“I knew what I was walking into and I knew what had to be done,” Evening Standard chief executive Charles Yardley tells me when I ask if taking on the job last summer, a few months into a global health crisis, felt like being given command of a sinking ship.
The Standard has been among the titles worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Its business model was still heavily print-centric and reliant on commuters picking up copies at London transport hubs, which went quiet as the command to “stay at home” to save lives came down.
Advertising, on which the title relied for the majority of its revenue, also slumped as events were cancelled and struggling companies cut their cloth. The Standard was forced to furlough staff and issue pay cuts.
It also reduced its print distribution from 800,000 copies a day to roughly 500,000, delivering about half of that to homes in an attempt to maintain its reach among Londoners who were no longer venturing outdoors.
Last year the Standard made sweeping cuts in a restructure brought on by the pandemic. A total of 115 jobs were made redundant, of which 69 were editorial – equal to 40% of the newsroom.
“I’m not going to say it was easy or it wasn’t a challenge,” says Yardley, who was named CEO in June and is only the second person to hold the role first created in October 2019, but he adds: “You can’t really blame [the pandemic] now… everyone’s been in the same scenario.”
Standard to keep distribution at pre-pandemic levels
A year since the first lockdown and the UK is only just starting to tentatively open up again. But even if the numbers of commuters start picking up again, the Standard’s distribution won’t rise to match it.
“I’m not planning on increasing on that half a million,” says Yardley. “That number feels like a comfortable number that’s working well.” It will however shift more papers on to the streets. (Over the past 20 years the Standard has put out between 200,000 and 900,000 copies a day).
The Standard newsroom is now digital-first. Previously separate print and digital editorial teams have been merged into one “digitally-focused” team, with all reporters filing into a new CMS. A “complete DNA overhaul” of its website has also made it mobile-friendly.
“The vision is transforming to be a mobile-first media company, and we’ve redefined how an editorial operation works in a mobile era,” says Yardley.
It’s a change from where he found the title. “It felt like a newspaper-centric or analogue-centric type business and if you did a pie chart of where the revenue mix came from, it was exactly that.”
Despite this, Yardley says the publisher is still “100% committed” to print, pointing to the fact that it has kept on printing during “what’s probably been the most difficult 12 months in the entire history of the newspaper”. “We’re not going to walk away from that,” he adds.
In fact the print product “remains core to the revenue model”, acting as the “front door of the brand”, he says. It’s the print product’s authority – the paper can be traced back to 1827 – that has helped in building new content and commercial ideas, he says.
Among these is live events which, so far, have been free and tied to campaigns such as London Minds, which saw the Standard partner with men’s health charity Movember, and London Rising, on the capital’s post-pandemic future, with a two-day virtual event planned next week.
A suite of branded content solutions is also a new driver of revenues. Flagship offering Brand Posts allows clients to pay to publish content directly on the Standard’s website. Already TikTok has done so, with a handful of other companies also signed up, Yardley says.
It’s similar to an initiative started at the other free London paper, City AM, in 2016, when Yardley was its chief operating officer. He has also previously worked for Forbes and the FT.
Brands Sponsored is a more traditional commercial content offering using the Standard’s in-house team, and Brand Stories offers “a visual content solution modelled on an Instagram-style social story experience” through partners Newsroom AI with some 15 advertisers already signed up.
‘We’ve restructured, we’ve reset…’
The Standard has also launched a new section, ES Money, which runs on a cost-per-action model, meaning payment on sales or registrations. It aims to “connect consumers with financial products that best suit them, providing money advice or product reviews, or it could be reviewing things like broadband or your phone bill,” explains Yardley. A firm called Marketplace produces the content, rather than the Standard’s own team.
“I don’t think anyone in the newspaper business could say: ‘Right, I’m going to wholly rely on newspaper advertising.’ We’ve got to look at different avenues and different means of attracting and growing revenue – hence all these undertakings of building out a new digital product,” says Yardley.
“Our commercial ambitions are being driven by these type of product innovations that support our partners to maximise return on content solutions by creating meaningful value exchanges with our audience.”
Cutbacks coupled with new digital revenue streams, has resulted in the Standard eyeing 40% digital revenue growth year-on-year. Its digital audience is also growing, up 5.5m unique users over a six-month period, says Yardley. The website receives some 19m monthly unique browsers. Pamco gives the Standard a cross-platform reach of 2.5m.
“The reason why this has happened is because we have completely turned that model around in the newsroom,” he says. But the question remains of whether this will be enough to put it back into the black.
The Standard lost £37m before tax over the past three years, according to accounts filed with Companies House. That’s before the turmoil brought about by the pandemic.
“I think it’s fair to say that last year was a difficult year…,” says Yardley of 2020 (the Standard’s financial year runs to the end of September).
“We’re halfway through this year, we’ve got a completely revitalised approach, we’ve got new products, we’re already starting to show results and if we stay on course with that progress, which we will, it will make for a much brighter year.”
Yardley said the business exceeded its financial goals in December, during London’s tier-two phase before the third national lockdown, and also last month when business started to pick up.
“As London opens up I’m confident that we’ll attain those goals for the rest of the year, but it’s just probably a bit too early to say,” he says.
Yardley chooses to describe the pandemic not as a crisis for the Standard but as an “opportunity”. “We can’t get away from the fact that we’re in a period of significant change and challenges, but the upside is it’s also presented many new commercial opportunities for this business,” he says.
“We’ve had to evolve and change in how we operate, almost take on more of an entrepreneurial start-up mentality…
“We’ve restructured, we’ve reset, and the mission is building a business as big as the brand and that mission remains entirely unwavered, in fact, we are pacing towards delivering on those goals.”
Picture: Evening Standard