A few weeks ago, I walked past an Evening Standard vendor, and glanced at the headline: “WORLD’S FIRST AIDS VACCINE”. This was big news – a massive scientific breakthrough that could save millions of lives. My response was to shake my head and keep walking.
People think the Standard’s circulation is plummeting because of the internet, or the freesheets. It’s not true. The paper is dying because of crimes against journalism, committed over many, many years. As it turns out, that AIDS headline was true – there had been a major breakthrough, and it was big news. But I simply didn’t believe it, because so many other times over the years I’ve picked up a copy of the Standard and found its headline to be either completely misleading or downright wrong. I stopped trusting it, and I was disgusted by its adulation for the rich and famous and its condescension for struggling Londoners like the striking Tube workers.
The simple truth is, if the Standard produced quality journalism, it could see off competition both from the internet and the free papers. London is a huge city, and people would pay 50p for hard-hitting stories about local life and politics. They just won’t pay for rehashed non-news, spiteful columnists and celebrity gossip.
A few months ago the Standard tried apologising for being so awful. This seemed at the time like a mistake – just reminding people of all the reasons they hated the paper in the first place. I haven’t read it recently but I’ll bet it hasn’t changed much after that apology either.
So as of last week, the Standard is being distributed free. This will presumably mean massive cutbacks and an even further deterioration in the quality of the journalism. The freesheets, after all, seem to be mostly wire copy with added vacuous features by incredibly young-looking columnists. They don’t break important news or hold politicians to account; they are simply a vehicle for advertising. The Standard will have to do the same if it wants to make any money.
This means that London will be left without a serious local newspaper. It’s true that many of the national papers have a strong London bias, so we do get local coverage. But a big city still deserves its own paper. It’s sad for London that it doesn’t have one, and it’s sad that, as a trained journalist and someone who cares about the news, my only reaction to the prolonged death throes of the Evening Standard is profound satisfaction. The only people I care about are the vendors who have been shouting “Standard, Standard, West End Final” across the city since the beginning of time. I’ll miss them. Anyone involved in actually producing the Standard’s curious journalistic mix of nastiness and irrelevance, however, thoroughly deserves their fate.