Close-Up: Live issue - Can the Standard win back London?

The Evening Standard has to rediscover its affection for the capital and its people.

Early evening and the big commute out of London to the suburbs and beyond has begun. Outside Hammersmith Tube station, the freesheet distributors are energetically thrusting their copies into the hands of the passing trade. At a nearby newsstand, the Evening Standard vendor is doing less than brisk business.

This familiar scene, now being replicated every weeknight across the capital's transport network, has become symbolic of the Evening Standard's plight. And it is doubtless the reason the title's Associated Newspapers parent has put its account up for pitch.

With sales in decline and its business under siege from London Lite and thelondonpaper, the Evening Standard's executives are asking agencies for ideas on what it should be doing to regain its equilibrium.

Industry sources suggest the paper is looking for a small group of smart people meeting on an almost daily basis to work through its issues.

The challenge will be formidable. A price hike from 40p to 50p as part of a move to a more premium positioning has not improved matters. Some believe the paper is paying for becoming out of step with an evolving media world and estranged from its market.

What's more, it has a rival in News International (the owner of thelondonpaper) that has deep pockets and will not withdraw to lick its wounds like all the others that have attempted to take on the Evening Standard's one-time monopoly.

Nor is it simply a question of clawing back readers lured away by the freesheets. "People read freesheets because they happen to be available," a commentator explains. "If they weren't, it doesn't mean those people would pay for an Evening Standard."

In some respects, the Evening Standard's problems are no different to those affecting regional titles throughout the UK - the migration of so much classified revenue online, the perpetual dilemma of being neither entirely ad nor subscription funded.

However, some concerns are more specific. Not least the widely held belief that the title has fallen victim to its own disenchantment with London and those living in it.

David Bain, a partner at Beattie McGuinness Bungay, which recently took over thelondonpaper's account, says: "The Evening Standard has become bitter and stuck in a curmudgeonly rut."

So what can be done to raise the Standard? "It must re-establish itself as essential reading for Londoners and become their champion," a former agency manager with long experience of newspaper accounts says. "That's not been happening."

Equally important, he adds, is that it should make the most of what it has to sell. "It has always presented its listings well and in a way that can't be matched by the freesheets. And why aren't the paper's Wednesday media pages devoured like those in Monday's Guardian or Independent?"

Yet even if the paper resolves these issues, the question of how best to communicate its new incarnation may remain. "The traditional media for newspapers is TV," an adman who has worked on Associated Newspapers' business explains. "But the Evening Standard's audience may be spread across a number of TV regions."

However, Andy Mullins, the Evening Standard's managing director, is optimistic that the worst is over. Of course, the freesheets have taken their toll but the past few months have seen the paper's sales stabilise, he points out. "We're determined to come up with a strategy that's right for our readers and our advertisers," he adds. "We plan to come out fighting."

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PLANNER - David Bain, partner, Beattie McGuinness Bungay

"The Evening Standard's problems are not just about circulation and ad revenue decline or even that so much classified has gone online. The fact is that the paper has such a miserablist view of London.

"This isn't to say that the capital doesn't have its problems. But the Evening Standard feels like it is appealing to people who have fallen out of love with London, can't wait to leave it or have already done so. It has forgotten that, for young freesheet readers, living in London is probably the most exciting thing in their lives.

"For the paper to be considered as a more serious and considered alternative, it needs to lose the chip on its shoulder."

PLANNER - Richard Huntington, former planning director, United London

"It's time for the Evening Standard to work out what sort of role it has in London life. It's become a nasty, right-wing gossipy title that actually doesn't seem to like its audience - or the city it serves - very much.

"Like most paid-for newspapers, it has to ask itself whether it needs to migrate to an ad-funded or a subscription model. If it's the latter, the paper could charge a premium price for high-quality, analytical journalism.

"The Evening Standard has survived every attempt to unseat it through 'spoilers' rather than through its own value. This time, though, it's up against News International with the wealth and the will to fight it to the death."

PLANNER - Charlie Snow, planning director, Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners

"The Evening Standard has become joyless. The freesheets are jokey, full of banter and, maybe, a bit trashy. But they do make the Standard look overly neat and tidy, tired and set in its ways.

"Evening papers are a wind-down on the journey home. People don't need them for up-to-the-moment news. They can get that all day on screen. The Standard needs to be entertaining but with a London spin. And it needs to be doing this from an urban, rather than a suburban point of view. Sport is one area where it could improve. It ought to be telling London football fans what's really going on inside their clubs."

PLANNER - David Hackworthy, partner, The Red Brick Road

"London is one of the world's most vibrant and interesting cities and deserves a newspaper that celebrates that fact. The Evening Standard should be that paper. It shouldn't be like its rivals and just be supplying commuter candyfloss.

"Can the title's fortunes be restored? I believe so. Newspapers are like organisms. They live and breathe and change along with their readers, because it's in the nature of what they do.

"The paper should see itself as in a different market than the freesheets. It doesn't exploit the quality of its journalism as it should. It needs to get people back behind it again. There are so many issues on which it should be taking a view."