Is a move upmarket the 'Standard' solution?

A new look for London's only paid-for daily was unveiled last week, and it signalled a clear change of strategy in the fight to halt an alarming decline in circulation. Vincent Graff reports
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Heralding the arrival of 20 new writers, the paper will henceforth provide a platform for "a new generation of writing talent", it announced. In come Jonathan Freedland, Johann Hari, Joanna Coles and Simon Singh as weekly columnists and, on the City pages, grand old names such as Neil Collins and Christopher Fildes. The paper will "deliver every shade of opinion on all the subjects that matter to all those living and working in London".

Or, put more bluntly: the paper has been kicked upmarket. Not miles upmarket, but an inch or two closer to its traditional position from where it used to peer down at its populist rival The Evening News, which it went on to swallow up nearly 20 years ago.

You might not notice the change at first. The front page looks no different. Things only become apparent once you reach a dozen pages inside, where there is now a smart, text-heavy comment spread, carrying four columns and the paper's leader. Arguably, this spread would not look out of place in the pages of today's compact Times or Independent. Further in, the business section is bigger, and no longer on pink paper, a decision that will delight the Financial Times which sued unsuccessfully when the Standard originally went that colour. It also gives the Standard's editor Veronica Wadley much greater flexibility to move pages around.

The Evening Standard cannot be the paper it once was. And it is no longer trying to be. For years the Standard was a shameless flirt, appealing to everyone. No longer. Talk to senior figures within Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Standard, and they tell you those days are over. The sorts of people who used to buy a red-top in the morning and a Standard in the evening are increasingly spurning paid-for newspapers. That is why Associated launched the give-away Standard Lite - a bright and breezy, slimmed-down version of the paper, last December. It is also why now, a few months on, Associated is moving on to stage two of its strategy: to con-solidate the main title's upmarket readership.

Sources at the paper candidly admit that the Standard can no longer be " all things to all people". Sales are down 90,000 infive years. Evening papers everywhere are selling much less well than they used to. So something had to be done.

The Lite was brought out reluctantly, as a defensive measure against the likes of News International and Richard Desmond's Express group, who may still yet bring out their own evening freebies. Lite is there to mop up the bottom end of the market. The main paper is focused a little more on the top end, which is where advertisers like it.

It was always the plan to beef up the intellect of the main title once Lite had established itself, I am told. Last week the paper was boosted further with the return of veteran Bert Hardy - the paper's MD two decades ago and a champion of old-fashioned journalism in old-fashioned, paid-for papers.

The paper has tried ad hoc methods to prop up circulation. such as bunging a free CD on the front page, but found that these are not financially sustainable and also rarely holds on to readers once the freebies end. So "obviously there has been a change of strategy", confirms a senior source. But this is "a slight shift upmarket", more a new emphasis than a radical overhaul of the paper, although more changes are to come.

Wadley puts it breezily. "The Standard should be like a great party every night," she said, deploying the same metaphor that Sarah Sands used when she took over the Sunday Telegraph earlier this year. "You have some very clever people, some funny people, some beautiful people and they all mix together and have a great time."

The reaction within the paper has been mixed. When Wadley arrived in January 2002, she inherited from Max Hastings a paper with a heavier intellectual content than even this week's "wised-up" version. She viewed the title as too exclusive and narrowly focused on a metropolitan, Notting Hill set. She boosted the celeb content and increased the number of news stories and crime and health features.

Her critics accused her of turning the paper into an echo of the Daily Mail, one floor above. (I should declare an interest here: I was at the time a features executive at the Standard. Soon into Wadley's editorship, I went toThe Times.)

Given her history, some people are not convinced by Wadley's apparent change of heart. "Is Veronica the person to take us upmarket?" asks one. "Frankly, I don't really think that's where her instincts lie."

However, another insider at the paper suggests that Wadley had in fact been aiming for a more upmarket look and a much more radical redesign than the one she has unveiled - only to be rebuffed by editor-in-chief Paul Dacre.

Critics and supporters agree on one thing - the news pageshave not changed at all. The news operation is still coordinated by Ian McGregor, a sharply tabloid presence in the office: on the day of the launch upmarket, the splash was "Will's girl has secret meeting with the Queen". This revealed that the prince's girlfriend has "enjoyed at least two private dinners with the monarch, including one at Windsor Castle, the Queen's favourite private residence".

The Standard's strategy is a slow-burner. If it works, it will take months, maybe years, to show results (free CDs, of course, take days). Morale at the paper is patchy - some talk of uncertainty remaining after the recent closure of the Standard's listings magazine; others praise the way Wadley was not shy about thanking journalists for the efforts they put into reporting the Olympic bid win (with champagne in the office) and the London bombings (sending letters to the home address of everyone involved in the coverage).

The question is: will Wadley's conversion to posh comment and analysis survive long enough to be another cause for celebration?


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