George Osborne's Evening Standard banks on live events to build readership and revenues

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

As George Osborne undoubtedly understands, London is living through momentous times that may determine its future claims to be the world’s greatest city.

The former British chancellor is just one month into his surprise role as editor of the London Evening Standard. His first four weeks have seen him purposefully reposition the paper as a fierce critic of his old colleague Theresa May, sounding a clarion for the capital by warning of the damage a hard Brexit will do to this economic powerhouse.

He kicked off June with a bold attempt to champion another of London’s strengths: its fine dining. London Food Month was dubbed a month-long celebration of the “world’s new culinary capital” with over 400 events taking place at restaurants, bars and other eating spots.

Two days after it launched, in a terrible coincidence, three knife-wielding terrorists descended on Borough Market in a rampage that left eight people dead and 48 injured. The symbolism of the target was not lost on Standard journalist Phoebe Luckhurst. “This is London’s kitchen,” she wrote on Monday, after visiting the scene of the atrocity. “It is…the hub of one of the capital’s most successful industries: food.” The Standard had already chosen to have a spectacular Night Market as the centrepiece of London Food Month and last night (Wednesday 7 June) it opened, as planned, on the site of the royal family’s helipad outside Kensington Palace.

The food festival will go on, in line with the resilience being shown by the capital itself. Osborne has incorporated into the Standard masthead a “We ‘heart’ LDN” logo as the paper goes through the process of identifying the innocents lost in the massacre and tries to help the people of London in their understanding of what happened.

Osborne also went ahead with Tuesday evening’s general election hustings, another Standard live event which he hosted himself at Church House in Westminster. Chaired by ITV political editor Robert Peston, it featured Sir Vince Cable, Greg Hands and Sian Berry as the political panellists (Diane Abbott withdrew due to illness).

Standard seizes its moment

As the shadow of Brexit threatens London’s position as a financial services hub, and the ongoing scourge of terrorism undermines its reputation as a tourist destination, the great metropolis will need all its centuries-old resolve and talent for reinvention to maintain its position on the world stage. But these adverse conditions give the Standard a new relevance.

The prime minister – despite the paper’s critical coverage of Downing Street and the dislike she and Osborne have for one another – gave the Standard an exclusive interview on Monday as she tried to reach out to Londoners after the Borough Market attack. In the same edition, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan penned the main op-ed piece. Before Osborne became editor, the Standard had hindered Khan’s election to City Hall by openly championing his Tory opponent Zac Goldsmith.

Yesterday, Osborne’s Standard tried to have it both ways by backing the Conservatives as “the better party”, while again highlighting the “shortcomings” of May’s leadership. Many readers in a city where Labour has a clear majority will have been unimpressed by the Tory endorsement.

The Standard needs broad appeal. Despite its monopoly position as London’s local paper, the paper’s economic future is far from secure. Its business model, based on the free distribution of 900,000 copies each weekday at the entrances to tube stations and other locations of high footfall, means it has no circulation revenue and is especially threatened by the downturn in print advertising. The spread of WiFi access on the London tube network represents a growing challenge to its distribution targets, particularly as its own web presence is comparatively small.

That’s why events such as London Food Month and the general election hustings are so important to the Standard’s owner, Evgeny Lebedev’s ESI Media. Not only are they new opportunities for the paper to present itself to Londoners as a champion and mouthpiece for the city, they enable new relationships with commercial brands and a revenue stream that is likely to become increasingly important for news publishers.

It explains why Leigh Fergus has been appointed as managing director for ESI Live, a newly-created role which will see her put together a portfolio of live events under the Standard’s name. “Live events offer something more to a brand that you can’t get from an advert,” she says.

She was recruited from Telegraph Media Group, which under its former commercial supremo Dave King established a reputation within news publishing for developing an events division, having partnered with, then acquired in 2013, the specialist events company VOS Media. The Telegraph has a portfolio of live consumer and business events, with particular expertise in such areas as fitness, cycling and skiing.

Fergus believes that the Standard’s position as a London media brand, rather than a national one, gives it a competitive advantage over other papers. “No-one has the London audience like we do. It puts us in a great position because when you put an advert in print or even online to advertise a London-based event in the Telegraph, their audience isn’t necessarily in London. Whereas we know that is where the London Evening Standard’s audience is.”

The Osborne effect

Her new boss, Jon O’Donnell, managing director of ESI Commercial, is convinced that the new Standard editor will be of value to the company in its live offerings. “He is a fantastic public speaker and is extremely knowledgable across a huge range of topics – he practically ran the country for a period so he’s expert on a whole host of things. I think in terms of events aimed towards the City or wider business categories, or indeed politics, he will be a huge asset for us.”

O’Donnell says the paper’s profile has “already seen huge impact” since Osborne’s appointment. “One of the first things he wanted to do was meet with clients and we had several events in his first week with senior agency figures and clients. That demonstrated his commitment to the commercial (aspect of) the business.”

But Osborne is not seen as the only live event “talent” on the Standard’s editorial floor. There are plans for a consumer-facing travel event featuring travel writer and seasoned broadcast journalist Simon Calder. Some of the senior sports desk team are also likely to be called into action, as might be the newly-appointed sports columnist Lord Coe. “These are brilliant names that we should be amplifying to the live stage,” says O’Donnell.

London Food Month was entirely curated by two journalists, Grace Dent and Tom Parker Bowles, specialist food writers both. “Grace is such a good example,” says Fergus. “She was on the front cover of ES magazine (to promote the festival) and has got so involved and absolutely loved it.”

The Night Market, based at Perks Field near London’s Kensington Gardens and featuring 50 food stalls from top chefs including Angela Hartnett, has given ESI opportunities for new brand partnerships such as retailer Westfield, the sponsor of an open-air cinema. Fergus identifies sponsorship, brand activation, vending, exhibiting and ticket sales as the ways to make money from live events (tickets for the Night Market are being sold at £15 for adults and £8 for children).

Unlike another live events pioneer in the news publishing sector, the Guardian, the Standard will not look to have a permanent home for its productions. Guardian Media Group made a costly commitment to the 30,000 square foot Midland Goods Shed in King’s Cross in London, before later pulling out of the arrangement. Fergus says that there is “so much choice” of event space in London that ESI doesn’t need its own building. “We have got some of the best event spaces in the world at our fingertips – just as long as we get in there in enough time to book them.”

O’Donnell points out that with its film, theatre and business awards long-established in the London calendar, the Standard has live events “in its DNA” but he says there is a new emphasis on making money in this area, partly due to the effect of the Internet on the retail sector. “The decline of the high street has had a big impact on a brand’s ability to connect with consumers,” he says. “Brands want to have real-life connections and they look to trusted publishers like ourselves to create that introduction.”

That approach only works with the support of the editorial team, from the editor George Osborne downwards. O’Donnell claims to see a new spirit of co-operation across what was once a gaping divide between the newsroom and the commercial floor.

“One of the things that has happened in the last few years is that branded content – whether it be print, digital or live – has grown up. The people creating the branded content, the readers and the brands themselves realise that the value lies in its credibility. It’s not about overtly selling things, it’s about creating things that are useful and valuable,” he says.

“What we are finding is that journalists are far less sceptical about getting involved in commercial projects because they are seeing that the results are of a quality now that readers are really engaging with.”

It may be that not all Standard journalists will share this enthusiasm for live events, but if anyone can persuade them of the commercial imperative it could be a former chancellor. It will one of the many challenges George Osborne faces in giving London the champion it now needs.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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