Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

London is one of the great arts capitals of the world. Its restaurants compare with those in any other city. The shops are fantastic. And just to wander through London ­ to catch a glimpse of the City skyline as you cross the Thames, or zoom up Park Lane on a bus, or glide along the Mall in a cab on a night out, is an experience verging on magical.

London's communities are as numerous and varied as anything you will find in any other big city, probably more so. Yet to read its local paper, the Evening Standard, you would sometimes think that the capital consists solely of criminal classes, presided over by an evil genius named Ken Livingstone. Surely it is the job of a newspaper devoted to the capital to make its readers feel they are part of an exclusive club which, while it may not be perfect, sure as hell beats anywhere else?

Next week, London gets a new newspaper. If you've been in Chiantishire for the past month, or blagged a friend's villa in Barbados and missed all the excitement, it's called thelondonpaper ­ a title obviously intended to endear itself to the dotcom generation ­ and it's the first serious threat to the Evening Standard for 20 years.

The editor is Stefano Hatfield and it's published by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. Both Hatfield, and his deputy Bridget Harrison, have spent time working in New York. Hatfield was editor-in-chief of Metro USA and Harrison is a former columnist for the New York Post (indeed, she has written a memoir, Tabloid Love, about her experiences, much to the chagrin of her erstwhile colleague and lover Jesse Angelo).

Rupert Murdoch has substantial business interests in America (he owns the New York Post, among other things), so it is entirely natural that he should recruit there. Hatfield and Harrison are both British, but in journalism, as it is in the City, a sojourn in New York is seen as a badge of honour, implying a certain dynamism and ability.

In choosing an editor with a New York background, Murdoch has made a shrewd selection. New Yorkers are very good at talking up their city. Londoners, on the other hand, who also inhabit one of the greatest, most glamorous cities in the world, are very good at talking their city down.

Twenty years ago, when Robert Maxwell's London Daily News was preparing to hit the streets, the Standard's circulation was in decline, following an editorial policy that seemed to consist of a diet of crime stories, interspersed with a war of attrition against Ken Livingstone (then leader of the GLC) at the expense of the arts and London's cultural life. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

To arm itself for the struggle, the Standard, published by Associated Newspapers, hired a new editor and deputy editor who had both worked in New York and who brought that city's metropolitan spirit of celebration to their title. John Leese and Genevieve Cooper preferred to delight in, rather than deplore, London life. It was Leese who had the idea of making the figure of Eros at Piccadilly Circus the Standard's icon ­ one that it still bears on its masthead today.

Instead of running endless stories about Rolex robberies, or the iniquities of towing away 4x4s in Muswell Hill as the current Standard appears to do, they beefed up the arts and features sections to provide subscribers with a good read on the way home. They knew that many of their readers actually liked living and working in London. They knew that while many readers were Londoners by birth, many more were here by choice. They knew some of their readers actually liked Ken Livingstone, had voted for him in their thousands during the days of the GLC and would go on to vote him in for not just one but two terms as London mayor.

Hatfield has been quick to seize on the current dissonance between the capital and its evening newspaper. He describes his target readers as people who "go out and enjoy London a lot, they know all the downsides of London, but they still love the city", and comments: "We heard from a lot of research that we did that [people] want a paper that doesn't put London down, but that celebrates London."

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner that I quite agree.

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