London Evening Standard managing editor answers the question: “Is print dead”

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


The London Standard is out to set a new standard. The media organisation has been on the cutting edge for its nearly-300 year history, and Managing Editor Doug Wills says that as long as the company continues to adapt, it will continue to be.

Throughout the history of print newspapers, even as London and the United Kingdom had historic numbers of daily newspapers competing with each other, The London Evening Standard has been able to compete successfully — even through many changes and transformations.

Then, along came the Internet.

And then, along comes COVID-19.

“So, what do we do?” Wills asked an audience of INMA members during a Webinar. “How do we carry on?”

The new newsroom puts conversation and community at the heart of news reporting.
The new newsroom puts conversation and community at the heart of news reporting.

The new newsroom

The two seismic shifts of digital publishing and the COVID pandemic have created a new newsroom, which produces, optimises, and monetises content, Wills said.

The new newsroom puts conversation and community at the heart of news reporting.

“The print paper has changed substantially,” Wills said. “It’s no longer one paper, but a paper with sections — and each of those sections (now called verticals) goes multimedia. So, it’s no longer a paper; it’s a platform.”

Even through this transformation, though, it is the editors and journalists who bring the quality storytelling that drives all the Standard’s platforms, which reach 2.5 million people daily.

“The important thing is the brand, the title,” Wills said. “The brand is used as a platform for advertising, the all-important revenue.”

The Evening Standard brand is used as the platform for all the various publications and methods of delivery.
The Evening Standard brand is used as the platform for all the various publications and methods of delivery.

The global crisis of the pandemic changed everything drastically, again.

The Standard took on the pandemic the way it did the Blitz during World War II — they didn’t miss a day, Wills said. When the office was shut down, the team produced the newspaper remotely. When the commuter traffic emptied, they delivered newspapers direct to readers’ homes.

“We didn’t miss a beat. We didn’t miss an edition. We changed overnight. That made the print paper viable during the toughest shutdown situation any of us have ever seen.”

This response gave The Evening Standard the unique power to lead London’s recovery.

London Rising

On the heels of all this, The Evening Standard has launched a new campaign, London Rising.

“The Evening Standard has a history of campaigning,” Wills said. Prior campaigns have included highlighting people displaced from their homes, the issue of hunger, and racism.

"London Rising" is a new campaign from The Evening Standard to celebrate London coming out of pandemic lockdown.
"London Rising" is a new campaign from The Evening Standard to celebrate London coming out of pandemic lockdown.

The Standard has also always covered the Royal Family, which continued through the pandemic with stories of Harry and Meghan. There was also the recent death of Prince Philip, which illustrated how difficult print news reporting is.

The newsroom knew Prince Philip was sick, and had a heads-up that he had died, but that the official announcement had not been released.

“We knew we were going to print. This is the best and worst of print, and something we all have to tackle if we’re going to survive,” he said of the decision whether or not to print the news of the Prince’s passing.

“It was released publicly that he had died 10 minutes after our first editions started printing. You have to carry on printing.”

At the same time, they knew there would be more to print, such as tributes and his life story. The team slowed down the presses, changed the plates with updated stories, and continued to run.

“We had a very big, popular breakout [edition] for a very sad story,” Wills said. “And that happens every day with breaking stories — but when there’s a major story, it’s the sophisticated and experienced of the staff that actually manages to do all this.”

Such an occurrence highlights another important aspect of print — people like to keep copies of the physical newspaper from such historic events. It becomes an icon.

“That is something which needs to be remembered,” Wills said.

Wills added that campaigns don’t have to be soft or community-oriented. As an example, he cited the Opioid Timebomb special investigation the Standard ran over a several-year period. Because of this campaign, not only was public awareness and education about the opioid crisis heightened, but laws were also changed and enacted.

Print circulation figures

While there is still much “life in the dog” of print, as Wills termed it, he moved on to sharing recent circulation figures across national newspapers in the United Kingdom.

Print circulation went down during Covid, but readership went up.
Print circulation went down during Covid, but readership went up.

The year-over-year drop was due to the COVID effect, he explained. The Evening Standard and the Metro saw the largest drops because they are free newspapers that rely on mass numbers of street circulation.

“It’s hard,” he acknowledged. “Now, we have to fight to get back from that.”

On the other hand, readership stats show much stronger figures than print circulation numbers. Readership of The Evening Standard is down just 2% year-over-year, compared to a 30% decrease in circulation.

“We all know that for every copy picked up or bought, it’s read by several people. But then we look at cross-platform, and everything changes. 23 million global reach for the Evening Standard is a lot more than that 500,000 copies.

“One can read this and say, ‘Yeah, print is dead. Print’s irrelevant.’ Well, it’s not, in my view,” Wills asserted. “At the very least, it’s a shop window to all the other platforms. But commercial advertisers, big advertisers, say it’s more than that. And they still advertise in print because there is a permanency to it; there’s a longer life in the dwell time. There’s also an impact, and you’re going to reach a certain market, a certain group of people they may want to go to.”

While that demographic may be older than others, it is still an important audience for many advertisers that gives them a return on investment.

So in his eyes, Wills considers print only one part of the overall platform — but a very important part.


INMA: Do you have a strategy for getting print readers back into picking up copies, coming out of lockdown?

Wills: I think it’s mostly years of experience of what works. You fish where the fish are, and if the fish is moved, maybe the net needs to be in a different area. We’re doing home deliveries and putting papers into supermarkets and on buses. I think it is a case of adapting. But you have to give people what they want, and the campaigns are something that people want, and certainly the news. There’s no silver bullet, there will be a whole raft of different things to do that.

INMA: Is there anything being planned for the current print production methods more suited to large-scale production, when circulation numbers fall below a certain threshold?

Wills: If you mean localised printing, we looked at that in the past, and in fact it can be done. It’s certainly an option. We’ve even looked at printing The London Evening Standard in New York and Boston, and distributing in those cities because we believe there to be a demand there. Technology could provide that, the argument is, isn’t that really hard? At that level, isn’t it easier to just have it on digital?

INMA: How do you balance the good and bad news reporting, given that bad news typically sells more newspapers?

Wills: There has to be a balance. If it’s too heavy and too serious, people will either get bored or get depressed by it. There have been different editors who have taken different views. The campaign is important, we have gotten international readership from campaigns. A campaign we did about literacy became a good story from a bad beginning — reporting about low literacy rates that prompted many actions around education. That was from a difficult story that made a positive change.

About Shelley Seale

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