Can a Lite snack save the Standard?

Never has ‘All that, for less than the price of a cappuccino’ been more truly said of a newspaper than in the case of Standard Lite, the new London freesheet. Indeed, this metaphor may well have coloured the imagination of Evening Standard boss Mike Anderson as he described the Standard Lite as ‘a news snack. It still leaves you with an appetite for a West End final.’ Or so he will be devoutly hoping.

If Lite really is a snack, it’s certainly a pretty substantial one. Though the hybrid design deliberately reflects some elements of the Associated freesheet Metro, this is no Metro Premium. At 48 pages it weighs in at over two-thirds of the full monty version (68 pages). It yields little in the way of news coverage and, if it has shed some of the feature material (and supplements), it at least makes a token concession to City news, entertainment and eating out.

Advertisers and media buyers will salute the professionalism of the launch (even if the new paper was a few minutes late) and would be churlish not to acknowledge Anderson’s role in bringing genuine innovation to a moribund market. But despite his track record and the might of Associated behind the launch, they will take a lot of convincing that Standard Lite is going to do what it says it is going to do: halt the decline of the paid-for Evening Standard.

Let’s look first at the circulation arguments. There has been mounting desperation at the Evening Standard as it contemplates a circulation freefall. The net ABC figure for November was 370,832, which represents a nearly nine per cent loss over six months and a 2.72 per cent drop on October. Sure, 50,000 copies of the free Lite will bulk up the figure to over 400,000 again, but for how long? And, crucially, how will that extra circulation be broken down in ABC figures?

It need scarcely be said that introducing a freesheet edition as filling for a paid-for newspaper sandwich is a dangerous recipe. What if readers develop a taste for the free, at the expense of the paid-for? What if they would rather do without the added value of features, columnists, supplements and City coverage so long as the paper comes free? To some extent they have already proved they do. The success of Metro (ironically, Anderson’s baby) has been something of a Frankenstein’s monster, cannibalising the paid-for Standard. Associated would no doubt counter that they minimise this tendency by ring-fencing the distribution of Metro. True enough, they do: but they don’t recover the free copies of Metro lying about in tube carriages as passed on readership during the course of the day, and neither do transport officials.

Ah, but Lite appeals to a totally different demographic: it’s more skewed to young women who pop out at lunchtime, and less so to discerning (male) City and media/entertainment professionals. No possibility of confusing the readership profile here and little danger, therefore, of cannibalisation. The problem with this argument is that Lite dilutes the desirable upmarket element of the Standard brand so attractive to advertisers. They will be watching like hawks when the next ABCs come out to check whether any success on the part of Lite has eroded the paid-for newspaper. Associated may hope it can conceal the precise breakdown on a technicality (perhaps the purpose of giving Lite a 20p price tag), but it cannot be certain of this.

Anderson, in short, is proving himself a bold tactician. But is he a good strategist? We’ll see come the spring.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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