After losing her job as deputy editor at Vogue, Emily Sheffield said she had some salient career advice from the former chancellor George Osborne: step back and seriously consider what you want next.
A few years on, and Sheffield is taking over from Osborne as editor of the Evening Standard, tasked with making the London daily newspaper digital-first during a pandemic that Osborne described as the “greatest crisis” in the Standard’s 200-year history.
He confirmed the move in a tweet less than five months after the Guardian revealed his tenure at the paper was in doubt.
Sheffield, 46, a former reporter at the Standard and the Guardian, will take over on 1 July. Osborne will become editor-in-chief of the title in what is understood to be part-time hands-off role.
Sheffield, whose sister Samantha is married to the former prime minister David Cameron, tweeted that she was proud to take on the editorship of a paper that “has been a core part of my life” since she moved to London as a teenager.
She added in a statement: “The opportunities are immense in the digital news sphere and I have spent the last two years focusing on how we are able to innovate and drive engagement around the news, while also remaining firmly attached to the value of printed media – the highly influential Standard newsprint edition will be continuing as a key part of the London landscape.”
Sheffield’s appointment comes at at a difficult time for the newspaper industry and the Standard. The paper imposed a 20% pay cut on some staff in April and furloughed others.
It also halted publication of its weekly magazine, ES. At the time, Osborne said the publisher had taken these “hard decisions so we can keep our people in jobs and go on bringing the paper to you during this crisis”.
The London newspaper, which relies on advertising for more than 80% of its revenues, reported losses of £23m over the past two years.
Osborne was a surprise appointment to edit the Standard in March 2017 and since then has continued to juggle the job with several other roles, including a £650,000-a-year post advising the investment fund BlackRock, and as chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.
Sheffield made headlines in 2013 when she embarrassed David Cameron, the then prime minister, with an an Instagram picture of him asleep on a four-poster bed with his ministerial red box at his side.
She was shown in the foreground of the picture clutching a glass of champagne on the morning of her wedding. After the picture went viral, she said she had only intended to share it with a handful of family and friends.
Sheffield’s 12-year stint as deputy editor of Vogue came to an end in 2017 soon after current editor Edward Enninful took over from the title’s long-standing boss Alex Shulman. Sheffield was one of several senior women to lose their posts in what was dubbed a “posh girl exodus”.
It came after the model Naomi Campbell posted a picture of Shulman’s all-white Vogue staff, and wrote: “Looking forward to an inclusive and diverse staff now that @edward_enninful is the editor.”
Writing later about redundancy from Vogue, Sheffield said she was consoled by Osborne and Cameron at the time. She wrote: “I don’t want to blub unprofessionally on his shoulder, and we reconvene instead to Sam and Dave’s home for dinner. They sweetly get me drunk.”
After leaving Vogue she launched a positive news app called ThisMuchIKnow with the help of a £60,000 government grant. The start-up, which uses Instagram content to provide “need-to-know stories, special reports, culture and news quizzes”, also received money from a Guardian Media Group venture capital fund aimed at promoting new media ventures.
The initiative has struggled to build an audience and Sheffield admitted to difficulties retaining key staff. Sheffield was forced to do much of the work herself as “my earnings plummeted horribly”, she wrote. Her original vision for the idea may inform her attitude to the Standard. She said: “Since the Brexit referendum, I believe that mainstream media, with its older audiences, has let down younger generations – not engaged them enough before that vital vote in 2016. There is room for something new and innovative.”
When the Guardian reported in February that Osborne was expected to leave the Standard amid worsening relations with owner Evgeny Lebedev, he declined to comment then tweeted the comment “Don’t believe everything you read in other newspapers.”
But the process to find a replacement for Osborne started last year, with names linked to the job including the journalist Rachel Johnson, the sister of the prime minister. It is understood Sheffield’s appointment was complicated by instability at the management of the Standard. Its recently appointed chief executive Mike Soutar resigned six months into the job after being tasked with turning around the business.
The Standard’s financial outlook is bleak. Its free newspaper model has high fixed costs associated with printing hundreds of thousands of newspapers a day and its reliance on print ad income, the price of which was already falling and has crashed since the start of the pandemic.
An emergency distribution system to people’s doors in central London has ensured the Evening Standard continues to be printed.
The majority of the Standard is owned by Lebedev, a Russian former-Oligarch. But a third of the outlet was sold in 2017 to a secretive Cayman Islands company ultimately controlled by the Saudi state, which prompted a government investigation. Lebedev’s media interests, including the Independent, have close connections to Saudi Arabia and the Guardian previously revealed he hosted a private dinner for Mohammed bin Salman in London.