Stephen Glover on the press

How the 'Standard's' future depends on the outcome of the freesheet war
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The Independent Online

Spirits are rising at the London Evening Standard. A couple of weeks ago it had a makeover. In September it recorded a circulation increase of 5 per cent, and its first year-on-year rise since July 2005, which was before the launch of the two London afternoon freesheets that have damaged it so much.

Actually, the relaunch was so subtle that it was difficult to identify many changes. The headline type looks more elegant, the thinking being that the paper should differentiate itself more from the dreaded freesheets. My esteemed colleague Professor Roy Campbell-Greenslade has been uprooted from his normal media page and dumped rather unceremoniously in the City pages, but there are those who may not regard this as a major transformation.

Perhaps a revamp that does not disturb readers is the best sort. Gradualism is the order of theday. We know from a recently leaked internal memo written by the Standard's deputy editor, Andrew Bordiss, that the paper intends to become more upbeat and "a notch more upmarket". These are splendid aspirations, but, because they are so tentative, will have only a subliminal affect on most readers.

Meanwhile, on the commercial side, there are some innovative plans, presumably dreamt up by the Standard's relatively new managing director, Andy Mullins. One idea is for the vendor kiosks to have electronic screens displaying headlines and marketing slogans. Readers will beabletopay for their paper with a special card, and, eventually, with other debit or credit cards. And last week, the paper's editor, Veronica Wadley threw a party at the Design Museum to mark its publication of a magazine ranking "London's 1,000 most influential people" – the sort of exercise one loathes but some people evidently like.

None the less, the paper continues to lose many millions of pounds, despite economies, and one wonders how far these measures will restore its fortunes. Thetwo London freesheets have blown a hole in the paper's sales, which in any case had been declining for several years. It is a painful irony that one of these freesheets, London Lite, should be published by Associated Newspapers, which owns the Standard. London Lite runssome of the Standard's copy. The other day, my attention was drawn to a Standard headline about Madeleine McCann, but just as I was about to shell out my 50p, someone thrust a copy of London Lite with an almost identical headline into my hands.

The future shape of the Standard depends on the outcome of the freesheet war. If London Lite and thelondonpaper continue to be published, Associated Newspapers will eventually have to do something about the Standard. If, however, one of the freesheets closes (or, more likely, they merge), the Standardmight gain sales, and could have a future in something like its present form. So, the present round of activity amounts to a holding operation. My feeling is that the Standard must change even if one of the freesheets goes. If they both survive, the urgency is simply greater. The paper should be re-engineered to cater more precisely for its constituency in the City and West End, for whom freesheets are anathema. This implies a more enthusiastic move upmarket – but also, if the books are ever to balance, further economies. It is madness, of course, to think of giving the paper away when there are still large numbers of people prepared to pay 50p for it.

'The Express' is better than it seems

More than any other newspaper, the Daily Express is obsessed with Madeleine McCann, as it is with Diana. It is also the most inconsistent. Last Monday, the paper's front page headline was "Madeleine parents in the clear". The next day, it was "DNA puts parents in the frame". It is stunts like these that have led some people – though presumably not its remaining readers – to treat the Daily Express as a joke.

And yet, in the circumstances, the paper is better than most people say. Its editorial budget is probably about a third of the Daily Mail's, which I would guess is about £80m a year. Last week, we learnt that the Daily Express's proprietor Richard Desmond paid himself an amazing £40m last year. It is true that he gives a considerable amount to charity. What might he achieve if, rather than cutting costs, he invested in his newspaper?

Would you buy a used column from this lot?

One of the puzzles of life is that superannuated politicians such as Tony Blair should be paid £100,000 for delivering a speech in America. Surely we know by now what he thinks about everything.

And yet he was famous, and once quite powerful, so businessmen can gaze at him in awe. The same can scarcely be said of most journalists, and in particular of four colleagues who have been snapped up by the Chartwell speakers' agency.

For £4,000 you can have breakfast with three out of Andrew Pierce of The Daily Telegraph, Fraser Nelson of The Spectator, Melissa Kite of The Sunday Telegraph or Michael Brown of The Independent. Not lunch, mark – and be quick, since this is a special offer that holds good only until 31 October, after which the price might soar.

I certainly do not wish to be rude about any of these people. Michael Brown I know, like and greatly admire. But would I pay £4,000 to have breakfast with him? I don't think so. Surely columnists lay out their wares in their columns, and don't hold back their pearls for breakfast at the Savoy.

They should be eager to impart their knowledge and wisdom without thinking of making people pay for it. Writing is another matter, since it takes time and involves a modicum of skill.

Or am I being mean? Perhaps I am driven by jealousy, and would be happy to bore some halfwit of a businessman over bacon and eggs for a thousand quid. Presumably none of these journalists is very rich, so why should we deny them a little pocket money?

The real idiots in this story are the people who would pay £4,000 for what they might read in a newspaper for less than a pound. And yet...