By Barry Newcombe
The Evening Standard will be all over London today and for the first time since it was founded in 1827 it will be given away free across the city in an astonishing change in strategy.
It is the latest and most startling development in the history of the evening newspaper market in the capital, with 600,000 copies of the free Standard set to be distributed in a massive bid to emphasise its new status, following a re-launch in May after the title had been sold for a mere Â£1.
What the Standard is doing under its Russian owner Alexander Lebedev is not just pertinent to London, because in other cities across the country, the problems of declining circulations and diminishing advertising revenues have increased.
The newspaper also has a free competitor, London Lite – owned by the Standard‘s former owners, Associated Newspapers, who also retain a minority stake in the Standard – to think about as it moves into its new age. But the Standardâ€™s management clearly believes it has taken the correct step to improve its position.
â€œThere are so many competing distractions to potential readers particularly with new technologies,â€ said Andrew Mullins, managing director of the Standard. “Being a quality newspaper with large scale and reach should transform our commercial fortunes.â€
Go back 50 years, of course, and there were three paid-for London evening papers, the Star, the Evening News ,and the Standard. They each sold tens of thousands of papers in that largely pre-television, pre-24-hour news cycle age. But even by 1960, the modernisation of the media was taking its toll, with the Star closing.
Although the Evening News had the stronger circulation (estimates suggest that it sold 600,000 copies a day at one stage), it was the next to go, after a 99-year history, when it was “merged” with the Standard in 1980, returning only briefly in 1987 as a cut-price spoiler to help the Standard see off Captain Bob Maxwell’s attempt to move into the London newspaper market with the short-lived London Daily News.
When I joined the Standard sports writing team in 1965, the paper ran at least six editions a day, starting with the racing edition. The News did the same.
Competition was intense, never more so on Saturday evenings when the vans carrying the Classified papers with the dayâ€™s football scores careered around the city in direct competition to reach their outlets first.
The writers I joined on the Standard included Bernard Joy on football, George Whiting on boxing, John Clarke on cricket and Walter Bartleman on everything. Joy and Whiting both wrote their copy in longhand. If you worked outside the office every word had to be dictated to a copytaker.
In my case, reporting tennis meant the usual scramble to meet edition times and, at Wimbledon, involved running downstairs from Centre Court to phone, somewhat breathlessly, that Christine Truman was 2-1 up in the first set. By the time that particular edition of the newspaper appeared at Wimbledon, Christine was either in or out and back home in Essex. But she was still 2-1 up in the Standard.
The World Cup in 1966 and its final at Wembley had Bernard Joy in command, with me in the office for the England v West Germany final to write a running story off television in case Joyâ€™s phone line broke down.
The Standard suited my nature in the 19 years I worked there and I have always followed its fortunes closely, with today being yet another intriguing case in point.
It was always a demanding arena in which to work as Veronica Wadley, recently editor, underlined when she said: â€œThere is no otherâ€” no other – paper that works under the same pressure as the Evening Standard. So the journalists have to be special.
“People leave because they canâ€™t take the pace, or they donâ€™t want to. Thatâ€™s fine if thatâ€™s how they feel. But it does mean that the ones who survive are quite outstanding.â€
Geordie Greig now edits the Standard and says there will be no decline in quality because the paper is free. â€œSome of the greatest things are free, the British Museum and the National Gallery are free, to clock on to the BBC news site is free,â€ he said.
â€œWe think they by going free, a lot of people will suddenly embrace the Standard who either get it occasionally or who have not been regular readers. Itâ€™s the only place where you can read about what is going on in London, in terms of politics, business, arts.â€
Barry Newcombe, the chairman of the SJA, reported tennis, rugby and other sport, including covering four Olympics Games, for the Evening Standard between 1965 and 1984