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Decision to end Evening Standard’s daily edition is heartbreaking but its history proves the power of news

For anyone who cares about newspapers, the announcement that London’s Evening Standard is to close its daily print edition and replace it with a weekly freesheet is heartbreaking – and not just because half of the editorial staff look set to lose their jobs.

People outside London may not care very much.

But this supposed regional title punches well above its weight and, to this day, influences what they read.

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At the height of its powers, though, the Standard published six editions daily – including the Metro and News Extra editions in the morning, the City Prices edition at lunchtime and the West End Final edition in the evening.

It is no exaggeration to say that by publishing so many editions – the title dropped to a single edition at the end of 2009 – the Standard would set the news agenda, whether that was in Westminster, the Square Mile or elsewhere.

That era was brought to mind in the recent obituaries of Charles Reiss, the Standard’s political editor from 1985-2004, which served to remind how the Standard’s take on a big story would be the one that, frequently, informed how Fleet Street would cover it the following morning.

In the pre-internet age, Reiss was, for example, the first newspaperman to report to readers that Margaret Thatcher was set to resign as prime minister.

His exclusive in September 2002, headlined ’45 minutes from attack’, also set the tone for the national coverage as then prime minister Tony Blair prepared to take the country to war in Iraq.

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Pic: iStock

Influential in the world of business and beyond

The Standard was no less influential with its coverage of business and the City.

Financial public relations executives would make a point of ensuring that Standard journalists got to speak with company chief executives on the day of a major announcement and probably fretted over that particular meeting or phone call more than any other.

They knew that the Standard’s coverage was likely to influence that of every other Fleet Street business desk and especially if Anthony Hilton, one of the most influential City editors of the last 40 years, were to pen something particularly acerbic.

It was not just in the fields of politics and finance where the Standard carried weight.

It also applied to fields like the arts and entertainment. The Evening Standard Theatre Awards, launched in 1955, are the UK theatre industry’s longest-running awards and retain huge influence and prestige.

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Angering dictators and shaping the national conversation

While the title had built a reputation in the 19th century for covering conflicts such as the American Civil War, it was the 1930s and 1940s when the national influence of the Standard – whose daily edition closes just three years before it was due to celebrate its 200th anniversary – was probably forged.

Banned by Benito Mussolini in 1936, for a cartoon by the legendary David Low that incurred the Italian dictator’s wrath, in 1940 it published a series of thundering editorials by the future Labour Party leader Michael Foot – who became the Standard’s editor in 1942 – that savaged the slow pace of re-armament in the 1930s in the face of Hitler’s aggression.

It shaped the national conversation.

More than 80 years on, the reputations of former prime ministers such as Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain have yet to recover.

A home for great writers

It has also long enjoyed a reputation for classy writing.

The Standard was the title, for example, for which the novelist George Orwell penned his famous 1946 essay ‘The Moon Under Water’ in which he described his perfect pub – which years later influenced the entrepreneur Tim Martin as he launched his JD Wetherspoon pub chain.

Other great writers who have graced its pages down the years include John Betjeman and Harold Nicolson.

The Standard was also where a number of future editors of national titles – among them Sir Simon Jenkins, Geordie Greig, Stewart Steven and, arguably the greatest of them all, Paul Dacre – built their reputations.

Its influence and prestige were such that it could attract someone of the calibre of Sir Max Hastings to the editor’s chair when he left the Daily Telegraph.

Incredibly profitable

It is not that long ago that the Standard was incredibly profitable.

Those profits were defended when, for example, Robert Maxwell sought in 1987 to encroach on its turf with the London Daily News, recruiting journalists such as Alan Rusbridger, the future editor of the Guardian.

Alan Rusbridger Guardian
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Alan Rusbridger was recruited earlier in his career to try to challenge the Standard at a rival

The Standard’s then owners, Associated Newspapers, responded by exhuming the long-dead Evening News and selling it for just 5p-a-copy – half the price of Maxwell’s title. When Maxwell was forced to close the London Daily News, five months later, the Evening News was quietly reburied.

A similar tactic was deployed when, in September 2006, Rupert Murdoch’s News International launched the London Paper, a colour freesheet aimed at attracting younger readers for whom the Standard was too right-wing.

Associated responded with a freesheet of its own, London Lite, whose content was mainly drawn from the Standard. Both London Lite and the London Paper were closed in 2009.

The rise of online news

Like all newspaper titles, though, the Standard has found its profitability weakened and then eliminated by the rise of online news.

The title has responded in various ways to this. For example, dropping to a single edition and, in October 2009, becoming a freesheet.

By then, the title was owned by the Russian-born businessman Evgeny Lebedev, whose stewardship of the title is blamed by numerous Standard journalists, past and present, for its demise.

His purchase of the Independent and Independent on Sunday in 2010, and the merger of editorial desks of those titles with those of the Standard, was seen as particularly damaging to the latter.

London, UK - 17 November 2011: A pile of London Evening Standard newspapers.  The publication is free and found at most London Underground stations during rush hour.

As unpopular with Standard journalists was his frequent use of the Standard’s pages to promote his pet causes and, frequently, himself.

There was also discontent when, shortly after he bought the title, the Standard launched an advertising campaign in which it apologised to younger Londoners, in particular, for being out-of-touch with their views – a key reason News International had launched the London Paper.

Standard journalists saw the campaign as denigrating their work. Ironically, the paper was still making similar mistakes years later, such as backing the unpopular Zac Goldsmith and later, Shaun Bailey, in London mayoral elections.

In fairness to Lebedev, his willingness to bear losses probably kept the title alive for longer than might otherwise have been the case.

Since he acquired it, the Standard has only been profitable for four years, from 2013 to 2016.

Those losses spiralled when, in 2020, most people were prevented from commuting to London by the COVID-19 lockdowns and forced it to resort to home delivery.

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A well-trodden path to online only

Those losses have now forced the Standard down the path announced today. Even that may not be enough.

Time Out, for decades London’s leading weekly ‘what’s on?’ magazine, went free in 2012 but was forced to go online-only in 2022.

The Standard’s management told employees today that going online-only in 2016 had helped the Independent to trade profitably and that this was the aspiration for the Standard.

Many newspapers have turned going online to their advantage.

Launching a paywall and subscription services have helped titles that have at times in the recent past been loss-making, like The Times and Daily Telegraph, consistently turn a profit.

Print still packing a punch

But it is instructive that, even as print circulations drift and online audiences grow, Fleet Street’s print editions still pack an enormous punch.

The current election campaign has seen eye-catching announcements made by the parties not at 10pm, for the main evening TV bulletins, but at 10.30pm for the Fleet Street print deadlines. The print format retains its power.

It is probably why, even as the vast majority of its output heads online, the Standard is looking to retain the format at least once a week.

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