George Osborne on his Evening Standard revamp and dropping London from its masthead
George Osborne has dropped "London" from the title of the Evening Standard in a signal of the paper’s ambition to have greater national and international influence.
The name change is part of a comprehensive redesign of the paper that the former chancellor of the exchequer hopes will "turn up the volume on the Evening Standard", which he began editing only 10 months ago.
It is the Standard’s first redesign in a decade and will see the paper’s business pages turned pink to make them more distinctive, and enhanced entertainment coverage that includes an "A List" column on celebrity gossip and a rebranding of the famous "Londoner’s Diary" to "The Londoner".
Standard broadens its horizons
In an interview with The Drum to explain his strategy, Osborne says there is an opportunity for the Standard to carry the flag for "millions of Britons" who share its values. “There is a big gap in the market,” he says. “People want to hear the voice that is pro-business, international, socially liberal, is not angry or backward-looking or nostalgic or looking within Britain but looking out to the world from London and that feels to me like both the identity of the city but also a place where many millions of Britons are and want people to speak out on their behalf.”
Dropping the word “London” is based on reader polling but also reflects the paper’s desire to be heard beyond the capital. “We are going to the name that the readers understand and I think it also speaks for the ambition of the paper, which is to not just look into London but also to look out to the nation,” Osborne says. “Now we have a big online presence… many of our online readers are not in London.”
Osborne is also making his own distinctive stamp on the paper less than 12 months after his appointment caused shock in Fleet Street, given his lack of newspaper experience. The scion of the family behind Osborne & Little wallpaper, he says he has enjoyed the redesign process, which includes a new colour scheme and a unique and elegant ‘Standard’ font created by renowned typographer Henrik Kubel. “I’m the son of an interior designer and have grown up with an interest in design and for me personally it’s been fantastically interesting to throw myself into this.”
Altering the name and the masthead (which will become single deck to make space for more front page ‘puffs’ for the content inside the paper) are drastic steps for a new editor. So too is the decision to change the paper’s brand colours from a “dull yellow” to red, the new colour of its Eros logo. The Piccadilly icon, previously a shadowy grey, will be given scarlet prominence as a signal of the Standard’s pride in its roots, despite its change in name. In due course the livery of Standard vendors and the bins and umbrellas from which they operate will also turn red.
The paper’s overhaul speaks to the editor’s desire for it to win recognition for more than its coverage of Westminster. Under Osborne, with his insider’s understanding of divisions within the Tory party, the Standard has been able to offer a unique perspective on the challenges for Theresa May’s government in implementing Britain’s departure from the European Union.
But the editor’s hostility to Brexit and his personal animosity towards a prime minister who sacked him in 2016 have spawned concerns that the paper might have too narrow an agenda for a mass media business primarily based on getting 900,000 printed copies into the hands of Londoners every day. The redesign is partly about Osborne showing that the Standard is about more than politics.
“My view is that your Evening Standard reader wants to know about Kim Jong-un but also wants to know about Kim Kardashian. You can pitch to both interests. You can talk about Brexit but you can also tell people the best place to get breakfast in London,” he says, with a taste for alliteration that befits a natural headline writer.
Osborne the editor
Osborne has surprised cynics with his hands-on approach to editing, arriving for work at the paper’s Kensington offices at 7am and frequently writing the paper’s leader pieces himself. His devotion to the role is a sign of the enduring relevance of the press, in spite of the industry’s well-documented financial challenges. “I could have chosen to do other things,” he says. “The fact that I decided this was an exciting thing to do, edit the Evening Standard, is because I have faith in the print product and I have faith in newspapers. I look abroad to the US and I see a revival in quality journalism there and I think there is a space here.”
While some might point to disengagement with print media among younger generations, Osborne says the average age of the Standard print reader is 36 – “which is many decades younger than most newspapers these days”. A paper, he says, is “still a very convenient, easy to digest and with this redesign easy to navigate way of receiving information about politics and business and culture and celebrities”.
The added showbiz coverage might enhance the product’s appeal to youth. “We are catering for a wide audience with confidence,” says the editor. In a nod to the iPhone generation, Osborne has sanctioned the use of emoji symbols on the paper’s weather guide, which might mean a smiley in shades when the sun is out and – rather shockingly – a poo emoji for what the former chancellor describes as “the not such good weather!” Given the English climate that symbol might almost rival Eros for its frequency in the paper.
Charlotte Edwardes, the paper’s star interviewer, has been appointed by Osborne as the face of "The Londoner". She is “one of the best-connected people in London”, he says. “I want the diary to be the place you go to find out what the beau monde of London are up to and to break stories more than it has done.”
Osborne’s expansion of the Letters section, situated in the Comment pages of the paper, also shows a willingness to respond to the desire of modern audiences for greater interactivity. He intends to frequently respond to letters in print under the heading ‘The Editor’s Reply’, signing off informally as ‘George’.
The pink-paged Business section, he says, is a sign that the paper is “broadly pro-business, pro the City of London and proud of London’s commercial heritage and future”, while also critical of companies where necessary. He argues that “among mass readership newspapers” there is a lack of “strong voices for business”.
The Standard generates around £70m in annual profits and has been profitable for the past two years. Latest Nielsen figures show a slight increase in its advertising revenues and market share. The editor has impressed media agencies with his personal involvement in the paper’s commercial activities. “I am someone who used to be in charge of making the nation’s sums add up and so I know you have got to get the revenue in,” he says.
There are no plans to increase distribution, despite Osborne’s national ambitions, but the paper has recently been introduced on London buses.
The Standard's future
The prospect of Wi-Fi availability on tube trains would appear to represent a grave threat to the paper’s business model. Osborne is bullish on this point. “There is no evidence, as Wi-Fi starts to be deployed on the tube, that it has hit our circulation,” he says, adding that the full implementation of Wi-Fi on the London Underground is “still some years off”, while evidence from Sweden shows that “free newspapers have not suffered from the development of Wi-Fi on their subway system”.
Despite this latest bet on print by Standard owner Evgeny Lebedev, Osborne says the paper’s new look is not divorced from digital media. “The whole product is designed to be completely integrated with the website, which is where the bulk of the new investment in the company is going, correctly in my view.” The new "Going Out" section is linked to the Standard’s new "Go London" digital product which enables readers to book restaurant tables and cinema seats after reading food and film reviews by the paper’s star writers.
The Standard rents its office space from the Daily Mail & General Trust, which retains a 24.9% stake in the London free paper as well as publishing the Daily Mail, a loud and aggressive proponent of Brexit, which the Standard decidedly is not. Osborne says he has known the Mail’s editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, for around 15 years. “I have a lot of respect for him as a newspaper editor – in terms of his technical skills and the coherence he brings to the paper, it’s impressive,” he says. “Do I agree with him politically? On quite a few things, no I don’t. But that’s not a problem as far as my personal relationship with him.” The Mail and the Standard serve “different readers”, he argues. “We get along fine as neighbours.”
Similarly he claims to have a decent working relationship with London’s Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, despite the paper’s Tory leanings. He made sure that Khan was the first politician to hear of his appointment. “My approach is this: he’s the mayor of the city, and voted by the people of London, and he should always have an opportunity in the city’s newspaper to explain to Londoners what he is doing.” The paper has also been critical of Khan’s record on issues including housing and tackling knife crime, he adds. “That’s what the paper should do, give him a platform but ask difficult questions, rather than a knee-jerk response that either everything he does is great or is terrible which I don’t think is doing our readers a service.”
Osborne’s first year at the Standard has included some difficult times for London; the paper’s inaugural London Food Month coincided with the London Bridge terror attack. But he believes that the paper’s association with the metropolis helps it to escape the “siege mentality” found in other parts of the press industry.
As Britain heads towards the Brexit which George Osborne opposed, the former chancellor has a sense of mission and a strangely optimistic outlook of the place that he and his paper are headed. “We are confident about our city and its diversity and pro the future and I don’t see any other (newspaper) product that is able to do that, with anything like the size or the age of our readership,” he says.
“I see many other papers either heading off to the left or the right and if that leaves a big space in the middle, all the better.”