Among the many photos that adorn Sarah Sands’ office in the Evening Standard newsroom, there are two to which she points with particular pride. One is of her surrounded by the current editorial staff, the other is a similar shot from Sands’ first stint at the paper in the late 1980s.
Besides the presence of a youthful, moustachioed Richard Littlejohn, there is little to separate the two snaps.
Noting one or two bleary, leery eyes, Press Gazette suggests that the earlier picture may have been taken after a slightly boozy lunch.
“I think that’s a fair assumption,” Sands laughs. “That is something that’s changed.”
The other change is that Sands herself has graduated from being one of many indians to become the chief.
She took over as editor of the Standard in March 2012 when her friend and predecessor Geordie Greig left to become editor of The Mail on Sunday. Sands had initially returned to the then still paid-for Evening Standard as Greig’s deputy in August 2009 and says that at the time, she did not see it as a long-term appointment.
“I came back to a paper that seemed to be about to close,” she says candidly. “It was really because Geordie Greig was a friend. I thought: ‘It’s not going to last but I’m pretty sure I can find other work so I’ll give it a go.’
“I really thought it was doomed. On my first day the managing director (Andrew Mullins) took me aside and pointed out the catastrophic figures and how much it was losing and it was really difficult to find a logic for it being there.”
She joined the Standard from Reader’s Digest, where she was UK editor-in-chief. Before that she had spent nine months as editor of The Sunday Telegraph before departing in March 2006 ahead of its partial merger with its daily stablemate.
In August 2009, paid for sales were of the Standard were collapsing (from 171,000 a year earlier to 116,000). The title was still acclimatising to life under new owner Alexander Lebedev, who had bought a 75 per cent of the title from Daily Mail and General Trust in January of that year and put the paper under the direction of his son Evgeny.
In October 2009, the Lebedevs reversed what appeared to be a terminal decline in circulation by making the paper free.
Sands describes the Standard’s turnaround since those uncertain days as “a miracle”, adding that the credit falls “entirely” to Mullins and the younger Lebedev. For the year to October 2012 the Standard made a “trading profit” of £1m – its first for many years.
Critics of the paper under its Russian owners point to the proprietor’s frequent presence in its editorial content. Sands insists that “his business interests or politics” play no role in the editorial policy of the paper. But she has no problem giving a few bylines to her boss.
“I think what you have is a bit of his personality in the paper because he is so obviously part of the new London. That’s what I find so interesting about Evgeny, if I worked on another paper I’d want to write about him too.
“We’ve got a colourful proprietor that people are interested in, plus he loves journalism; he likes doing it himself.”
Another London character whose regular appearances in the Standard have led some critics to question the title’s impartiality is Boris Johnson, a former colleague of Sands’ during her time at the Telegraph.
But the editor insists the coverage of the mayor, and the politics of the capital as a whole, is fair and balanced.
“What you need is a mix of voices,” she explains. “If you look at our columnists, they’re very mixed. We’ve got people who’d be considered of the right, and some very fierce lefties.
“On Boris, we cover Boris but we’re not slavish about him. We have an interesting, colourful mayor and so we write about him but there’s no sense we’re part of the same process. We’ve been pretty analytical and, where necessary, critical.
“What Boris has done is made it a high-profile job. It’s good for us as having an interesting mayor is better than having one who isn’t.”
Sands does accept that there is “a perception” that the paper was strongly affiliated with Johnson during the 2008 mayoral election and so it was careful not to declare its political stance until the last days of the 2012 campaign.
Talking about how the paper has changed since she left it in 1996 to join the Telegraph, Sands says: “It’s a much more democratic, meritocratic mix – and so cosmopolitan too.
“There’s a more vibrant, mixed population [in London] and I think the paper’s changed in that way too. I don’t think anyone could describe it as snooty.”
Another accusation often thrown at the Standard in the pre-Lebedev era was that it was the London paper only for a certain type of Londoner: affluent middle class home-owners living in more prosperous parts of London.
Sands accepts that critique but maintains that, now, there are no longer any no-go areas for the paper.
She also points to recent campaigns as a sign of the Standard’s greater inclusivity. The Dispossessed campaign exposing severe poverty in London was as clear a statement of intent as a new proprietor could make, indicating that the paper was not just focusing on middle-class concerns.
The recent Ladder for London campaign to encourage employers to tackle youth unemployment claims to have prompted companies to create almost 1,000 new apprenticeships.
But Sands says the differences between the two eras at the Standard are not as marked as the similarities.
Even though the newspaper industry was “in a totally different state” and the Standard was “tremendously prosperous,” as she puts it, she insists that its “spirit” was the same then as it is now.
It is the reason she loves the two photos on the wall, separated by almost a quarter of a century.
“I immediately recognised that spirit when I came back. It’s absolutely in its DNA. There’s a joie de vivre about it and I think you have more fun on this paper than on any other I’ve worked on.
“It’s always been the naughty one in the group when it was part of Associated and I recognised when I came back the same humour and camaraderie, and the same relationship to London.”
Going free has expanded that relationship. Sands says the paper has more London readers than any title paper (with a print circulation now of over 700,000) and that it is looking to increase its circulation further next year.
“Dick Whittington is my perfect reader,” she jokes. “I love that thing about London, that people can get on from all different backgrounds, the idea that you can still come to London and make your fortune. That is the thing that tends to excite people.”