MEDIA FORUM: Can the Evening Standard re-establish its voice? The London evening newspaper must be seen as more than an alternative to Metro if it wants to achieve further success, Alasdair Reid says

For some observers, the Evening Standard's recent noisy catfight with Ken Livingstone has been somewhat revealing. No, they're not particularly interested in whether the formerly mild-mannered Mayor of London has mutated before our very eyes into Vlad the Impaler. They do, on the other hand, find it telling that the Standard appears so desperate to work this one up into some sort of moral crusade.

Yes, the Standard clearly wants to be seen confronting issues that really matter to Londoners. And it has reaped some short-term circulation gain from the spat, which is always welcome. But in hindsight this may not turn out to be the most glorious episode in the paper's history - and, unfortunately, some commentators are wondering whether a once-proud organ hasn't been acting in a way that the Islington Gazette might have deemed unseemly.

All of which is probably dreadfully unfair - but the Standard has arguably been finding it difficult adjusting to the post-Hastings era. Former editor Max Hastings (he moved on six months ago) was a heavyweight editor in the classic Fleet Street mould. The great paradox about the Standard is that it is a local evening paper that, when on form, tends to look and feel like a national daily. It can reach the same influential audience of opinion formers and decision-makers as any of the nationals. And its circulation is comparatively stable at around 400,000 (though it did decline 3.5 per cent last year) because it has a captive market - if you are a commuter and you can read but find books just too much bother, there's a fair chance you'll buy the Standard to accompany you on your journey out to the suburbs or beyond.

But whatever the merits of the Hastings era, the paper has needed to evolve - and its new editor, Veronica Wadley, was charged with making it feel more modern, bring a defter touch to its features and make it more appealing to 18- to 34-year-old women. It's clearly an ongoing project because last week the paper served notice that it was about to open a new chapter when it appointed a new agency - Partners BDDH - which will be given a £4 million budget to back a series of (as yet undisclosed) new initiatives at the paper.

What direction is it likely to take? What sort of challenges does the paper face? Nigel Long, the chief executive of Partners BDDH, comments: "I've heard the Evening Standard described as the national newspaper for London and I think that's right. It walks a fine line between being a national, with all the scope and scale that suggests, and at the same time appealing to the urban community. It doesn't want, for instance, to become the local newspaper for London - but there is an opportunity to forge a closer relationship with Londoners without selling out and becoming the local newspaper. To me, it's about how acute the tone of voice is."

Long argues that Londoners are smarter, more ambitious and more time starved than their provincial cousins and the paper has an opportunity to recognise that. But how big is the task? "Promotions will play a part but there is also an opportunity to build circulation through a stronger brand identity. There is scope for a more emotional relationship with the readers. If you regard the Standard as a product without a competitor, then you can underestimate the contribution that branding can make. But if you recognise that it is competing for attention with books and the Walkman and even making conversation with the person sitting opposite you, then there is clearly a role for branding."

Some commentators think the Standard needs a more radical change in direction.

Edward Lloyd Barnes, the managing director of The ComFederation, thinks it should be looking to see what lessons it can learn from its Metro stablemate. "You wouldn't want it to be the mirror image of Metro obviously but there is certainly an opportunity to make the Standard more user-friendly.

I think the Standard has lacked cutting edge recently and you wonder if people would buy it if there was a choice. The Standard is a tabloid leaning toward a broadsheet and Metro leans more toward the entertainment end of the tabloid spectrum - which gives it a broader appeal. I don't know what sort of circulation targets it has, but its reach is below what papers deliver in other cities. If you had a good enough product I don't see why they can't expect something around 600,000. Why not?"

Many media specialists agree that the Standard has been lacking in energy.

Tim Kirkman, the director of press at Carat, argues that it could do more to reflect London's status as a cutting-edge, trend-setting city. "A paper that publishes three or four editions a day should be able to come up with more topical stuff. I'd like it to show more modernity. The Daily Mail and the broadsheets run more topical features than the Standard and there's been little evidence that the features side is being moved forward. It should also be breaking more news - which would help it become more than something people take with them on the train home. It should be striving to get things in there that other papers can't for deadline reasons. But even the City coverage has been losing its way slightly."

On the other hand, he would caution against throwing baby out with the bathwater. "Editorially, I haven't see much in the way of change since the days when Hastings was editor - but then Hastings was a real character and his shoes have been a difficult pair to step into. But if you look at the supplements, they have some good products - for instance, Homes and Properties. Overall it's still a strong product with a great brand franchise and a strong upmarket profile."

Steve Goodman, the press director at MediaCom, would agree with that.

He doesn't think there's much wrong with the Standard. He states: "Some of the supplements they do are excellent. For instance, Homes and Properties is especially well-regarded and Hot Tickets is pretty good. On the other hand, I think there's a feeling that ES has kind of lost its way - at one time it was one of the best regarded review supplements in the market and everyone loved it. Now it just feels like a me-too product. Maybe they could address that, especially if they are keen on attracting young women readers back. The problem with putting too much emphasis on supplements though is that it isn't a long-term fix if there's a more fundamental problem - readers may just come in for the supplement.

"But overall, I can't see that it has many major problems. It has its own niche and it does command a relatively big circulation. It has a good track record in breaking news stories and it's a good campaigning paper that takes up issues and runs with them. It flies the flag for London while continuing to get the balance between national and local news absolutely right."

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