By Dominic Ponsford
Evening Standard executives believe they have put the brakes on the paper’s dramatic sales decline in a move that could offer hope for struggling evening newspapers across the country.
Alarm bells rang at the Associated Newspapers title in October when its year-on-year sales decline hit 13.6 per cent. By January, that drop had been cut to 3.9 per cent and for February the decline is expected to drop to 2 per cent — a figure that is believed to be well ahead of most national papers in Greater London.
The turnaround in the Standard’s sales story has been achieved with the help of a concerted effort to make the paper "newsier", an emphasis on more London stories and targeted 20p price cuts.
It has been masterminded by 77-yearold managing director Bert Hardy, who came out of retirement to take over the reins at the Standard in September, following the departure of Mike Anderson to News International.
Hardy "retired" in 1994 as managing director of Associated Newspapers and had previously been chief executive of News International.
In 1996 he fulfilled a similar "caretaker"
role as MD of The Scotsman, where he used price cuts to push Scotland on Sunday’s sales to 113,516 (compared with the current total of 82,380). According to Standard circulation director Chris Spalding, a three-pronged attack on the sales decline was launched in October.
He said: "First priority was to slow the decline, second was to stabilise the sale and third was to out-perform the market — bearing in mind this decline has been going on for many years.
"We started with the product, we’ve kept pagination tighter and it’s become newsier. There’ve been some very strong news stories and we’ve been focusing very much on the London angles. We’ve also been trying hard to get it into people’s hands so they can sample it."
Spalding said that one-off cover price reductions from 40p to 20p on different days usually add between 60,000 and 70,000 copies to the sale.
According to a Standard spokesman, despite pressure from the internet, classified advertising is also "showing the green shoots of recovery".
Distribution of the Standard’s free Lite lunchtime edition, launched in December 2004, is now steady at 80,000.
According to research commissioned by the Standard, 56 per cent of Lite readers are aged 18-34 and 30 per cent of Lite readers pick it up every day.
When asked whether evening newspapers across the country are in terminal decline, Spalding said: "Twenty years ago people said TV was going to kill radio and now radio is more popular than ever. It’s tough, yes, and there are other forms of media providing news later in the day.
"But people still want a newspaper to read on the train when they are commuting home at night — they don’t want to look at their Blackberry or their laptop. The evening market needs to look at reading occasions rather than just sales. For us it’s the evening commute, which is a 45-minute journey on average and perfect reading occasion for a newspaper."
He used the example of the Lite lunchtime edition, that targets an audience with time to spare who weren’t previously reading the Standard.
In the last six-monthly audited circulation figures for evening newspapers, just two out of 82 in the country put on sales. The Evening Standard’s ABC sale for January was 337,080.