Torin Douglas on the London freesheet battle

A newspaper battle in an internet age may seem an anomaly at first sight, but there’s no dearth of readers if you’re giving news away free

 

Whod have thought in the internet age that wed see publishers lining up to launch newspapers?

As I walked into News Internationals premises at Wapping this week, as the first edition of thelondonpaper was being put together, I was struck not just by nostalgia, but by the media markets contradictions.

Twenty years ago, Wapping revolutionised the economics of the newspaper industry, defeating the print unions and unleashing not just a wave of picketing and violence, but a bigger wave of optimism and new titles. These included The Independent, which next month celebrates its 20th anniversary, and Robert Maxwells London Daily News, which doesnt.

The London Daily News lasted scarcely 20 weeks defeated partly by the robust response from Associated Newspapers, which revived the Evening News to muddy the water, and partly by Maxwells foolishness in launching it as a 24-hour paper.

I was at the news conference when Maxwell announced this to the obvious surprise and consternation of the LDNs editor Magnus Linklater. He realised, as Maxwell apparently didnt, that the new title would now have to compete with eight national morning papers as well as the Evening Standard and the temporarily revived Evening News. Even though he had put together a strong team and their journalism was good, it proved too much.

It wasnt the only new title to founder in the heady days of the post-Wapping revolution. Remember Today, Sunday Today, The News on Sunday, The Sunday Correspondent, and The European? The costs of production and the barriers to entry may have come down, but the costs of marketing and the barriers to profit remained high.

Yet now, for the first time since then, London again has three evening newspapers not just the Standard and thelondonpaper but Associateds own free paper, London Lite, the launch of which echoes the revival of the Evening News. Associated insists its not just a spoiler but it said the same 20 years ago and the News was closed when it had done its job.

There are other echoes. Denis Griffiths, a former Associated director who wrote the history of the Standard, credits the veteran newspaper manager Bert Hardy with leading the defeat of Maxwell and The London Daily News. Hardy, of course, is now back at Associated, sorting out the Standard, and Griffiths believes history will repeat itself.

The battle between Londons evening newspapers was always particularly fierce, partly because a victory for either side would bring a highly-prized monopoly of the capitals advertising market and partly because it had become personal. When Associated Newspapers and Express Newspapers were head to head in the 1970s and 1980s, the battle was not just between the national titles the Daily Mail and Daily Express and the Sunday Express and the Mail on Sunday but between Associateds Evening News and the Express groups Evening Standard.

Eventually, to stem the financial losses on either side, the papers were merged and Associated ended up with the stronger title the Standard and the monopoly. It wont give it up lightly but Murdochs News International is a more formidable opponent than the quixotic Maxwell.

Curiously, this is Murdochs first newspaper launch in almost 40 years of UK publishing he acquired all his other titles, starting with the News of the World and The Sun in 1969, followed by The Times and Sunday Times in 1981 and Today in 1987. It seems particularly curious given the downturn in newspaper advertising and his declaration in recent speeches that medias future lies online and newspapers as we know them are doomed:

Among major news sources, our beloved newspaper is the least likely to be the preferred choice for local, national or international news going forward. What is happening isa revolution in the way young people are accessing news. They dont want to rely on the morning paper for their up-to-date information.Instead, they want their news on demand, when it works for them. He even quoted the forecast of Philip Meyer, in his book The Vanishing Newspaper, that according to readership trends the last newspaper will roll off the presses in April 2040. The Murdoch investment in MySpace, once seen as expensive, is looking a better bet every day.

So why are News International and Associated still launching newspapers and why are other publishers lining up to pitch for Transport for Londons contract for a free afternoon paper, even though there are now three London evening papers already?

The reason, of course, is Metro the free morning paper that has shown that young people are prepared to pick up a paper and read it as they travel to work, even if theyre not prepared to pay for it and that advertisers will pick up the tab. Logic suggests that they will do the same going home, if the product is right. In Spain, as the free evangelists are fond of telling us, there are more free papers than paid-for copies.

Intriguingly, its not just commuters who read Metro. My daughter and her friends aged 15 pick it up and some even take it into school. This, in Murdochs words, is news on demand, when it works for them.

Let battle commence.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News

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