolitan news, showbusiness gossip and highbrow arts coverage pioneered by Charles Wintour in the 1960s and 1970s has been sustained ever since.
So what is going on? The Standard’s troubles began when it became a monopoly in 1980. No monopoly paper can satisfy every point on the spectrum. When Beaverbrook’s old Standard was spliced with Harmsworth’s old Evening News, the pill was sweetened by the single title remaining the Standard. But a competitive edge was lost. Journalists no longer measured their work against a rival. Their enemy became a solitary and remorseless one, the circulation figure. It has beaten them at every turn.
In 1960, Londoners bought 2.2m copies of three evening papers, the News, Star and Standard. Each closure cost readers. The 1980 merger lost 150,000 sales, leaving the new Standard with just over 600,000. The slide continued. Last year the figure fell below 400,000 paid-for sales. December’s audited figure was 348,000, down 10 per cent on the year before. Associated had to do something.
Evening papers are everywhere under pressure. Of Britain’s 80 titles, only seven last year saw a rise in sales. The reasons are legion. Fewer people are commuting by public transport. Suburban outlets no longer deliver papers to doorsteps. Children will not do paper rounds after school. More people are in cars listening to radio news. Such traditional evening paper pabulum as horse and greyhound racing cards, closing prices and “what’s on” are in retreat or served by rival media. And distribution in London is hell. Each street vendor who gives up his pitch loses another clutch of passing sales.
Yet pundits know never to underestimate Associated Newspapers. The last time the London evening market surged was in 1987, when Associated’s Vere Harmsworth decided to relaunch his old Evening News alongside the Standard to fight off Robert Maxwell’s ambitious London Daily News. Associated produced 40,000 copies of the defunct title and London suddenly had three papers again. This state of bliss lasted just five months before the Daily News—and then the Evening News— closed down. A lesson was learned, that Londoners will read more papers if given a spread of choice. Otherwise, monopoly squeezes itself.
Hence the decision of Associated five years ago to spread its wings with Metro. The paper is placed in tube stations through an exclusive contract with Transport for London. The intention is to mop up the most casual of readers, those with minutes to spare between stations. Now 495,000 Metros are distributed each day. This tidy monopoly continues to madden the London mayor, Ken Livingstone, who has a paranoid aversion to the Associated Group. But the deal pre-dated his ownership of the tube. The money was good and no rival was in sight.
Now there are rumblings that the Express proprietor, Richard Desmond, may have the answer to Livingstone’s prayer. A new tabloid freesheet could steal Metro’s tube contract and endanger Associated’s monopoly. With the Standard losing money, free papers are now crucial to the group’s hold on this market. Accordingly, Associated decided last year to seek another group of marginal readers: London women spending a solitary hour over lunch. Standard Lite’s 50,000 copies are given away between 11.30am and 2.30pm only in central London. Since vendors must be paid to do this, and compensated for the loss of paid-for sales, the cost must be exorbitant. But Associated is now circulating more evening papers—some 900,000—than London has seen since 1978.
The obvious question now is whether the group can recoup the plummeting revenue from sales by increasing revenue from freesheet advertising. This is not inconceivable. Ever since the Wapping revolution, newspapers have seen the balance of their revenue shift from sales to advertising. This is partly the outcome of the 1990s price wars, when the benefit of falling costs was gratifyingly redistributed from publishers to readers. Newspapers today are barely half the price they were 15 years ago. The shift also reflects the fall in sales of tabloids and the rise of the qualities. The former rely more heavily on cover price revenue, the latter on advertising.
Associated has certainly taken a gamble on London. But it is not alone. There is a shift, admittedly often a desperate one, from paid-for to free evening papers worldwide. Both Chicago’s evening papers are now free. These are times for cool heads. But the marginal increase in choice has had at least one gain. The content of the “proper” Standard has gone markedly upmarket since the arrival of the Lite.
Whether this is the end of the story, no one can tell. The death of Fleet Street has always been much exaggerated. I assumed back in the early 1980s that ink could not survive into the electronic age. It did. Then it could not survive the internet, a flexible communicator on every office desk. Survive it has. Few British products in the past half century have enjoyed the popularity and market continuity of newspapers. There are as many daily titles as when I was at school. Fierce competition has maintained freshness and innovation, in marked contrast to newspapers abroad. In both America and continental Europe, staid monopolies seem gloomily resigned to dignified decline.
Not so here. The total circulation of so-called quality titles has risen steadily over the past 40 years, bolstered by constant product change. It was 1.8m in 1960, 2.2m in 1980 and is an admittedly hesitant 2.3m today. In the past year, those that have failed to innovate—the Telegraph, Guardian and Financial Times—have suffered. But others, notably the Times and the Independent, have boomed. The compact revolution has been an adrenalin shot no one predicted. Later this year comes the “midi” Guardian, and perhaps another revolution. Dead this industry is not.
No one can tell where the next upheaval will come. Newspapers that were once told to “concentrate on news” now find radio and internet doing that, while it is comment, debate and gossip that readers seem to value. I was amazed to discover recently that more people now read my Times column online than on paper. The trend is unmistakable. Once a reader is online for news, he or she is easily seduced to an opinion sidebar, so why buy what you can have for free?
A conservative gene tells me that readers want to go on reading newspapers—but only if newspapers answer their needs. The fact is that television failed to kill off the theatre. Hi-fi failed to kill off concerts. Paperbacks failed to kill off bookshops. CDs failed to wreck the festival and rave business. Books have not wiped out lectures, nor has the internet wiped out books. We should all beware of neophilia and technodazzle.
The urge to escape home and hearth, to congregate, remains overwhelming. It carries with it the appeal of the readable, portable, flexible, storable newspaper. People seem to enjoy “their” paper, to turn its pages, carry it about, use it as a badge, a cultural identifier. Journalists just now may feel lost on a digital ocean. But the internet is itself a return from the spoken to the written word. On the web the wordsmith is still supreme.
As for the Evening Standard, I take comfort from the fact that more people appear to be reading a London evening newspaper than for 25 years. I take comfort from the fact that the Standard itself, for all its apparent drift downmarket, carries at least four times more copy, and more and longer articles than when I first joined it. I take comfort from the fact that every few years an entrepreneur takes down the dusty file marked, “a new London paper,” and sends it round to his banker. London is a big, rich and sophisticated city, where millions are daily on the move. What they want I am sure they will get.