Stephen Glover on the Press

It's time for Associated to raise the 'Standard' and take it upmarket

Both of London's new freesheets had a pretty good first month. Associated Newspapers' London Lite had an average daily distribution of 359,389 in September, while Rupert Murdoch's thelondonpaper notched up 327,120 copies.

Of course, these figures should be regarded a little sceptically. Readers do not feel about freesheets quite as they do about newspapers they have paid for. Some of them are disposed of pretty quickly. Try as I might, I cannot avoid having a copy of thelondonpaper thrust under my arm as I try to dodge the various energetic distributors in High Street Kensington.

Still, both papers are doing well in circulation terms. Murdoch executives are thinking about "rolling out" their prototype to a provincial city, and doubtless Associated has its own plans. Last week, thelondonpaper won the contract to use distribution bins inside London's 10 mainline railway stations during the afternoon. Hitherto, the freesheet's distributors have been kept out of these stations.

My own preference remains for London Lite. (I should remind readers that I write a column for the Daily Mail, which is also owned by Associated Newspapers.) The reasons for its superiority are quite simple. It contains a large number of articles done for the Evening Standard, which now describes itself as "London's Quality Newspaper". Pieces, including even theatre reviews written for the Standard, are also appearing in London Lite.

This largely explains why it is the better of the two freesheets. But it also creates a problem for the Evening Standard. As its readers cotton on to the fact that some of its articles (although not its columns, leaders and extensive City coverage) are available in a giveaway newspaper, some of them may wonder whether they really want to part with 50p for the Standard.

Indeed, the process has already begun. In September, the Standard's headline circulation of 289,254 was a decline of nearly 12 per cent year-on-year, and of nearly 8 per cent on August. The actual paid-for newsstand sales were down 19 per cent and 11 per cent respectively. Given that the paper raised its price by 10p (that is, 25 per cent) at the beginning of September, and that it is facing competition from two freesheets, one of which contains some of the same articles, its performance could be judged as not at all bad in the circumstances. But only an optimist would expect it not to slip further over the coming months. Free copies of thelondonpaper at London's railway stations, where the Standard is of course already sold, will hardly help.

So what will happen to the Evening Standard? At the moment, it is at the mercy of forces it cannot control. It is being buffeted by the waves, and God knows where it will end up. I sense that Associated Newspapers, though realising that it is a great title, is rather dispirited, though naturally glad that London Lite is doing well.

Surely the time has come to reengineer the Standard as the quality paper it now claims to be. In fact, we all know very well that it is not a quality paper but a kind of hybrid that traditionally has had to please the reader of The Sun and the reader of the Financial Times - no easy task. Now, with the arrival of the downmarket freesheets, it needs to narrow its footprint, and appeal more wholeheartedly to its upmarket readers.

Someone said to me that it should try to be a daily Spectator. In one sense this is quite wrong. Busy people on a weekday in London do not want a succession of long reads. But if the comparison implies quality and good writing and wit and glamour - characteristics the Standard already has in some measure - then it is not a bad one.

Of course a more stylish Standard, re-engineered as the quality newspaper of the City and the West End, is going to sell fewer copies. But it is going to sell fewer copies anyway, for the reasons I have mentioned. In either event, there will have to be further cost savings. Would it not be better to direct the process - in essence to re-invent the Evening Standard - rather than watch this once-great newspaper wither on the vine?

Never mind those brackets, Simon ...

I over-promoted Simon Heffer last week in suggesting that he was about to be made deputy editor (comment) of The Daily Telegraph. He has been appointed associate editor and (acting) comment editor, a marginally less exalted post.

Those brackets, which are possibly hurtful to Simon, may reflect the reservations of Will Lewis, the Telegraph's new editor, about a man whom he regards as being to the right of Attila the Hun. Or the "acting" may have been inserted by Simon's employers, who are being got at by the Cameroons, angry at his constant attacks on their beloved Dave.

With his feet under the table, Simon is behaving as though power is his. He has deprived the liberal Tory Andrew Gimson of his weekly column, and is believed to have his sights on the readable column of Rachel Sylvester, who has close contacts with New Labour. Getting rid of her would be a stupid thing to do.

What on earth was the 'Daily Star' thinking of?

Journalists at the Daily Star are a tolerant bunch. Day in, day out, they are happy to put a good deal of rubbish into the paper, including a fair bit about women with large breasts. But last week their good humour snapped when around 12 members of the National Union of Journalists plus five other journalists called an emergency meeting because they objected to a spoof "Daily Fatwah" page. As a result of their protest it was pulled.

One might suppose the idea was dreamt up by a couple of subeditors after a long lunch, and was never destined to see the light of day. Not at all. The page had the approval of the editor, Dawn Neeson, who had gone home when the row broke out. Other senior executives were relaxed about it. Richard Desmond, proprietor of the Daily Star, apparently expressed no objections.

The idea was to show "how Britain's fave newspaper would look under Muslim rule". Among the items on the imaginary front page of the "Daily Fatwah" were a leader headlined "Allah great"; a competition to "win hooks just like Hamza's"; and a photograph of a veiled woman headlined "page three Burka Babes".

The Daily Star should not be regarded with the utmost seriousness, and it would be silly to get on our high horse. Nevertheless, journalists were surely right to fear a backlash if this page had been published. In Muslim countries, where the Daily Star may be viewed by the mob as an extension of the BBC, British consulates would have been torched, and Union Flags burnt. There would have been a terrific hullabaloo which might have spilled over in Britain.

How was such a page almost published in a national newspaper? Mr Desmond should be grateful to have been saved by a bunch of NUJ rebels.

scmgox@aol.com

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