The two traits which London Evening Standard editor Sarah Sands admires most in journalists are “seriousness” about the trade coupled with “a merriment”. And 20 years in senior level editorial jobs have not dulled her enthusiasm for “the most fun and interesting career” there is.
Sat in her editor’s office in Kensington, London, Sands, 54, has a lot to say during the 30-minute interview: her confidence that the paper’s owners, the Lebedevs, “won’t sell the Evening Standard”; that the frequent snaps of Evgeny Lebedev in the paper are “perfectly benign”; why she would rather hang out with contacts than Fleet Street editors; that she would have no political objections to working for the Guardian; and a friendly batting back of a suggestion she could be moving across the building to the Mail on Sunday.
The interview takes place just two months after Evgeny Lebedev shocked the industry when he announced the closure the Standard’s sister print title the Independent and the sale of the i newspaper, the Independent’s younger sibling, to Johnston Press.
Sands, the first female editor of the Sunday Telegraph in 2005 who has been editor of the Standard for four years, is sure that Evening Standard will not be sold or face closure.
“They [Evgeny and Alexander Lebedev] won’t sell the Evening Standard. The Evening Standard is an absolute secure money-making newspaper,” she said.
“Obviously I can’t speak for the Lebedevs but personally I think the paper is very secure.”
Latest financial figures for the Evening Standard show the evening daily title made pre-tax profits of £1.1 million in 2014, down from £1.7m in 2013.
Its finances are in much healthier than the Independent’s before its closure and far better than they were as a paid-for title under previous owner DMGT, the publisher of the Daily Mail, who sold the Standard to the Lebedevs in 2009.
Under DMGT, the Standard was thought to be losing more than £10m a year, vindicating the Lebedevs’ decision to go free with the title and up its distribution up to 900,000 copies every day.
However, the paper’s revenues are primarily at the mercy of the advertising market and Sands admits uncertainty about Brexit is making some advertisers jittery.
“I think Brexit has had a bit of an effect on supermarkets not advertising. These are cyclical things and we will get through it.
“I feel tremendously optimistic about the Evening Standard and print generally. As someone from Facebook put it to me ‘the great thing about the Evening Standard is it’s so convenient’.”
Currently, the paper is dedicating a significant amount of coverage to the forthcoming London Mayoral election.
Veronica Wadley, Sands’ predecessor, vigorously supported Boris Johnson in the election but Sands says the paper is “being very, very scrupulous about equal coverage” before deciding on whether it should back Labour candidate Sadiq Khan or the Conservative hopeful Zac Goldsmith or stay neutral. She was speaking before research by the Media Reform Coalition suggested that the Standard has strongly favoured Goldsmith in its news coverage.
She said: “Sadiq has been more visible. We have been very, very scrupulous about equal coverage. They are pretty evenly matched at the moment. I think it will feel right if and when we do [back either candidate].”
So how does the editor of London’s daily newspaper spend her day?
Sands is in the office before 7am every day and makes sure she is “on top of the overnight news” before morning conference at 8am.
“Until 11.30am I don’t think of anything except that day’s paper. It is always that tension for us of being the best we can possible be within the space and time,” she said.
“Any story we run, we have to advance in some way [from the national news]. It means getting the first photograph or getting the first quote in response to something.”
The first issues are distributed at 1pm and Sands spends her afternoons “getting ideas” and “meeting as many people as possible” while most evenings she can be found hobnobbing at London social events or at the theatre before getting into bed at 11pm.
Like Sands, Evgeny Lebedev is a big fan of the arts, presiding over the paper’s theatre awards.
As well as being frequently photographed in the Evening Standard’s weekly magazine, Lebedev is involved in the paper’s various London campaigns and pens the occasional article in the paper.
So is Sands comfortable with the Standard’s proprietor being so visible on its pages?
“He is a Londoner who has an interesting life. I would think these are all perfectly benign interventions. Why wouldn’t you want him involved?” she says.
There is also speculation that Lebedev is pondering moving former Independent editor Amol Rajan over to edit the Standard.
One well-placed sourced speculated that Sands could be moving to the Mail on Sunday as deputy editor replacing Gerard Greaves who is moving to be number two at the Daily Mail.
“I am very happy here” said Sands, in response to a questions about this.
During her career, Sands has held senior positions at the Daily Mail, Sunday Telegraph, and the Daily Telegraph, all of which are politically to the right.
So could Sands ever work for the left-leaning Guardian?
“Well I think any journalist should be able to write for any paper,” she says.
The nature of her job – and her history of working on national newspapers- means Sands is on first name terms with most, if not all , Fleet Street editors, although she says she is not one to fraternise with her peers much.
“Geordie [Greig] I know pretty well; I have worked for Paul [Dacre]” she says adding that “my job is to find out about London so on the whole I don’t hang out with other journalists because that is not where you are going to find the stories.”
With so much on her plate, it is perhaps lucky that Sands’ children have flown the nest. If her children where younger, would she recommend journalism as a career?
One of her children, now a management consultant, once pondered a career in sports journalism – an ambition which Sands offered only guarded support pointing it out that it could be tough financially.
“I think it’s really hard. If you really, really want to do it, it’s still the most fun and most interesting career I can think of. But it’s extremely tough,” she says, before heading off to another London event.
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