At Last, The Evening Standard Has An Enemy

Purpose is not a word often used when discussing a media outlet’s identity. Yet two recent experiences in the U.K. – where two different newspapers humiliated themselves by not engaging with their core audiences – expose why purpose must define good journalism. Just as it does world-beating brands, according to leading market researchers at Hall & Partners.

First to The New Day, a refreshingly-different print product that launched at the end of February and closed at the start of May, after just 50 issues. It was meant to appeal to those who wouldn’t normally buy newspapers, but in the end, its blandness appealed to fewer than 40,000 people, well short of the 200,000 it aimed for.

Trinity Mirror spent £5m on an ad campaign that didn’t know quite what the product was meant to be – newspaper or magazine, serious or trivial, different from everyone else or a cheap rip-off, free (which is how it started) or 50p (which is how it ended). The reason for launch clearly wasn’t to make money – after all, Trinity Mirror has just reported a 20% fall in print and ad revenues. It’s a difficult time to be in print – since 2000, total daily sales of U.K. national newspapers have halved to less than 8 million.

But the true failure lies in the company’s embarrassing inability to provide the paper with purpose, an identity with which readers could latch on to. A product that reflected a core audience’s tastes, desires and personality. It was, in the words of Larry David, just a bit ‘meh’.

And then there’s the embarrassment which London’s only newspaper, the Evening Standard, will continue to suffer for some time. It made the cardinal error of backing the losing candidate in the race to be London Mayor. But it did so by defiantly opposing the candidate its readers so clearly wanted to win.

Recent research showed that the five-times-a-week free newspaper – with a combined print and online readership of just under two million andwhich recently reported profits of £1.4m under the stewardship of the Lebedev family – was woefully biased.

In a city in which the majority of voters are sympathetic to the left-leaning Labour party, it was the ‘mouthpiece of the Conservative party’, printing 13 out of 15 official Conservative press releases as barely-changed news stories. It swooned over the wealthy, Eton-educated, failed businessman Zac Goldsmith and attacked his London-born, working class Muslim opponent Sadiq Khan.

Its purpose was simple – to reflect the right-wing agenda and tastes of the proprietor and editor. It forgot that its real purpose is to reflect the tastes of its readers – not just some but all of them.

However, its humiliation in seeing arch-enemy Khan ensconced in City Hall is tempered by the fact that it means the newspaper can rapidly rediscover a far more powerful purpose. Instead of being a toothless, fawning sycophant, it can go on the attack. And it might need to – one of the newspaper’s most senior executives told me recently: ‘If Khan wins, our relationship with the Mayor and everyone who runs London will be at a real low. We’ll need to swallow our pride and find a way of working with him.’

Or perhaps not.

The evening paper of a city works best when it campaigns about wrongdoing, not when it cuddles up to power. Its influence is strongest when it goes out on a limb, not when it fawns over politicians. Its impact on the city’s inhabitants is most significant when it encourages an ‘us’ and ‘them’ environment, not by being bland and supine.

With a sworn opponent ensconced within City Hall, the newspaper and its journalists finally have a target, their ire will be fueled, their fangs bared. They will be able to fight campaigns that stir emotions, inspire readers and excite advertisers. They will have a purpose.

One of the great lessons I learned from an editor was about campaigning journalism. I had been tasked with creating a series of articles to spearhead a ‘Scrap inheritance tax for everyone’ campaign. But it’s never going to happen, I protested. Aren’t we more likely to achieve success by trying to campaign for something achievable?

His response was thus: ‘Never fight a campaign that you expect to win. Where’s the fight in that?’

Every great city needs an enemy it can fight and not always win against. After a brief (very brief) congratulatory love-in, the Evening Standard should view Khan’s victory as a declaration of war.

And nothing boosts a newspaper’s readership like war.

 

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