Expert Eye: Standard looks to the past for web relaunch

As a teenager in the Seventies I was much taken by an edition of Tomorrow’s World that showed a newspaper of the future. The paper I saw was pretty much stuck in the mid-20th century in terms of essential elements of format and news agenda. That much at least was thus futurologically accurate.

What was radically different about the future, or so Seventies smart alecs thought, was the means of distribution. Modern

people would print out faxed versions of their newspapers

(actually, on a continuous roll of paper which went back into the machine at the bottom like a roller towel of the sort you find in public lavatories).

This week the Evening Standard decided to catch up with Tomorrow’s World by making a version of itself available to any subscriber with a printer and a broadband connection. The principle is exactly the same as the fax version, except for the continuous roll of paper.

The jpegs were hard to read on screen, but at least doing that wouldn’t cost me a fortune in inkjet cartridges. I don’t think it will catch on.

The Evening Standard’s parent company was one of the first to build a big presence on the web, investing heavily pre-broadband, in This Is London a now venerable ‘what’s on’arts and entertainment guide.

The Standard’s new site still seems wedded to the original model of taking the paper product and essentially plonking it online, with the addition of basic searchability and one or two other gimmicks. There’s a podcast and some interactivity in the form of instant opinion polls.

But there’s not much video content and not much re-thinking of the design of the original This is London model. Thus we have java-type navigation bars, which give the site a dated, corporate feel. Likewise, the BBC-style ‘news ticker’scrolling across the top looks very dated and, in an age of RSS feeds, cheap. The aggressive newsiness of the ticker works against the strength of the site, which is feature content produced for the paper.

The big attraction is the Standard’s line up of erudite and notably upmarket columnists, such as novelist Will Self, but the readers are only offered what they can get in the paper anyway. The visual possibilities of broadband are not exploited. The still pictures look like they are being chosen with a view to being squirted through a 56k modem.

The Standard does brilliantly well to compete in a sector of the market which has suddenly become ultra-competitive. The business strategy has been to move upmarket to avoid direct competition with the tabloid freesheets which now flood the capital. Last year that paper was boldly and successfully redesigned for its new position in the marketplace, and the investment was made in editorial to make it all work.

In terms of the web the Standard may be a victim of its owners’ early success in the form of This is London. The problem is that its broadsheet competitors have moved on. The Times, for example, has re-thought its web presence much more fundamentally and is now way ahead in terms of video content..

The Standard needs to re-think its strategy on the web, applying the same degree of boldness as it applied to successful re-positioning of the paper last year.

Chris Horrie is a journalist and author and lectures on journalism at the University of Westminster

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