When Alexander Lebedev and his son, Evgeny, took over London’s Evening Standard 14 months ago, the media coverage focused on the father’s status as a former KGB agent and Russian oligarch, and on both men’s taste in beautiful women. Many news reports asked whether they would be an unhealthy influence on one of Britain’s major newspapers.
By last Thursday, when they struck a deal to buy another respected but failing British paper, the Independent, the question had become whether the Lebedevs had improbably emerged as among the best hopes for preserving serious journalism in Britain.
“I think it was too flattering for me,” Alexander Lebedev, 50, said wryly of the recent coverage, in an interview by telephone from Moscow, while on his way to meet a business partner, Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader. “I hope I don’t get spoiled.”
Reports in Britain on the Independent deal once again mentioned his KGB past, his vast riches (US$2 billion, according to Forbes) and his political aspirations. But this time around, much of it also credited the Lebedevs with keeping alive two money-losing daily papers that probably would have died without the new owners, and not interfering with the Standard’s news coverage.
“There was skepticism, but we have had as yet no evidence that Mr Lebedev believes in anything other than financing a serious free press,” said Tim Luckhurst, head of the journalism center at the University of Kent. “He talks very passionately about this, and it seems as if he means it.”
Last October, the Lebedevs changed the Evening Standard, which serves the London region, into a free paper without paring back its content — this, in a nation where free papers have tended to be breezy digests. It also nearly tripled its circulation, to more than 600,000. Aided by the deaths of two free London dailies last year, the Standard claims that it has gained far more in advertising revenue than it has lost in reader payments.
“We’ve gone from a paper that was losing almost £500,000 [US$745,000] a week to now half that or even less,” 29-year-old Evgeny Lebedev said.
As chairman of the Standard — he will hold the same title at the Independent — he is much more closely involved than his father in the paper’s operation.
Have the Lebedevs hit upon a new business model for a struggling industry — one that may pose a threat to their competitors?
Through the months of negotiations over the Independent, one of Britain’s national papers, the news media have speculated about whether it might also go free, or at least cut its £1 price. That could undercut the other serious national newspapers, particularly the Guardian, whose left-of-center editorial stance is the most similar to the Independent’s.
“One thing we do know is we can’t go forward in its present form,” Evgeny Lebedev said of the Independent, which lost £12.4 million last year. “There needs to be some sort of change in the business model.”
The Lebedevs say they have made no decisions on a new strategy. More striking, they say they care about how other papers would be affected — a far cry from the usual, cutthroat view of the press baron.
“If you’re trying to save a good paper, you don’t try to damage the others,” Alexander Lebedev said.
Experts doubt that a paper could become free across Britain without losing enormous sums of money, because the cost of distribution is so great.