How the Standard went from bad to dead

Plus the decline of the black cab and happy birthday Albert Hall

Picture this: You ring up a friend to ask them for advice because you’re thinking of applying for your dream job. After you’ve finished speaking to them about how much you want it, this trusted friend of yours thinks, “Well, that sounds like a great job. Maybe I should apply for it!” And they do.

And they get it.

That’s exactly what George Osborne did when he took the editor’s job at The Evening Standard in March of 2017. And from that point onwards it was all downhill for the paper that styles itself as “the voice of London”.

Isn’t karma a bitch.

You’d think a paper that’s been around for the best part of 200 years would know better

Launched in 1827 to compete with the Times, the paper was originally called The Standard. It wasn’t until 1859 that a later edition was launched, and the word Evening made it into the name.

To save time we’ll skip forward a bit (past the swimsuit/Vietnam years) to 1985 when Associated Newspapers (owners of the the Daily Mail and the Metro) took full control of the paper. That’s when it becomes the London Standard for the first time.

In 2009, Russian businessman and former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev bought the paper for £1. He didn’t change the name but he did cut costs by going from three editions a day to just one. And he launched a weird apologetic advertising campaign. Then came the big move: In October of 2009 the Standard became a freesheet.

The paper’s circulation trebled (it was free after all), it won a couple of press industry awards, and things started looking relatively healthy.

Then, in 2017 the Standard decided to lean into its Conservative roots and appointed the former Tory chancellor, despite the fact that he was already being paid to be an MP.

The beginning of the end

In 2018, Osborne decided to redesign the paper, part of which meant removing the word ‘London’ from the title (another part meant adding emojis to the weather forecast - you can see why they hired him).

That was the first mistake.

In May of 2018 the paper was accused of taking money from companies like Uber and Google in return for favourable coverage. And a year later the Standard started jettisoning staff as part of “necessary cost-cutting” thanks to making an annual loss of £10m.

By the end of 2019, that pre-tax loss had gone up to £13.6 million, and at the start of 2020 there were another 115 job cuts in order to “save the company”. When Covid hit, the Standard even started delivering papers door-to-door to try and keep circulation up.

In June of 2020 Osborne ‘stepped down’ from his role as editor (he’s still somehow editor-in-chief) and was replaced by Samantha Cameron’s little sister, Emily Sheffield. The daughter of Sir Reginald Sheffield and Viscountess Astor was in need of a job as the fashion startup she’d been on the board of had just gone under (Sheffield, unlike Osborn, does have some journalistic experience though).

N.B. George Osborne has just taken another job as chair of the board of trustees at the British Museum - a move that’s been met with equal parts disbelief and outrage.

The end of the end

Sheffield announced that the plan was to turn the Standard into a “media platform”, which would have “mobile-first and e-commerce products”.

What that actually meant was getting rid of a third of its staff, and letting brands post articles directly into their website content management system.

They also hired a new chief executive (a former editor of FHM)… and then, six months later, he ‘stepped down’ too, but not before he was paid £417,000 “as compensation for loss of office”.

Last week the Standard published their finances for the year up to September 2020.

This time the losses were over £17m.

No commuters meant no readers, which meant no advertisers. And all those door-to-door deliveries don’t come cheap. Turnover fell by nearly a third and circulation halved.

The finances also reveal that Lebedev Holdings had “made a £20m loan available” last year, which means that the paper’s owners have given it more than £70m to keep it afloat since they bought it for a quid in 2009.

What’s next? And does anyone care?

There’s a new CEO in place now. Charles Yardley spent the last decade working for American business mag’ Forbes and describes himself on his LinkedIn profile as having a “track record in digital, strategy, branded content, product development, multimedia cross platform solutions and acquisitions.”

In his interview with the Press Gazette, Yardley says the Standard’s print product “remains core to the revenue model” and acts as the “front door of the brand”. But the “vision is transforming to be a mobile-first media company”.

What that means in practice is not clear, although there is talk of “a suite of branded content solutions” and central to that is allowing “clients to pay to publish content directly on the Standard’s website” (as TikTok have been doing for months now), as well as “a visual content solution modelled on an Instagram-style social story experience”. 

This might not be end of the Standard as ‘a brand’, but it’s almost certainly the end of the Standard as anything that remotely resembles a newspaper. You only have to read Yardley’s wonderfully vacuous “commercial ambition” to know that:

Product innovations that support our partners to maximise return on content solutions by creating meaningful value exchanges with our audience.

It’s telling that in the entire 1,300 word interview, Yardley doesn’t use the word 'journalism’ or ‘journalist’ once. Neither does he talk about ‘trust’ or ‘integrity’, or even ‘quality’.

And that’s because the Standard is no longer an organisation that exists to serve its readership. Instead it has become a strange sort of ‘ghost publication’: an uncomfortable hardcopy/digital hybrid that might pass as a real news organisation at first glance, but under closer scrutiny transforms into a flimsy front for what can only be described as a ‘money pit’.

The only goal of that money pit? To squeeze as much cash out of Chinese-backed tech companies and Russian oligarchs so it can pay a select group of old Etonians and their extended families.

When the Standard finally draws its last breath, they will point to the Internet and coronavirus as the guilty parties. And while that won’t be the most inaccurate thing the Standard has ever printed, it might be the most disingenuous.

And the rest…