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  1. Diary
14 June 2023

My first days in charge of the Evening Standard prompt a return to office habits

Also this week: a word of warning for Sadiq Khan and reflecting on the new age of AI journalism.

By Dylan Jones

It’s enormous fun being back in an office, surrounded by the energetic hum of clever people doing clever things. The last newspaper I worked on was the Sunday Times, but the rhythm of a daily is completely different. The adrenalin is like caffeine, although I probably need to stop drinking quite so much tea. My first week included a variety of front pages – the fallout from the whole Phillip Schofield story, Prince Harry (twice), Rishi Sunak looking more like a baseball mascot than the baseball mascot he was standing next to, and Trump, the gift that keeps on giving. One of the things I enjoy the most (as I did on GQ) is the assembly of the comment pages; we’re encouraging a few regulars to spend more time with their families and hiring some genuine superstars. My favourite headline of the week was the one we used for a piece by Anna van Praagh: “I wasn’t breastfed as a child and I’m perfectly clever.”

Jack Lefley, the Managing Editor, runs a tight ship. He leaves most of our meetings muttering, “I’ll have a word.” And he does.

Frenemies with Sadiq Khan

The Evening Standard is one of the city’s great institutions. Sure, the protracted nature of lockdown didn’t help the business much, but we’re developing a new business model that doesn’t rely so much on commuters, and it’s been exhilarating teasing out ways in which we can genuinely thrive. It’s going to be a fascinating autumn.

Next year is going to be even more fascinating, as we’re heading into three of the biggest elections in recent history, in the US, the UK and – obviously – London. As the Tories will no doubt put up a dunderhead, it’s going to be Sadiq Khan’s to lose, although we’re not going to give him an easy ride. I saw him at the Hay Festival in May, and after telling him we needed to work incredibly closely together, I said we were also going to be extremely critical. To his credit, he said, “As you should.”

[See also: “Are you happy outside the tennis club?” Sadiq Khan on rejoining the EU]

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The habit of habits

In a heartbeat I have become a creature of habit. I own more than a hundred suits, but I find myself at 6.30 every morning pouring myself into a pair of Ralph Lauren jeans, a foxed Tommy Hilfiger white shirt and a navy-blue jacket. At lunch I eat the same Pret a Manger sandwich (cheese and pickle) and drink a completely unnecessary Diet Coke. I then spend 20 minutes answering the emails I’ve ignored since breakfast.

Weirdly – and I think all journalists are like this – whenever I’ve got a spare five minutes, I don’t call my friends or go for a walk, I simply find another newspaper to read. I read more papers now than I ever did, not because I’m back working on one, but because it’s become something of an addiction; in fact, it’s such a habit I’ve almost stopped reading novels. I’m a fan of both Tom Wolfe and Noel Gallagher, two unlikely bedfellows who share a sound-bite: fiction is a waste of time because it’s not true.

AI and me

To espouse the benefits of AI will soon be compared to admitting to phone hacking, but it’s going to become part of all of our lives. Several months ago I spent a week in Ukraine with the Halo Trust, the landmine charity run by the former British Army officer James Cowan. On my return an artist friend of mine asked me to give him a sentence about my trip to punch into his new toy, ChatGPT. He also punched in my name and “1,800 words”, and his screen filled with a perfectly acceptable, B-minus version of my intended article. When I’d finished my own piece, I cut and pasted an AI paragraph into the body copy (so meta!). It would have taken a computer to spot it.

The joy of antagonism

Four days in, and I sense we’re starting to change the way the paper feels. It’s certainly getting in people’s faces. First, we received an email asking us to kill a Londoner’s Diary story about the hedge fund manager Crispin Odey (we didn’t). Later, I get an abusive text from Alastair Campbell about our coverage of Rishi. My response? “Love you too x.”

Hunting Fox News

I end the week by flying to Nice for a longstanding meeting, staying at the swanky Maybourne Riviera. I haven’t been to the south of France since before Covid, but it’s still reassuringly louche. On the journey I’m kept company by Michael Wolff’s new book on Fox News. Michael’s asked me to read the manuscript before publication, and called his ask “a big favour” (it’s more than 100,000 words). Trust me, it’s not an ask at all, as it’s sensational stuff. Succession has nothing on this.

Dylan Jones is editor-in-chief of the Evening Standard

[See also: Mutiny at the BBC: “Almost everyone has left. No one does any journalism”]

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out