Raymond Snoddy on media: Altruist freesheets will hit sales soon

As the great free London newspaper battle enters its second week both News International and Associated Newspapers should be praised for their philanthropy.

Readers are being handed a great deal, and advertisers have been offered a cut-price way of reaching a concentrated section of more than 1m Londoners - all thanks to the innate generosity of the media owners.

With the capital being carpeted with these free publications it is as if the clock has been turned back 15 years - the last time so many newspapers were in the hands of Londoners in the evening rush hour.

A quick trip on the Tube is enough to gladden the hearts of newspaper traditionalists everywhere; no internet threat to worry about here - for now, at least. It has been a very long time since one was able to board a Central Line carriage and see virtually everyone in it reading a newspaper.

A wholly unscientific survey suggests that the Evening Standard is hanging on to a handful of diehard paying customers, while Associated's London Lite girls seem to be doing a little better at getting their product out there than their counterparts at News International's thelondonpaper.

In theory, Associated's strategy can hardly be faulted. In the face of the Murdoch steamroller, it is flooding London with a free rival, while simultaneously trying to reposition the Standard as 'London's quality newspaper' with a cover price to match.

But the dangers are only too obvious. London Lite will cost too much to produce and the Standard will find it too difficult to jus- tify its 50p price difference. Just venture around the corner from the Standard's headquarters any evening and you will see a glum vendor outside High Street Kensington Tube station with little to do while London Lite giveaway girls work the crowd.

While Associated executives whistle optimistically and insist that the Standard's sales have not been hit, newsagents tend to take a more pragmatic, pessimistic view. If the effect has not been felt yet, it surely will soon. Ask the man selling the Standard at White City Tube and he warns that the frees have reached 'the Bush' already adding, in the sort of hushed tones normally reserved for the plague's arrival, that 'it can only be a matter of time ...'

It is also noticeable that the Standard is blurring the edges between its free and paid-for titles by using the copy and bylines of Standard journalists for the top stories in its Lite edition. For instance, Lite readers had full access to Anne McElvoy's interview with Charles Clarke on the 'absolute stupidity' of Gordon Brown. On the same day, the more London-oriented, bite-sized approach of thelondonpaper led to a splash on the city's 'cocaine epidemic'.

Critics have denounced London Lite as a poor version of the Evening Standard and suggested that thelondonpaper has been influenced by the web and offers a more tailored product.

Express owner Richard Desmond, who might have had his own free London paper, has declared himself unimpressed with either title. He even had an editor on board in the shape of Nick Ferrari. What if he had simply pushed ahead with his plans to launch rather than enter long-winded battles with the Evening Standard at the Office of Fair Trading?

We will never know, but what is clear is that the hundreds of thousands of newspaper pundits on the Tube will soon start to make their preferences known. If the Evening Standard manages to lose less than 50,000 of its circulation, it will be a triumph.

At least as the struggle continues, it will be difficult for the fashionable to continue saying that newspapers are dead - not when Metro, London Lite, thelondonpaper and City AM have created a virtually new medium for London, courtesy of the owners' generosity.

30 SECONDS ON ... FREESHEETS

  • Metro, Associated Newspapers' first free daily paper, launched in London on 16 March 1999. Local editions are now distributed in cities including Cardiff, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Leeds.
  • At the end of last month, Associated launched London Lite, a rebranded version of its free lunchtime newspaper, Standard Lite. It is available in central London only.
  • This month News International also launched a free daily - thelondonpaper. It is aimed at ABC1 white-collar office workers aged between 18 and 34.
  • Both evening freesheets are available on weekdays after 4.30pm and have a circulation of about 400,000.
  • City AM, which was launched in September last year, was London's first free daily business newspaper. It is distributed in the City, Canary Wharf and areas of high business concentration.

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