Associated Newspapers is searching for a successor to veteran Evening Standard boss Bert Hardy – and the options are not promising.
The title has arguably been in limbo since former managing director Mike Anderson left to join News Group in September last year. Associated turned to Hardy as caretaker soon afterwards, giving the septuagenarian his umpteenth significant newspaper job in a career spanning more than 50 years.
Now he is leaving, and industry speculation that The Guardian’s highly respected commercial director Stuart Taylor was ready to take the job has already been quashed by him turning down the post (MW last week).
While Hardy has done a steady, if unspectacular job, of tightening up the product – shifting the hard news and business coverage towards the front and keeping the newspaper at a consistent 64 pages – the decline in circulation has continued during this year. At 289,254 copies sold in September, the level was 7.6% fewer than August, and 11.7% fewer year-on-year.
Although Associated insiders claim a shortlist of candidates is being considered, many of the industry’s executives with relevant management experience have either recently found new jobs or would be unwilling to move, according to experts.
Cup of woe
One newspaper executive says: “I can’t think of anyone who would move to a job seen as a bit of a poisoned chalice. The Standard loses money hand over fist and has only really been in the spotlight recently because of the effect of two new London evening newspaper launches.”
September’s launch of News International’s thelondonpaper and Associated’s London Lite have had a demoralising effect on the Standard. But Hardy took steps to protect his paper’s interests by increasing the price from 40p to 50p, in an attempt to move it upmarket, and draw a line in the sand separating it from its free rivals.
While the two freesheets are hoping to attract 18to 34-year-olds in high-paying professions, the Standard’s plan was to appeal to the more serious, older business community. There is no doubt that distinguishing itself from its lighter, more frivolous and quicker-to-read rivals was a sound plan, but as one senior press buyer argues, that has not been well executed.
The buyer says: “On one night last week the Standard, London Lite and thelondonpaper all had the McCartneys’ divorce story as a splash. Where is the differentiation and why the hell would anyone pay 50p for something that is free ten yards up the road?”
In need of a plan
Another buyer says a clearly defined strategy is needed if the paper is to attract a top name to the job. The source states: “Any person being offered the job needs a clear brief. If Associated’s business plan is to concentrate on reaching 200,000 AB1s, one could manage that. A managing director role at Associated is not to be sniffed at, but if the brief is to steady yields and reverse the decline in circulation then potential candidates should stay away.”
He also identifies a key problem with editor Veronica Wadley that may put candidates off: “The Standard has an editor in Veronica who can do what she wants because editorial chief Paul Dacre is an ally of hers – but she is a problem. There are lots of Standard stories that also appear in London Lite. She’s no business journalist, and perhaps not able to make that leap in quality that the newspaper needs. If I were the new managing director I would make it my priority to replace her.”
Any new candidate must be ready to stamp his or her authority on the job and to persuade their bosses that they must be allowed to do things their own way. A good starting point might be to get the Standard a genuine digital presence. Online and mobile is where future newspaper battles will be fought, and the Standard’s barely branded thisislondon.co.uk website needs to offer more to readers than it currently does.