Will Anderson drive a red-top revival at NI?

The departure of Mike Anderson, managing director of the Evening Standard, has provoked a swirl of rumours about Standard Lite’s imminent demise. That may simply be wishful thinking on the part of Associated Newspapers’ rivals. What’s more pertinent is that Lite was never likely to provide a long-term solution to the Standard’s chronic circulation and revenue problems. Nor was a man of Anderson’s energy and ambition likely to be around long enough to test the theory’s validity.

In fairness, Standard Lite – launched last December amid much scepticism – has experienced considerable growth, with 55,000 copies handed out in January, rising to nearly 77,000 in June. Only the July bombings, which swelled the Standard’s overall circulation, reversed that trend. Nevertheless, the paper’s July figure of nearly 373,000 is well short of December 2003’s 395,000. What needs to be borne in mind is that the shortfall could have been a lot bigger; and that – in the age of internet real-time information – no obvious remedy exists for a newspaper whose founding rationale was the up-to-date publication of City prices several times a day.

Anderson’s career at Associated should, in any case, be judged less on the specifics of management and more on his rare imaginative faculty, and even rarer ability to act on the ideas that flow from it. This was well demonstrated at Metro. Though success has many authors, he was certainly the foremost – not least in making Metro actually happen in the way it did.

No doubt the skills honed at Metro and on Standard Lite would be invaluable at News International should it launch a freesheet of its own. It’s no secret, after all, that NI has recently hired Stefano Hatfield, lately editor-in-chief of Metro’s US operations (the Swedes, not Associated), as editorial director of NI projects. But if Anderson is there to add a bit of commercial heft to the freesheet project, then the company has made an extremely expensive hiring in putting him in charge of The Sun and News of the World as well.

For the time being, Anderson will find his day job at News Group Newspapers challenge enough. The two red-tops are suffering serious circulation slippage that cannot be arrested by the usual mechanical, promotional means. While the idea of a freesheet version of The Sun sounds a bit far-fetched at this stage, radical thinking in the commercial and circulation departments is certainly called for. Just as much to the point, if Anderson really is the “blue-sky thinker of his generation” his former boss Murdoch MacLennan judges him to be, he will have his work cut creating a niche in the blueprint culture of NI.

Equally intriguing in a different way is the new role of Anderson’s predecessor at NGN, Camilla Rhodes. She will now head (NI’s words) “a new magazine publishing arm at NI”. The Sunday Times Travel magazine and London Property News will evidently be part of the portfolio, but NI’s carefully chosen words seem to suggest a much more ambitious remit than this. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rupert Murdoch was a considerable publisher of consumer magazines, including at various times Elle and New Woman. Has he decided once again the time is right to invest in the sector?

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