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Sarah Sands - interview

In 2009, the Evening Standard’s ABC stood at 256k – it’s now over 900k. Removing the cover price was obviously the clincher, but there’s no denying the new-found spring in the Standard’s step. As editor Sarah Sands tells Ray Snoddy, no one has to pick up the paper, so she and her team work very hard to give them reasons to do so.

By Ray Snoddy

Sarah Sands, editor of the Evening Standard, is talking not in her Derry Street office in the heart of London but from her Norfolk bolt-hole and she has just been out watching the annual arrival of thousands of pink-footed geese from their breeding grounds in Spitsbergen.

“The sound of the geese among the wind and the trees. It’s an extraordinary gathering, a wonderful sight. It’s a secret. I have to pretend I am this great Londoner. You can spend hours just watching, observing nature,” says Sands.

After her break in Norfolk, Sands was soon back to her hectic, full time activity, observing the movements of Londoners - when they go out for a drink, when they leave from work and above all else, how best to get a copy of the Evening Standard into their hands in her narrow window of opportunity.

“Getting 900,000 copies out is quite a feat. I have four hours. Most of the dailies come out and hang around all day. We absolutely rush them out and get them across London and we are subject to all the indignities of London if it rains or there are traffic jams,” says Sands.

First stint at the Standard

She first joined the Evening Standard in 1985 as a young reporter and across a decade edited the Londoner’s Diary and was in charge of features and it has remained her first newspaper love.

Her first memory of the Standard was hearing a newspaper seller in the street shouting “Evening Standard. Body in the Thames – read all about it.”

It is a tradition she would like to revive and there are already a few distributors outside the office doing it.

“I love hearing that cry, it seems to me part of London so I would love it if we could encourage more to go back to that. That cry in the night air is a potent thing and I want it as a ring tone for my phone,” says the 53-year-old Sands who had an unhappy eight-month editorship of the Sunday Telegraph despite launching Stella magazine, before later becoming deputy editor of the Standard and then editor in March 2012.

Compared with most editors, she is in the strong position of having a relatively captive audience of commuters, many underground and unable to access the internet, a place where print remains the dominant news medium.

Happy hour

“There is a happy hour effect, and we have done some research on this. People tend to do their emails in the morning and when they come out of work they just want to read something in an appealing and convenient package. It’s usually the moment when papers can become more convenient than the internet,” the Standard editor explains.

Advertisers, she says, have found that the average time spent with the Evening Standard is around 25 minutes – “quite good compared to some publications and the internet”.

Since her first stint at the paper, a lot has changed, both in the perceptions of the paper, its place in the newspaper firmament, and the status of London itself.

Then there was this regional newspaper on the one side and the nationals on the other, and London was merely the UK’s capital city.

“London is such a magnet now and so powerful and such a city state really, and we are in this powerful position of reaching such a demographic in this great four-hour surge, everyone reading the same thing at the same time of day, it’s an incredible forum,” says Sands who also enjoys a journalistic marriage.

She is married to Kim Fletcher who edited the Independent on Sunday and is a former editorial director of the Telegraph Group before moving into public relations.

The freesheet challenge

Does it matter in terms of status and respect that the Evening Standard is free rather than paid-for?

“When people say it’s a freesheet, it immediately makes you think ‘I’ll show you’. I have never known a more professional team on any paper I have worked at, for the sheer concentration of making sure each day you advance the story, you have the first picture,” Sands insists.

Even though it is free, Sands never forgets nobody actually has to pick the paper up and that Londoners are a sophisticated lot not exactly short of choice.

“It’s the expectation that there will be something that they don’t know, something entertaining, a good sense of what is going on, plus it will be fun and interesting,” contends Sands.

The Standard editor adds that, without wishing to be sanctimonious, there is also an ethical dimension in the relationship between the Standard and its readers.

“People like it because of its values; there is a goodwill and a trust and there is a contract between the paper and its readers and you feel that somehow we have a stake in London life – we are not just commenting on it,” Sands believes.

Big stories, big campaigns

Certainly there is no shortage of things to comment on, or campaigns to run.

The Standard has big running stories to cover such as the controversial HS2 railway, the never-ending saga of a new runway for London and the mayoral elections to look forward to this year.

Sands’ approach is to cover the big issues in an even-handed way, acknowledging the fact that there is a multiplicity of opinion in the city and a range of legitimate arguments worthy of consideration.

But she does believes it was “pretty pathetic of our politicians” not to be able to make their minds up on whether there should be a third runway at Heathrow or not.

Standard campaigns have received widespread attention and support - campaigns such as the Dispossessed Fund, raising money to help charities tackle gangs or the Get London Reading campaign.

Then there are the growing number of festivals and events.

On the day the pink-footed geese were arriving on the Norfolk coast, the Evening Standard was reporting that the London Evening Standard Film Awards would return in February at the Television Centre in White City after a three-year gap.

Sponsors had been found and the hope is that the event, designed to celebrate the best of British film talent, will take on the cachet and permanence of the Evening Standard Theatre Awards.

The Evening Standard has gone further with an annual celebration of the Top 1000 Londoners who are either high achievers or who have done interesting things.

Last year, it was held in Canary Wharf’s new Crossrail station and the year before at the Francis Crick Institute when the attendees included Stephen Hawking and the event had the backing of the Gates Foundation which wanted to highlight its work in Africa.

The financials

At the Standard, the work rate and the passion are palpable but what about the bottom line?

The latest published financial figures show an annual operating profit for the Evening Standard of £1.4 million on a turnover of £62.9 million, remarkably the third year of profit in a row. The rate of profit may seem low but it compares with a ruinous annual loss of around £30 million before the Lebedevs bought the paper in 2009.

Sands regards creating a profit at all as something of a miracle.

While it is a truism to say that without the Lebedev purchase, it is highly unlikely that the Evening Standard would exist now, what influence do the Russian owners have over the paper?

“Evgeny Lebedev (chairman of the Evening Standard) is the one I deal with - quite a lot on things like the theatre awards which he is tremendously interested in. It seems to be a force for good in London. He’s backing the theatre and raising the profile. I can’t see a downside to that,” is Sands’ reply.

State of the industry

What does the editor of the Evening Standard, and an experienced Fleet Street hand, think of the current state of British journalism?

“I think it’s very strong actually and I think it’s enormously enriched by the internet. The more information the better and then you have to have professionals at the centre to curate it all and the site benefits from the authority that comes from making sure it’s right,” Sands says.

She believes there was a time when there was a sort of panic when print journalism seemed to lose its confidence and its identity. If there is a problem then just printing what everyone else is saying on the internet is not the answer.

“If you can produce first class journalism, and it can be properly laid out, then I think we are fine,” insists Sands who of course has the key advantage of not being threatened by online – at least until they start pumping wi-fi into the underground.

Is it useful to be able to talk about the pressures of the job and tricky stories with her husband, who despite being a partner at Brunswick, still edits the British Journalism Review?

“Obviously we talk about geese and it’s nice to have someone who shares an interest in journalism but I wouldn’t say it was the most important part of our relationship,” she says with a laugh.

By the time the pink-footed geese return to Norfolk in December, Sarah Sands and the Evening Standard could be well on the way to a distribution of one million copies. It is already on that trajectory.

Might she herself consider taking flight to a different, more prestigious, roost?

“I love the Evening Standard most of all the papers I have worked on. London is a very restless city and it’s always going to be interesting so there is never any reason why I should ever feel bored. It is an enormous privilege to have this job”, Sarah Sands insists.