London Lite and the law of unintended consequences
Today’s closure of London Lite, while terrible news for its staff and distributors, hasn’t exactly been greeted with much sadness from the capital’s newspaper readers. For despite its chirpy name, it was actually one of the most sour, spiteful reads around; a freesheet that promoted a culture of envy and entitlement, which looked like a dog’s dinner and left a similar aftertaste. It’s no surprise that today’s final edition suggests readers switch to the Daily Mail’s website, best known for promoting homophobe Jan Moir.
But it brings to an end a three-year chapter in London’s media history which saw competition for newspaper readers that hasn’t been seen for over 20 years. When Rupert Murdoch announced his plan to take on London with The London Paper, the capital’s media looked ripe for a shake-up. The lumbering, complacent Evening Standard was already seen as out of touch, a paper which hated London. The London Paper would love London. The Standard’s response was to launch a spoiler against a spoiler – to convert its free afternoon Standard Lite into London Lite. After all, Associated Newspapers had cracked the morning market with Metro, now 10 years old, so what could go wrong?
Everything. London Lite was panned by critics, but lost money. The London Paper was praised by critics, but still lost money. And the Standard’s fortunes went into freefall.
Eventually Associated raised the white flag… and sold a weakened Standard. A change in priorities at News International sounded the death knell for The London Paper, and without its rival, there was no point to London Lite. And in between, the Standard’s new management raised its own white flag, and started handing out the Standard for free, removing it from newsagents across Greater London and concentrating on central London distribution.
So what are we left with?
In 2006, London had a fairly strong evening newspaper, wildly out of touch with the city it claimed to serve, but widely available, with its billboards wielding great influence across the capital.
In 2009, London has a severely weakened evening newspaper, still wildly out of touch with the city it claims to serve, and neither it nor its billboards are often seen outside the centre of the capital.
Did anyone think the battle of London’s evening papers would lead to this? What should have happened is that the Standard should have raised its game – maybe switched to a part free/part paid-for model – and started covering London properly and not obsessing over the concerns of a moneyed minority. Instead, it’s stayed aloof from the concerns of most Londoners, and now even doesn’t even appear in the areas where most of them live. Effectively, much of London doesn’t have an evening newspaper. After all, there’s no point in the Standard writing about Deptford if the paper’s not available in Deptford.
You can say many things about Rupert Murdoch, but he has a reputation as a newspaper man and I really don’t think his intention when launching The London Paper was to completely kill off London’s newspapers. This week’s Private Eye claims the Standard is due to make a £10m loss this year, will lose £15m in cover revenue from going free, and losing the £5m London Lite paid it to use its stories will punch a bigger hole in its funding – together with paying an army of distributors (the old Standard vendors were self-employed). The Eye claims Associated Newspapers is waiting for the Standard to fold before launching an afternoon edition of Metro in London.
“The Standard is the one paper devoured daily by all London’s decision makers and opinion formers, by its influentials,” writes Standard editor Geordie Greig in the introduction to its annual Influentials survey, its attempt to butter up those with cash and influence by giving them even more coverage. “Indeed, it is now read by more than a million Londoners, from cabbies to cabinet ministers, builders to bankers: an influential paper for the most influential city.
The problem is, though, if your paper’s not seen across London, then it becomes about as influential as the Paddington & Westminster Times. That title reports what goes on in central London, and is widely seen in central London. But beyond there… zilch. And rightly so. The Standard should be bigger and better than that, but at the moment, it isn’t. If Geordie Greig’s pals are so “influential”, could one of them do London a favour and tell him to sort his act out before it’s too late?