Hastings' battle for a better Standard

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The Independent Online
How can a newspaper with a monopoly in the marketplace manage to lose readers? The question must haunt Max Hastings, the man who reinvigorated the mighty Daily Telegraph and who has now been asked to revive the flagging fortunes of the Evening Standard, London's evening newspaper.

The most recent circulation figures cannot have made pleasant reading on Mr Hastings' arrival late last year. December, admittedly, is always a slow month for the Standard, whose core readership is commuters and those in work. But this Christmas was particularly disappointing: the newspaper saw its circulation drop by more than 6 per cent to just 433,000, its worst seasonal showing in 10 years - and this in a circulation market of up to 15 million. In the six months to the end of 1995, moreover, sales fell by 2.4 per cent.

All told, the Standard managed to post a 10-year circulation low in 10 of the past 12 months.

It is believed that the outgoing editor Stewart Steven's fate was sealed by the circulation figures, even if an embarrassing gaffe over a faxed article last August cannot have helped. The newspaper ran a comment from Nick Howard, son of the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, believing it to be from Bryan Gould, the former Labour MP. The mix-up led to a public apology from Mr Steven.

The circulation losses are all the more worrying, given the absence of any competition in the London market. For years it was believed by the paper's owners, the Daily Mail and General Trust, that the real challenge was to get the paper to sales points around London. What readers might find within its pages did not matter so much. That seemed to have been proved by anecdotal evidence, if nothing else. The sight of tube travellers clutching their copies of the Standard is an integral aspect of life in the capital, however much they might grumble about the quality of the product.

More to the point, London advertisers liked the paper's ability to reach such a broad cross-section of their targeted clients.

A host of factors have given Viscount Rothermere and his key executive, Sir David English, cause for concern. Like all papers, the Standard has seen its newsprint bill soar in recent years. And it was not immune to the cover price war launched by Rupert Murdoch in the summer of 1993, although it managed to hold prices firm. Some readers chose to read that morning's cut-rate Times on the way home rather than the dearer Standard.

The newspaper also faced a fresh challenge from local free sheets and a determined attack on the London advertising market from Loot, the classified ad niche player.

But the company insists it is still making money. One executive claimed last week: "We are positively ad-heavy just now, and that is more than enough to offset higher newsprint prices." He added that the December drop could have been made worse by the decision to delay promotional spending toward the end of the year, in anticipation of Mr Hastings' arrival.

Other publishers in the cut-throat market query the Standard's profitability. Whatever the truth, a declining circulation bodes ill for future earnings. It might even revive the prospect of a new competitor prepared to battle for evening readers - a threat the Standard has seen off in the past, notably when it revived the Evening News as a spoiler to the London Daily News in 1987.

So what can Max Hastings do? Clearly, the readership has reacted to declining quality, and his first challenge is to improve editorial content. He also wants to give the newspaper a higher, agenda-setting profile, although this will be difficult given its local character.

According to insiders, Mr Hastings' initial moves were dramatic if morale sapping. Within weeks, he had sacked the sports editor, Brian Alexander, and the City editor, Ian Griffiths, who were responsible for what he saw as the worst parts of the paper. He accepted a plan by the features editor, Alex Renton, to take a sabbatical. He moved Michael Herd, formerly sports editor, back into that job, and installed Anthony Hilton, the venerable financial journalist, as City editor. Significantly, he managed to convince Don Berry, the production chief upon whom he relied at the Telegraph, to move with him to the Standard.

Mr Hastings, who is being paid pounds 300,000 a year, is said now to have changed tack, gathering together groups of executives and reporters to discuss his plans and to listen to their ideas.

He is expected to move less precipitously now that the first wave of departures has been announced. One senior executive says: "Max said it was very different from when he arrived at the Telegraph. There, he thought there was a lot of work to do. But at the Standard, he has no intention of changing things radically." Another added: "The paper needs to be a bit tighter, and of course he is looking at the whole operation. But there are no plans for a major redesign."

This "softly softly" approach is in marked contrast to his first visit to the City section last year. Insiders relate that Mr Hasting walked in, ignored the gathered and expectant hacks, and entered the office of the then section editor, Ian Griffiths. Ten minutes later, Mr Hastings strode out, again avoiding any contact with staff.

Mr Griffiths, according to one journalist, "gathered us around and said he had some good news and some bad news. The good news was that [Mr Hastings] thought sport was the worst section of the paper. The bad news was that he thought we were crap, too."

Now that Mr Hastings is taking a calmer line, morale has improved. But few expect the blood-letting to be over, even if there are no plans to introduce across-the-board redundancies. "More people will go, replaced with people preferred by Hastings," says one senior journalist.

He is believed to favour a more "news-led" approach, with features linked to breaking stories. "There has been something of a relaunch," says one insider. "There's been particular attention to features, which had gone badly wrong."

Mr Hastings is equally concerned with minutiae, to judge by a memo recently sent to journalists demanding certain words be banished, including "dream home," "limousine" and, bizarrely, "toilet".

He is considering returning the pink City pages to white in order to improve photographic reproduction. A plan announced last year and then shelved, to drop the early edition, could be revived although Mr Hastings is said to be worried about the effect on circulation.

More broadly, Mr Hastings is unlikely to make changes to the newspaper's middle market character. "There is no agenda to move up or down market," says a senior editorial executive. "This is a unique paper, read by peers, managers, taxi drivers and the unemployed."

Nationally, the middle market is dominated by the Standard's sister publication, the Daily Mail. For the first time in 10 years, the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday may come under serious attack from the Express and the Sunday Express, whose new editors, Richard Addis and Sue Douglas, have been assured of secure budgets by their boss, Lord Stevens. There is concern at the Standard that management attention is being focused almostly wholly on this middle market battle, and on Sir David's pet project, the money- sapping Channel One, a London cable channel.

As a result, Mr Hastings may be left to his own devices. But he is unlikely to have the luxury of 10 years to turn around the Standard, the period over which he revamped the Telegraph. The circulation losses have created pressures that cannot long be ignored.